Cool fall temperatures bring about pickling, preserving and putting up for winter in Appalachia.
The last of the summer bounty — like beautiful tomatoes and fresh greens — has been harvested, and much of it could now be in the form of pickled vegetables, canned goods and preserved fruits.
Produce isn’t the only sustenance needed during the cold winter months, though. It’s not uncommon for folks to have a deep freezer full of local beef or chicken that has been butchered to help feed families all season long. And then there’s deer season.
Held around Thanksgiving time, deer season creates a hunting tradition each holiday for many families, and the subsequent processing of the meat can help sustain them for months.
My family has hunted for deer so that we could have food on our table, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the flavor. It has a slightly game-y taste that brings a bit of funk to the meal. My grandma, though, was always able to prepare it in a way that I enjoyed: by making venison jerky.
Not unlike preserving vegetables, making deer jerky is a way to preserve the meat by drying it out, which makes it easy to transport — and it tastes great, too.
The practice of dry preserving meats dates back thousands of years to our hunting-and-gathering ancestors. Archaeologists have discovered dried meats that are more than 5,000 years old. Cultures around the world have used this technique with the meats available in their region to preserve food.
In Ethiopia, “quant’a” is made from dried beef seasoned with salt and cardamom. In Nigeria, “kilishi” is made of dried beef, sheep or goat with a paste made of peanuts, spices, salt, ground onion and honey. In southern African countries, “biltong” is a form of dried, cured meat. In Norway, there’s “fenalar.” In Switzerland, there’s “bundnerfleisch.” In Spain, there’s “tasajo.”
In South America, Incas used the Quechuan word “ch’arki” for dried meat, which was made of alpaca and llama meat. The word evolved from “ch’arki” to “jerky” through colonization and ultimately became part of our ordinary vocabulary.
In the Appalachian region, Native Americans made jerky from buffalo and berries called “pemmican.” And now, we make jerky from deer, because they are plentiful in the mountains. According to research from onX Hunt, a hunting GPS map website, West Virginia has about a deer population of roughly half a million deer — about 21 deer per square mile.
West Virginians like my grandmother are so enterprising and resourceful when it comes to providing for their families and making the most of what they have available to them. The consumption of venison, and venison jerky, is no different. Because deer are so abundant in the region, Appalachians processed and preserved them in a way that could keep for a season or longer.
Now, if someone could work on making the rest of venison taste as good as the jerky, I’ll be one happy Appalachian.