As a Texan, Jerky is more than a snack, it’s a religious experience. And whilst you may happen upon decent Jerky in a major grocery store (Trader Joe’s Buffalo jerky is a particular favorite of mine), the best is always personal. You find it in a forgotten town off I-10, 250 miles west of San Antonio, population 73. Sold at the gas station, made by the owner’s brother-in-law whose grampa was full blood Comanche, its rich flavors will feed a part of your soul you didn’t even know was hungry. If this wasn’t extremely obvious by now, we southern boys take our jerky real serious. On a more pragmatic note, jerky has many notable virtues: high in protein, low in fat, relatively mess free, and shelf stable. It’s great on hikes, and while I don’t know that I’d call it a health food, it’s certainly got candy bars beat. So, where can you get your hands on some epiphany-inducing dried meat? Where else? The internet.
While the jerky of my childhood road trips may yet remain out of reach, Etsy vendors New Jerk City and Jerky Tracks come closer than I would have expected. Both companies have their strengths and weaknesses, and depending on your tastes, you’ll likely prefer one over the other. Jerky Tracks was my early favorite. If you like your jerky spicy-sweet, with the texture of a rubber eraser (chewy but not stringy), then this will likely be your thing. Tracks uses three proteins: Bison, Turkey and Deer, and has two different flavors, Original and Bourbon. The original blend uses paprika, sugar and a few other spices to create a flavor that is primarily sweet, with a nice hot kick at the end. Unfortunately, have more than one or two of the little nuggets, and you will start feeling a sense of one-note sweetness as the heat fades to little but fond memory. Adding bourbon, surprisingly, does much to remedy this. The bourbon flavor comes with a lovely boozy aroma, and adds some much needed extra bite to beat the sugar into submission. The bourbon-flavored deer tracks ($14 for 4oz.) were my personal favorite. The meat’s naturally gamey flavors were mellowed but not fully silenced by the spice blend, giving it more depth and body of flavor than the other varieties. Ultimately, Jerky tracks is generally a good product but, with the exception of the bourbon deer tracks, suffers from being one note.
New Jerk City on the other hand, took some time to work its charms upon me, but once it did, I was hooked. Unlike Tracks, which has a texture similar to kippered beef, New jerk city starts leathery and tough waiting for your saliva to render it pliable with that particular blend of mushy and stringy that often characterizes great jerky. All of NJC’s product is locally sourced, organically raised, grass fed and grass finished. Only the last part of that produces problems, corn-finishing produces that rich marbling that often characterizes a good steak, and its absence creates a near-total lack of fat. Each of NJC’s flavors is named for, and inspired by one of the boroughs of New York: Queens, Staten Island, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and The Bronx. Store owner Gordon Lingley’s passion for both his product and his city sings with every bite. Unfortunately, his songs are sometimes off key. The Manhattan flavor claims sophistication but the promised red wine, mushrooms, and shallots are immediately overpowered by balsamic vinegar. Brooklyn claims to add beer and spice, but only succeeds in mimicking the aftertaste of cheap beer, likely not its intended goal.
Brooklyn and Manhattan were the first flavors I tasted, and as a result, I was prepared to rule New Jerk City a failure. But then something wonderful happened. I tried the Staten Island flavor; Staten Island is AMAZING ($6.75 for 2oz). The vinegar puts you in mind of delicious, tangy Carolina BBQ, and the coriander sings to my Indian heritage. This is the best Jerky I’ve had outside Texas. Queens and the Bronx similarly, were very good: spicy and flavorful yet soothing, the way good jerky is MEANT to be. Queens relies on Asian spices, whereas the Bronx leans on garlic to make its point, but both points are made beautifully.
Ultimately, which of these brands you prefer is up to you. Personally, I’m going on etsy right now and ordering more Staten Island and Bourbon Flavor Deer Tracks.
Photography by Jessica Tupper.