Someone once told me that the reason jerky was so popular among old-time cowboys was because it traveled light and, although it had the consistency of press board, when the cowboys drank water after consuming the stuff, it rehydrated in their stomachs and kept them full for hours. I'm not going to dispute this person, who says she learned that in a Colorado history class in ninth grade, but I'm thinking it also has something to do with the fact that cured meat is good eatin' and lasts a long time.
Slim Jims were the closest I ever came to jerky before I made my way out West to Colorado. Then, in my 18th summer, I arrived in Steamboat Springs to prepare for a weeklong backpacking trip. We got to spend one day in town before embarking on our snow-packed adventure. For reasons unclear to me, we spent a better part of that day in a small, rundown beef jerky hut on the edge of town, getting the lowdown on jerky from some guy with a weathered face and nine teeth.
My friends thought this was really cool. Maybe it goes back to that romantic, "I wanna be a cowboy" fantasy a lot of city kids have. I, however, was creeped out. Anyway, that day we tasted everything from standard beef jerky to kangaroo jerky. We also saw, and got to help with, part of the jerky- making process. To make a long story short, that was my first real experience with jerky, which tasted nothing like a Slim Jim.
Since then, I've developed a strong liking for jerky. But good jerky is harder to come by in these here parts than you might think. Sure, there are lots of folks with little jerky huts set up on the side of the highway, but that does not necessarily mean they're gonna have good stuff. Like the guy from a few years back who hung out on the side of Highway 115 toward Cañon City. In an effort to beef up his retirement savings (no pun intended), he was buying out the jerky supply from the local store, marking up the price and selling it roadside. I admired the effort and the rustic setup, but his jerky sucked.
So skeptical but hopeful, I recently stopped at the Snowy River Jerky Company, located on Highway 24 just before you hit the town of Divide.
It's your basic mountain shack, complete with rocker on the front porch and cardboard cowboy silhouettes on either side of the steps. And it's jerky nirvana.
They've got beef, buffalo, elk, venison and turkey jerky in a variety of seasonings: regular smoked, honey-glazed, peppered, red-hot, Southwestern flavored and teriyaki flavored, to name a few. One of my favorites is Kik Butt hot ($7/4oz): a thin-cut buffalo steak, seasoned to burn. It continues to get hotter as you eat it. And it's so delicious that you can't stop.
My other favorite is the venison jerky ($10/4oz), a thicker cut of meat, but more delicate and a little bit sweeter than the regular buffalo or elk jerky -- kind of like the lobster meat of the jerky world. Just a few words of advice: Overlook the picture of the sweet-looking deer on the label of the bag to allow for total enjoyment (if you're one of those people sensitive to looking at the animal you're eating).
In addition to fine jerky, the Snowy River Jerky Co. offers exotic steaks, some of which they keep frozen on the premises, like buffalo, caribou, ostrich, pheasant and venison. Alligator, kangaroo (what's with the kangaroos?), rattlesnake, turtle, wild boar and frog legs are also available. I can tell you that the frog legs are pretty good, as is the ostrich (very tender!). As soon as I save up, I might try the turtle, the priciest of them all at $19.95 per pound. I'll keep you posted.
Until then, stick with the jerky.
-- Suzanne Becker