“What do I have to do to get on your dad’s jerky list?”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that entreaty; my father’s beef jerky has quite the reputation among friends, family and acquaintances.
But this is a tale of lying, thieving, hoarding and conniving by humans and four-legged creatures, all in the name of Joseph Cavalluzzi’s jerky.
“It’s hard to say,” he paused for a long moment. “Most of the store-bought jerky I’ve had has too many preservatives in it.”
The beauty of jerky is in its shelf life. Store-bought jerky can generally last up to a year, while the shelf life of homemade jerky is about one to two months. Dad’s jerky, however, never seems to last more than a few days - most people devour it immediately.
Drying meat is one of the oldest methods of preservation. The word "jerky" derives from "charque" or "charqui," a South American form of dried meat, originally llama, used by the Incans. Jerky can be found around the world in many iterations: Native Americans called it "pemmican"; in various African countries, it’s referred to as "biltong"; "bakkwa" in China; and "bastirma" in the Middle East.
The question posed to my father was rhetorical, as I’ve eaten a fair amount of the stuff and cop to the hoarding that seems to accompany every bag. If I were to hazard a guess to what makes dad’s jerky great, I’d say it’s the care he shows with whatever task he undertakes. When my father does something, he does it methodically and he does it well; too well if you consider the story of Augustus Harper a.k.a. "The Jerky Thief."
“Gus” was handed a bag of my father’s jerky to deliver to our mutual friend Matt. He’d never tasted it before and thought he’d help himself to a piece before passing on the bag to its intended recipient.
The story doesn’t simply end with Gus eating the entire bag, the second chapter involves subterfuge. Gus went to the store, bought some jerky, took it out of the commercial packaging and tried to pass it off to Matt as my father’s homemade jerky. Not only did he fail, he became branded as “The Jerky Thief” - it’s sort of like a scarlet “A” in, ahem, jerky circles.
While jerky comes in many different forms - goat, lamb, turkey, salmon and even alligator - my father’s specialty is beef. He specifically uses London broil because it “cuts better, dries better, tastes better and it goes on sale a lot more.” Economics certainly factor in when you are churning out a fair amount of jerky as gifts. One pound of meat generally yields four ounces of jerky.
Joseph Cavalluzzi’s long and winding road to jerky guru (and yes, as a daughter I’m biased, but anecdotal evidence from around the globe backs me up) began 15 years ago when my mother bought him a dehydrator for Christmas. My parents do things like that: one year, Dad bought Mom a wood chipper for her birthday and they later got each other a tractor for their anniversary.
Dad’s foray into the world of dehydration started with vegetables and fruits. A year later he started making beef jerky using a teriyaki marinade.
Jerky can be made using rubs or marinades, it’s really a matter of preference.
During this last trip home, Dad assembled the ingredients and I watched him make the jerky, starting with the marinade and slicing the beef 1/4-inch thick. He recommends slicing a slightly frozen piece of meat, saying it’s much easier to get a thin strip.
Dad incorporated the marinade through the beef strips by hand. He then refrigerated it for several hours.
Overall, making jerky is not a complicated process, but it can get messy. Not as messy as when you give one bag to two people and expect them to share though.
My friend Matt and his wife Kelly faced that dilemma, and Kelly’s first course of action was to store it in her glove box, “intentionally” she adds, hoping Matt would forget about it.
Kelly didn’t forget about it though and swerved wildly while driving and simultaneously trying to extract the jerky from its hideaway. Her story, unlike Gus's, doesn’t end with eating the entire bag, but Kelly ate so much she came close enough to making herself sick.
“Unable to stop,” Kelly tossed the bag into the backseat, to no avail. She ended up reaching to get more, swerving was involved. Finally, Kelly threw the bag against the rear window of the car to stop herself from finishing it and incurring Matt’s wrath.
Empty bags of jerky are also a theme in my friend Carey’s life. Another “Jerky Thief” hit her house and it wasn’t Gus. She was given a bag at work and stored it in her purse. The jerky stash disappeared and it wasn’t until she found a bit of plastic underneath her couch at home that she realized what had happened. Her dog Maggie had fished through her purse, stolen the bag of jerky and quietly eaten the entire thing, hiding the very last bit of evidence, the top of the plastic bag.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that story as the smell of Dad’s teriyaki jerky is as intoxicating to beasts as it is to man. Dad generally starts the process in the morning and by afternoon, it goes into the dehydrator and dries overnight. The gingery soy scents wafts throughout the house; it’s divine.
But not every dehydrating attempt has a divine outcome. Dad says his one dehydrating misstep involved habaneros.
“You don’t want to do it in the house,” he laughed. “The fumes from it woke us up and just drove all of us out. We had to open all the windows, turn on the air conditioning and take everything outside.”
Once the meat has dried for a bit, Dad checks it to test for doneness (read taste test). He bends pieces looking to make sure they aren’t still wet and they have more of a snap. He says that allows them to last longer. We checked the dried meat in the morning and Dad offloaded it into bags. Two London broils worth of jerky stored in a gallon size bag.
“Should we mail this to you with the other things?” my dad asked.
“No, it’s going in my carry-on,” I replied.
And while I’m not proud to admit this, true to form, I’ve hoarded it. Sometimes sharing is overrated.
Jennifer Wolfe is the Supervising Producer of the CNN Entertainment Unit.
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