When you snap into a Slim Jim, you're snapping into corn syrup, soy protein concentrate, hydrolyzed soy protein, and paprika extractives. Oh, and beef. And mechanically separated chicken.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Beef jerky may have become ubiquitous with a certain kind of wrestling fan contingent, but some local folks are trying to update this beloved, sometimes disgusting meat treat by taking beef jerky out of the gas station and putting it in health food stores and on menus at some of the city's best restaurants.
And apparently, jerky's not that hard to make on your own. "You just need a lean cut of meat, a decent marinade, and a way to dry the meat out," says Jason Burke, owner of local jerky company New Primal. In fact, he got his earliest recipes off the internet. "You can google beef jerky recipes and get thousands of results."
Starting out, Burke wanted to find a good on-the-go, high-protein snack; he didn't think he'd end up making jerky for a living. "A lot of store-bought stuff is full of preservatives and nitrates and sugar and salt and the beef comes from sketchy farms or some sort of mass-produced place," he says. "I just couldn't feel good about any of the jerky that I found, so I just started making it on my own for myself." Within a few months, he had five dehydrators going at once, drying out strips of meat for himself and his friends. New Primal was born.
The company has been selling its jerky and "trail packs" (a jerky trail mix tossed with nuts and dried fruit) online for a few years, and you can now find it locally at places like Earth Fare and Half-Moon Outfitters. The company's main target is paleodieters, who consume food inspired by the diets of our ancient ancestors. "The hardest part of someone that's trying to eat clean or to eat a more high-protein diet is eating on the go," Burke explains. Paleodieters aren't going to grab a bag of potato chips or a burger from a drive-thru, but New Primal jerky has a solid macronutrient panel, meaning it's high in protein but low in carbohydrates, sugar, and fat.
"We've added a lot of junk to jerky commercially, so it's gotten a little bit of an unhealthy connotation," Burke says. But as he points out, dried meat has a long history — it was the way our ancestors preserved meat so that they could hold out until the next kill. "Jerky is how the West was won. This is what people ate to sustain themselves as they traveled across the country and explored America," he says. "Even before that, it was the Indians who did that. They would dry out meat so it would sustain them and last them longer."
While Burke is targeting a more health-conscious crowd, there are more than a few places in Charleston where you can grab some jerky just when you need it: after a couple of beers. The Gin Joint sells $1 sticks made with ginger, soy, and chili, and the snack makes an occasional appearance on the bar menu at Husk.
Billy Noisette, the chef and jack-of-all-trades at the Royal American, has been making jerky for the NoMo bar for the last year, selling the 97-percent-fat-free sticks for $3. "I just kind of researched it and played with it," Noisette says of his recipe. Now he eats beef jerky every day. "I've got to quality control, you know," he says.
Noisette uses the eye round cut of beef, which he slices into six pieces, and then slices those pieces into more pieces. "I think what separates mine from everyone else's is that I actually put it under a mallet," he explains. The pounding makes the beef more tender and helps it absorb more flavor. The meat marinates for 24 hours, then dehydrates for four to six. Noisette swears by his dehydrator, and Burke agrees, although he says a home cook can use an oven or even a box fan.
"The truth is in the pudding," Noisette says. "Taste it and then you'll believe it. Although I do love Slim Jims — it's better for you than Slim Jims."