Traditionally, Native American women would gather the tribe's food growing in the wild, process and cook the food, tend the campsite, make the clothing, and raise the children. Men would do the hunting and fishing, tend the horses, make the tools and weapons, and defend the tribe in war. Roles overlapped of course as needed, but given their assumed roles, Native American women were very likely the inventors of jerky.
According to some sources, jerky can be traced back to an ancient South American tribe, the Incas, who were known to dry llama meat. In fact, the word jerky comes from the Spanish word charqui, which means dried, salted meat. Food drying itself in North America dates back 12,000 years, and earlier elsewhere in the world, to 12,000 B.C. in the Middle East. Regardless of where jerky originated, we can safely say it was an invented food passed down by native tribes for thousands of years. Essentially, it was a native version of "fast food."
In North America, jerky was traditionally prepared without salt, and simply dried over a hot smoldering fire for a day. Salt was added later to accommodate the tastes of the white settlers, who often traded for jerky. Fur trappers came to depend on this handy meat source that traveled well and was satisfying to eat. Another explanation suggests that some sources of salt (discovered in the 1800s) changed the gray color of dried meat to the color red, which had more eye appeal.
An interesting note regarding jerky and pemmican, which was also made by Native Americans and is sometimes referred to as the same, and just as popular with the white pioneers, there is a difference. I found two recipes online for those who might be interested:
Ingredients: fresh meat cut into thin strips 1" wide, 5-6" long
(lean beef, deer, elk, or rabbit)
Weave strips onto green sticks or skewers. Build a low-burning campfire and slowly dry strips over the fire. As an alternative, place strips on wire racks and dry in oven heated to 140 degrees F (leave oven door slightly ajar). To speed drying process, lightly sprinkle strips with salt. Marinating the strips overnight in soy or Worcestershire sauce adds great flavor to the finished jerky. Once dried, cool strips completely and store in cool place in airtight container.
Handbook of North American Indians: Plateau, Deward E. Walker, Jr., Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
Copyright 2015 © Sharon Marie Himsl