Jerky — The Epitomic American Food

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.

Postscript: Some of my more astute readers will point out that Native Americans (specifically the Cree) invented pemmican, and that the Afrikaners produced biltong. Fair enough, but it was European traders who popularised and created the demand for pemmican. Moreover, the Dutch emigrants to South Africa might be even less communitarian than the other Anglo-Saxon inhabitants of the Americas.

4 responses to “Jerky — The Epitomic American Food

  1. Loving the post-script. I was just about to point to the native Americans, and the need the preserve the bounty of the hunt barbecue you never knew where or when the herds of buffalo were going to show up next.

  2. Her’s something really interesting. In China, which is also collectivist, they do “dry” some meats which makes it jerky like (though it doesn’t taste the same way as in the US). It’s bought as a snack usually.

    China is quite collectivist in many, many ways but there are also some fascinating points to their culture that show us that you can’t just lump in “individualistic vs collectivist” as the only point of comparison. My understanding, from what I am trying to ascertain is that Uganda is still not a super wealthy country and that there are still many villages. If this isn’t right, please correct me.

    In China we don’t see, in the cities (which is where most of the populace lives now, actually) people living as closely with their neighbors as they do in the country side villages. While most Chinese in the city are in apartments, they aren’t necessarily engaged with and involved with their neighbors. Sure, I saw more community involvement than in the US where many Americans don’t seem to know who lives around them. A Chinese friend also pointed out that the Cultural Revolution changed China’s perceptions about privacy since people knew EVERYTHING and would use it against a person then. Further, with the rising middle class, you actually see a LOT of waste with food in China. I was shocked, when Chinese friends or students would take me out to dinner how MUCH food we ordered and how much was left behind, wasted, at the restaurant. It was almost like they were ordering an excess to show they had abidance now, since many Chinese I know had relatives die in the famine during the years of the Cultural Revolution.

    There is a complexity when it comes to these interesting cultural differences that are really fascinating to explore. I love how food, for example, communicates so much about a culture.

    I don’t know if you are aware of Hofestede’s cultural dimensions that are used to help categorize aspects of a culture, though the individualistic – collectivist spectrum falls on this. Perhaps, in looking at your analysis, it seems as if Uganda may have a higher degree of collectivism whereas China’s is less because of the historical changes that impacted the village mindset that once existed. In Thailand I do see more of a community focus. One of my Thai friends said that when you live in a village (which they call all neighborhoods, no matter how modern they look or how traditional they look), you are always a member. While the Chinese talk a lot about their “home town” it seems that there isn’t as great of a connection to where one is from. The need to make a living has caused many to be migrant workers far, far from home, only getting back during the Chinese New Year’s festival.

    As a cultural researcher, what is fascinating to me in thinking about this is to try to figure out what OTHER cultural dimensions, along with economic factors and histories impact something as basic as how we eat. Perhaps this is something I should consider for my dissertation when I get that far. 🙂

    • Thanks for the insight, Shawna. I remember being surprised shortly after I arrived in Laos when I was told I needed to meet the chief of the Ban or village where I stayed…that village being within Luang Prabang!

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