Fast Food

Drying Jerky

The Indian Process of Drying "Jerked" Meat on Scaffolds1

The word jerky is a close phonetic spelling of the Andean Indian word charque, meaning "to pound or beat." It entered EuroAmerican speech in the late seventeenth century, and appeared in print in the first decade of the eighteenth. Jerky is meat cut into slabs approximately a quarter-inch thick, pounded with a stone to express some of the moisture, then hung on racks of slender poles to air-dry in the sun and wind. The slabs of dried meat were packed in skins of buffalo or deer.

The dried slices of meat could be flailed or pounded again with stones until shredded, then mixed with hot tallow or marrow fat and flavored with berries, to make a highly nutritious food that Cree Indians of the Northern Plains called pemmican. One pound of pemmican was said to be equal in food value to four pounds of fresh meat.2 Chunks of it could be eaten cold or mixed with vegetables or roots in a stew. It could be kept for months, or even years if properly stored.

On 24 June 1804 the party stopped at midday to jerk the deer meat they had recently killed. They may have hung it on the rigging of the boats, or else improvised some sort of scaffolding, for they were under way again within a couple of hours. The next few days were clear, probably warm, and windy.

During the winter of 1806 at Fort Clatsop, the mild, moist climate confounded most of their efforts to keep the meat of the elk and deer they shot from spoiling (see "Mind the Meat" in Rush Job), which seriously diminished the health and energy of every man.

After departing from Fort Clatsop in the spring of 1806, the Corps faced the urgency of securing and preserving enough meat to feed themselves between The Dalles and Nez Perce country on the west side of the Bitterroot Mountains. Lewis considered making pemmican, but persistent rain interfered with the drying processes. On the morning of 5 April the captains sent Sergeant Ordway and a few other men to assist Sergeant Pryor in bringing in the meat of four elk that Drewyer and the Field brothers had shot on the third, and which Sergeant Pryor and three men had been sent to dry on scaffolds over fires.

At 1 P. M [on the 5th] the party returned with the meat. …it had been so illy dryed that we feared it would not keep. …we therefore directed it to be cut thinner and redryed over a fire this evening, . . . …the deerskins which we have had cased3 for the purpose of containing our dryed meat are not themselves sufficiently dryed for that purpose, we directed them to be dryed by the fire also. …the weather has been so damp that there was no possibility of pounding the meat as I wished.

The next morning they secured the dried meat in the prepared skins, loaded the canoes, and continued up the Columbia River.

1. Olin D. Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark: 1804-1904 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904), 1:150.

2. Joseph Kinsey Howard, Strange Empire: A Narrative of the Northwest (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1952), 305.

3. See The American Way, note 12.