Jerky Evolution

Alan Day takes his dried-meat biz from the Lazy B Ranch to the University of Arizona

My knowledge of beef jerky is primarily derived from the "Oregon Trail" video game. I had previously sworn off beef, and I would probably induce heart attacks in my friends if I told them that I'd consumed a slice of beef jerky.

That's right: A year and a half of beef abstinence went down the tubes for a nibble of Day Family Lazy B Ranch Beef Jerky. And I can't even say that I feel the slightest bit guilty about it.

Day Family Lazy B Ranch Beef Jerky, a product of Arizona cowboy and Tucson resident Alan Day, has a distinct flavor. Day couples preservative-free apricot syrup and habanero chili peppers in a sauce that he says provides the unique aspect to his jerky. Of all of his experimentations with sauces, this formula is his favorite.

"Your first taste, you get the sweet taste, and then in a minute or so, the hot sets in," he said. "I like to compare it to a good wine. When you get a taste of wine, your first taste, you get one taste, and then the aftertaste will change," he said.

The infusion of an apricot-habanero sauce is a recent development in his jerky-making career, which began in his childhood on the Lazy B Ranch in Duncan, a small town that straddles the Arizona-New Mexico border. Day, a third-generation Lazy B Rancher, was one of the few who had the patience to produce the jerky. Jerky, at a time when ranchers did not have electricity or refrigeration, was an integral part of his family's diet. Most ranchers, he said, lived on beans, beef and biscuits.

"When I grew up doing it, we would just cut it in as thin and big of sheets as we could cut--very thin--put salt and pepper on it, and then hang it on a clothesline; and so that was the jerky, and of course, the only joke is that you didn't know which is the pepper, and which is the fly specks. But I guess it didn't matter."

(And, yes, Alan is a member of that Day family: Sandra Day O'Connor is his sister.)

As time progressed, Day became the head butcher, jerky maker and manager of the Lazy B Ranch. Day moved from Duncan to Tucson in 1993, but he has continued to make the jerky in his own kitchen. The method of jerky production on the ranch has shaped the way he prepares it in his kitchen--the only preservative he uses in his jerky is vinegar, because it "tends to kill mold and some of those things. But mostly, my remedy for keeping it without mold is how dry I get it, and I dry it a little more than the law requires."

Three years ago, he partnered with the University of Arizona Meat Lab to aide in the production of his jerky. He said that some students at the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences seeking assignments were assigned to the production of the jerky. Day decided to collaborate with the UA because they have the capacity to produce greater quantities of jerky, as well as to package the jerky as a United States Department of Agriculture-certified product. He has since been able to sell his product in Tucson, Tubac, Scottsdale and, at one point, the UA Student Union. He said that a Quik Mart near Vail has been contacting him to supply jerky.

"My business is half in my home and half in a commercial establishment. And so I waver back and forth between getting bigger and making it all commercial, or staying as a cottage industry and keeping it in my kitchen," said Day.

Currently, his production of jerky is on hold due to issues with the containers he uses to bring his sauce to the UA Meat Lab. He said that the seals on the containers aged, and a USDA inspector requested that he purchase new ones. This is a problem that, he said, is easily resolvable.

"So I need to get more updated containers," he said, "and I wouldn't say that the USDA inspector was wrong; I'm not complaining about it. I just haven't yet complied with his request."

Day hopes to restart soon. "I'm going to have to get busy," he said.

For those like me who feign vegetarianism, or those following the hard-core carnivore track by munching on some true Southwestern jerky, contacting Alan Day would be the way to procure some of the tasty Arizona treat. Call Day Family Lazy B Ranch Gourmet Beef Jerky at 742-1611.