National Jerky Day falls on June 12, but if it were up to the North American Meat Institute, based in Washington, D.C., the salty treat would be feted 365 days of the year.
"National Jerky Day was created… to celebrate the rich history, immense popularity and nutritional benefits of dried meat snacks," said a NAMI spokesperson, presumably between bites. "However, due to the incredible growth in product demand, we think it is time for the event to become a daily holiday."
(Wait, what, and replace National Ravioli Day, March 20, National Onion Ring Day, June 22, and National Pickle Day, Nov. 14?)
Closer to home, Jeremy and Megan Silcox are the owners of Mr. Biltong Beef Jerky Co., biltong being a South African take on traditional jerky created by European settlers in the 17th century.
Know how Christmas or a loved one’s birthday sometimes sneaks up on you? That has never been the Silcoxes’ experience as it pertains to National Jerky Day.
"I always make a point of putting it in my phone at the start of the year," says Megan, seated next to her husband. "It just so happens that our (wedding) anniversary is the week before so, yeah, kind of an easy one to remember."
In 2007, Jeremy, an industrial engineer who grew up in Riverview, was living in Johannesburg, where he was working on a major nickel-refinery expansion project. One afternoon during a staff luncheon he spied what he describes as "this pile of brown meat" resting on a serving dish. He asked somebody what it was, only to be told biltong, a Dutch word that translates roughly as "buttock strip." Er, thanks but no thanks.
"The thing is, I was never much for jerky," he explains. "I might have had some of that tough-as-leather stuff on family road trips when I was a kid, but that would have been about it."
It took a bit of coaxing but he eventually agreed to give it a try. A single strip was all it took to convince him he did like jerky — or at least, biltong, which contains far less salt and sugar and is much more tender than its cured counterpart — after all. Soon, he was driving all over South Africa’s largest city, sampling wares from various dedicated biltong retailers in a bid to determine whose he enjoyed most.
"Wildebeest, kudu, springbok and beef, obviously," he says, listing off types he dove into during his three years abroad. "Ostrich was pretty good, quite chewy, but the chicken biltong I had was really weird. I wouldn’t recommend that one too highly."
Jeremy spent a couple of weeks in Winnipeg once or twice a year during his tenure in Johannesburg. To satisfy his craving, he’d go shopping for biltong, always coming up empty. Telling himself that wasn’t going to cut it when he came back permanently, he enlisted a person in South Africa to teach him how to make his own from scratch by marinating the uncooked meat in a vinegar solution overnight, heavily coating it with a spice rub and allowing it to air-dry for up to a week, sometimes longer, before slicing it into bite-size pieces. (No, not at all, he says when asked if he was a bit of a foodie going in, though Megan interjects that for as long as they’ve been together he’s made a "pretty mean KD.")
By the time he returned to Winnipeg in 2010 — he and Megan were married a year later — he had his recipe, featuring a pepper-coriander spice mixture, down pat.
For the next several years, Jeremy was content making small batches of biltong, which he would pack for lunch, or have as a snack while watching TV. Occasionally there was more than he and Megan, a full-time physiotherapist, could finish themselves, so he gifted the remainder to friends and family. All of them said it the best jerky they’d ever eaten and wanted to know why he wasn’t selling it.
In September 2017, Mr. Biltong — a tag Jeremy’s co-workers in Johannesburg hung on him years earlier, owing to his love of the foodstuff — made its official debut at the Great Manitoba Food Fight, an annual culinary competition that pits food and/or beverage entrepreneurs against one another.
He didn’t think his and his wife’s fledgling venture would be a factor with the judges — that they were even invited to take part was an honour, he stresses — but after being awarded a bronze medal, he thought, OK, that’s encouraging.
The owners of Park Line Coffee on Osborne Street were the first to reach out, letting the Silcoxes know they’d love to carry the product in-house. Within a few months, the couple was approached by other retailers as well, many of whom got wind of their biltong at public markets such as Scattered Seeds and Third + Bird, where Jeremy and Megan began appearing as featured vendors.
"For us, sales have increased during the pandemic, but it’s hard to say if it’s specific to more people snacking, or just increasing awareness about our products," says Jeremy. "Many of our usual markets have been cancelled, but with our online store our overall sales are still up. Recent, new retailers include Farmery Brewery, Mottola Grocery and Prairie Flavours in Winnipeg, and King’s Deli in Winkler."
The Silcoxes presently offer six types, including spicy cayenne, red-hot habanero and "fat teri," the latter a marbled teriyaki blend with hints of garlic and ginger, a favourite of their two children, Emily, 6, and Greyson, 4. Even though it isn’t always cost-effective, they use Manitoba-raised beef exclusively, out of respect for Megan’s family’s farming background.
Jeremy, who recommends celebrating National Jerky Day on a sun-drenched backyard patio with a bowl of your favourite jerky paired with a "cold one," says he’s always thinking of new flavours, such as a horseradish-garlic blend he’s currently putting the finishing touches on. Besides biltong, they also sell stokkies, a drier, chewier product "for those who want a mouth workout," and boerewors, a preservative-free farmer’s sausage that also has roots in South Africa.
Jeremy and Megan believe there are close to 4,000 expat South Africans living in Manitoba, many of whom have branded Mr. Biltong a taste of home.
"One customer reached out specifically to say he and his wife consider themselves biltong connoisseurs and that ours was up there with the best they’ve ever eaten," says Megan, who also recommends using biltong as a salad topper, like bacon bits, or adding it to soups, stews or omelettes if you’re looking for extra protein. "Not being of South African descent ourselves, that sort of compliment holds a lot of weight with us. To be able to recreate a taste people grew up with is very rewarding."
For more information, go to mrbiltong.ca.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.
Don’t have a cow if you want to toast National Jerky Day but don't eat meat.
Darci Geiger is the owner of Plant Power Foods, a two-year-old venture that turns out four varieties of plant-based, gluten-free jerky, including sriracha and maple dijon, each prepared with soy protein.
Geiger, 35, hasn’t eaten a sliver of meat since she was six years old. A few years back she began experimenting with different recipes, trying to come up with a jerky-type snack, a “take-along protein kind of thing” she could nibble on during her work day. She was fairly certain she had a winner on her hands, but wasn't completely convinced until members of her family gave it a thumbs-up, too.
“Everybody in my family eats meat so at first, they were a bit hesitant to even put it near their mouth, especially my older sister who is the complete opposite of me when it comes to diet, in that she enjoys fishing and hunting,” Geiger says when reached at home. Everybody exclaimed it was fantastic; same thing with friends who would visit her at home — "back when you could have guests over, what a concept” — and inquire if she had any of "that plant-jerky stuff" kicking around.
Geiger debuted her Plant Power Jerky in January 2019 at the Downtown Winnipeg Farmer’s Market. Sold out by 1 p.m., she spent the rest of the afternoon apologizing to interested parties, promising them she'd be back the following week with more. Since then, she's spent a good chunk of her spare time fine-tuning her packaging and online presence (plantpowerjerky.ca), in addition to handling almost all her own home delivery orders since the onset of COVID.
“It’s just me and my partner right now, and it’s ended up taking a lot more time than I expected,” she says, noting there’s a recipe page on her website that incorporates her jerky in a number of dishes (we strongly recommend the vegetable stir fry boosted by her peanut teriyaki vegan jerky).
“Surprisingly, a lot of my customers — almost 50/50 at the markets — are meat eaters,” she continues. “At first I was a little surprised, but after asking a few questions, I’ve learned more and more people are looking for food that is a bit healthier and better for the environment. It seems a lot more of us are concerned with that sort of thing lately, which has been wonderful to hear.”