If you’ve ever been to a party I hosted in the US, you know that I like to affix whimsical and provocative names to the food I make. In Uganda, this predilection has morphed into attempts to formulate clever explanations for the muzungu food I serve to African guests. This is a fun practice, not only because it provides a potential outlet for my subversive wit, but also because it causes me to try to think through the historical/cultural/scientific reasons that the things we eat originally came to be.
Well, this past week, we had several friends over and we had some jerky (dried meat) that Faith’s parents had brought from America. As I thought about how to explain the reasoning behind this novel item to our Ugandan guests, the only explanations I could think of were less than light-hearted; I realised that jerky could only have become so popular in a culture as ruggedly individualistic as America’s.
Consider: Jerky’s existence was necessitated when someone killed an animal that produced more meat than that person could consume before it spoiled. So, this culinary innovator decided to dehydrate, then salt the meat in order to preserve it for eating later.
Some of my Ugandan readers can already see where I’m going. In case you still don’t quite understand my argument., consider further: In Africa, if you killed an animal (either hunting wild game, or slaughtering a domesticated animal from your herd) that produced more meat than your immediate household could consume, you would invite your extended family and, depending on where you live, the rest of the village to share in the feast. The idea that you should try to preserve all the meat for your own consumption later would seem rather selfish since there would be so many other people around who could eat that meat right now. And you probably wouldn’t be worried about not having meat for later because you would know that anyone else in your family/village/clan would also invite you to share in their feast.
The American mind is neither as plagued by guilt over excessive selfishness, nor as reassured by expectations of communal reciprocity. Thus, jerky.
This is not to say that the same factors continue to drive Americans’ consumption of jerky (although I would argue that the factors are still predominantly cultural), or even that the American psyche is reflexively selfish. But I think it’s fair to suggest that individualism is a powerful force in the shaping of America’s dietary habits and trends.