Nearly 500 years ago, the ancient Incans made jerky from alpaca and llamas. The Native Americans, also sun-drying and smoking meats around this time, made theirs from elk, deer and buffalo.
Back then, dried meat was a staple. Although jerky has withstood the test of time — even literally, as current iterations are famous for their shelf life — the modern world is now experiencing a "jerkaissance," according to an August 2017 article in Outside magazine.
This "jerkaissance," as it were, is defined by ethically sourced meats flavored with a variety of sauces, spices or marinades, and ranging well beyond beef, America's most common jerky. These days, it is easy to find dried meats so exotic they make alpaca sound boring.
With my curiosity kindled like an open flame, I decided to sample some of the most interesting flavors I could find — from ostrich to salmon to snapping turtle. Here is my take on five different jerkys that surely would have impressed our ancient ancestors.
Mountain America's ostrich jerky
In a blind taste test, I'd guess this jerky was beef. While ostrich meat is poultry, it's red, not white, giving it a familiar flavor. Hickory smoked and seasoned with black pepper, which adds a hint of heat, this iron-rich snack contains 100 percent ostrich meat and boasts no preservatives, no MSG and no growth hormones.
Try it: Available at mountainamericajerky.com
Cost: $8.63 per ounce
Oak Barrel Jerky's peppered snapping turtle jerky
Marinated in teriyaki and wine and spiced with black pepper, this snapping turtle jerky tastes like a slightly drier, tangier beef jerky, with subtle seafood undertones. The flavor is unique enough to be interesting but not so foreign that it is off-putting. Those turtles, Oak Barrel Jerky assured me, are a mix of farm raised and wild caught, purchased from USDA-approved suppliers.
Try it: Available at oakbarreljerky.com
Cost: $7.14 per ounce
365 Organic's turkey jerky
An exclusive Whole Foods brand, this jerky is made from turkeys raised without antibiotics or growth hormones which are fed a vegetarian, organic diet. The jerky is made using only the boneless, skinless breast meat. The flavor is sweet and mild and the texture is tender. With less calories, fat and cholesterol than beef jerky, turkey jerky is a tasty alternative.
Try it: Available at Whole Foods
Cost: $2.37 per ounce
Mike's homemade teriyaki venison jerky
Made with meat that my friend Mike bagged using a bow and arrow, this Tennessee-made deer jerky is flavored with teriyaki, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, red pepper and salt. It has a satisfying chewiness and a sweet-spicy flavor, but you'll have to take my word for it. It is not available in stores.
Try it: Make friends with a hunter — which I strongly suggest doing
Cost: $0 per ounce, but only if you're friends with Mike
Epic's maple glazed and smoked tender salmon bites
Made with wild caught salmon and flavored with maple, coconut oil and dill, salmon jerky is like a less flavorful, chewier version of cold smoked salmon. Where this jerky really loses points, though, is its portability. According to the package, after opening, it must be refrigerated and consumed within two days.
Try it: Available at Earth Fare
Cost: $2.80 per ounce
Taste test challenge
Think you could tell the difference? So did we. Were we right? Watch as our staff blindly taste tests exotic jerky flavors by visiting chatterchattanooga.com.