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Jerky Boy

Summertime, and the living is beefy.
by Published on

By the time you read this, it will officially be summertime, and I’ve got heat on the brain and meat on my mind. Partly that’s a result of a seasonal impulse toward backyard grilling—a custom that apparently tracks back to a time when summer days in Texas were warm, but not yet competitively hot with an actual charcoal fire. Partly it’s the result of having my head buried these last several months in photographer Wyatt McSpadden’s big, beautiful Texas BBQ book, published by University of Texas Press back in March. And partly it’s because summer is my favorite time for long weekend drives, which I could hardly afford last year, and so am making up for with a vengeance now. Summer drives and Texas BBQ were made for each other. You could say the same thing for the Spoetzl Brewery’s new mesquite-infused Shiner Smokehaus, but you might end up telling it to a judge.

Texas BBQ is an appetizer to the real thing, with its impeccably well-informed essay by veteran food writer John Morthland and an oddly tangential introduction by Jim Harrison, who is a hell of a writer in other contexts, including the gustatory, but who doesn’t seem to have much to do with Texas or BBQ. He does, however, have a nationally recognized name in quality-lit circles, and he seems properly appreciative of McSpadden’s skills behind a lens.

McSpadden’s photos are gorgeous in their blocks of grimy color and grit. They rightly romanticize a culinary culture that has a lot of merit, a lot of history and a lot of appeal. But if you look at these fetishistic pictures of knives and fires and smoke and grates too long, you can start to think that BBQ is little more than the sum total of its sexy implements.

You have to bring your imagination to bear if you want to see through the beefmaster mythology to the uncomfortable fact underneath, which is that the state’s iconic cuisine is an elaborately gruesome endeavor, its char-crusted pits just the final link in a food chain that relies on—no pretty way to put it—mechanized mass murder.

This is a book of photos about BBQ culture, BBQ people and BBQ restaurants that does not contain a single photograph of anything even close to a whole cow or pig. Nobody would buy the book that showed the whole story. Not for their coffee table.

But Texas BBQ doesn’t seem out to make any particular arguments aside from the obvious one—the aesthetic appeal of the accoutrements of smoking meat—so there’s no reason to judge it too harshly for forgoing the animal-rights rhetoric. Coffee-table books have compensating raisons d’être.

For instance: I’ve been referring to the book as a supplemental itinerary and wish list during an ongoing BBQ binge, which has so far been largely contained within the Central Texas environs of Austin, which is happily no cause for complaint. I followed Texas Monthly‘s Top 50 list out to Snow’s (#1) in Lexington and found no reason to dispute the standing, eating my personal Trinity plate of ribs and brisket and sausage, no sides, at 9:30 one especially fine morning this spring. Four hours later, up the road at Louie Mueller’s BBQ in Taylor, I skipped my usual pork ribs to make room for a beef version that came on a bone heavy enough to kill a possum with. I know from McSpadden’s book I have to try Taylor Café in Taylor, too. That day, I just couldn’t.

So far, in addition to the above, I’ve been to Black’s, Kreuz Market and Smitty’s, all in Lockhart; Meyer’s Smokehouse in Elgin; Luling City Market; Salt Lick in Driftwood; and Ruby’s and Park House in Austin.

I know, I know: I’ve got a long way to go, miles of meat before I sleep. But for the record, my own personal all-round high marks so far amount to a tie between Snow’s and Smitty’s. I like Snow’s sausage best—a matter of personal preference for the slightly coarser filler grind. For pork ribs, my slight nod to Snow’s. Smitty’s medieval pit dungeon gives it the clear edge in the all-important ambience category. On the brisket I could go either way, depending on the day. I haven’t found any reason to disagree with John Morthland that the best pork chop in the known universe is found at Kreuz Market, but I can’t agree that that chop stands at the absolute pinnacle of the sport. It’s a pork chop, fer chrissake. It may be one of the most delicious things ever to melt in a mortal mouth, but in a sense—it’s hardly a tough cut of meat requiring low and slow smoke cooking—it hardly seems BBQ at all. We could argue about that, I suppose. We probably will.

People like to talk about this stuff, to know what you like and tell you where they’ve been, which is one of the finer things about BBQ culture, and a good reason we’ll probably never see another summer pass in Texas without some new book about the subject hitting shelves. ‘Tis the season.

We can flap our gums all we want about Texas BBQ. (Is it Bar-B-Que or barbecue or BBQ? Did The New Yorker really need to send Calvin Trillin all the way to Texas just to rewrite Texas Monthly‘s Top-50 paean last summer? Sauce or sans?)

While we’re smacking, let me submit a modest proposal: It’s jerky, not BBQ, that deserves top meat billing in this state. I’m chewing a chunk right now, the honey bison variety from the Texas Best Smokehouse outlet in Italy, south of Dallas. I could eat this stuff till I pop. Or I could if it weren’t twice the price of line-caught salmon.

There are no jerky-related releases forthcoming from Texas’ university presses. There are no glossy food-porn photo essays foretold in the Chronicle Books catalog. Search for jerky on Amazon.com and you’ll find a few how-to pamphlets and some old Jerky Boys CDs. There are no social histories, no slaughterhouse exposés, no $40 art books.

As something of a jerky connoisseur, this lack strikes me as wrong, and not just because jerky, the very essence of meat, is available at every single corner store and interstate pit stop in this great meat-loving state of ours.And I’m not talking about Jack Link’s, which is distributed by PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay division, of Plano, and thus dominates the racks in every grocery store and convenience mart in the land.

Jack Link’s sells 15 jerky products, including beef, turkey, bison and ham, variously co-branded with A1 or Tabasco or KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce. Link’s also sells dozens of varieties of Tender Cuts, Nuggets, Beef Steak, Deli Cuts, X-Sticks, Beef Sticks, Combo Packs, Jerky Chew, Lil’ Chub and “organic” beef jerky.

This is what the company refers to as “highly differentiated meat stick and jerky products.” Jack Link’s aims them at “young adults with action-driven lifestyles.” To reach more of those, Link’s and Frito-Lay announced their agreement this week to jointly launch a new line, “… supported by an integrated action sports platform and dedicated advertising campaign, including sponsorship of the Dew Tour and top athletes in BMX, skateboarding and snowboarding.”

It’s called Matador by Jack Link’s, and it sounds like either a really awful cologne or a line of overprocessed meat scraps marinated in testosterone.

There’s no good reason to eat that stuff in Texas. Not when you can buy genuine Texas-made beef jerky smoked with hickory, or mesquite, or pecan (try Oma’s Choice, out of Schulenburg). Not when you can chew on farm-raised turkey, pork, venison and bison (I prefer my turkey from Woody’s Smokehouse on I-45 in Centerville).

Look around a little and you can find emu and alligator and elk jerkies, too, never mind fish and chicken—not that any of those are strictly necessary.

No jerky can be said to be strictly necessary. In fact, jerky as a meat delivery system exists purely in the realm of extreme luxury, as reflected in exorbitant (for snack food) price tags of anywhere between $16 and $40 a pound.

That’s because a good amount of any meat is actually water, which is a nice wet reminder of the almost unconscionable quantity of natural resources—land, grain, fertilizer, irrigation—that get sucked into the raising of cattle. Dry the water out of your meat, i.e. turn it into jerky, and you don’t have much meat left. Gary Zaludek, the meat guy at Woody’s, says it takes 6 to 8 pounds of beef to make a single pound of jerky. He makes nine varieties of just the beef. Hickory-peppered beef is his best seller, moving off the shelves at 600 to 800 pounds of finished product weekly.

That accounts for 3,600 to 6,400 pounds of raw beef a week, for just that one style, at just that one store. Ubiquitous packaged convenience and low-fat protein aside, jerky is quite likely the most absurdly inefficient way to eat meat there is, and ultimately I figure that’s what I love most about it. The indulgence.

In terms of sheer wasteful pleasure, jerky is the gustatory equivalent of driving all over creation in this stupid-hot summer weather with the windows down and the A/C cranked up to 11—another favorite and increasingly inexcusable Texas-bred summertime vice.

Houston native, 7th-generation Texan and Rice University graduate Brad Tyer has contributed to the Observer under five editors since the mid-1990s, including stints as freelance critic, contributing writer, interim editor, and two rounds as managing editor, from early 2008 to late 2009 and late 2012 to present. In the interim he's served as the Observer's long-distance copy editor. A former staffer at the Houston Press, former editor of the Missoula, Montana Independent , and widely published freelance (High Country News, New York Times Book Review, Public News, Texas Monthly, The Drake, Thora-Zine, etc.), Brad has been awarded a 2010 Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a 2011 Fishtrap Writing Residency, and a 2011 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to support research for his first book, Opportunity, Montana: Big Copper, Bad Water, and the Burial of an American Landscape, published by Beacon Press in 2013. Brad oversees the Observer's cultural coverage.