Slim Janes

Maybe you’ve seen the new billboards on Snelling, Grand, or Highway 94: “Banana Chips Can Cause Figure Skating,” and “Fun-Size a Cow”—ads enjoining us to rediscover or reconsider the meat snack, those salty mystery sticks most of us save for camping trips or are storing for the apocalypse. Those tough, pungent treats most of us last ate in junior high school.

Beef. It’s what’s dried, sheathed, and vacuum-packed for dinner?

The Atkins years were good to America’s meat snack industry; the sector’s smokin’ hot sales climbed steadily in the 1990s, fueled by carb-free fiends hoping to reach ketogenic nirvana. Mintel International Group reported that in 2004, meat snack sales exceeded $2.65 billion. But those beefed-up numbers can’t climb forever, and as Americans reclaim their carbohydrates, the meat snack industry has scrambled to expand its consumer appeal. Reporter Michael Browne noted in a recent Convenience Store News article that meat snacks, “once strictly the province of blue-collar, rural male customers … have taken off in the past few years among a wider consumer base. Women, Baby Boomers, younger people, and Hispanic customers have all taken to snacking on meat in all its forms—jerky, sticks, nuggets, and bites.” I couldn’t recall recently snacking on meat in any of those forms, but was interested to learn that others of my gender might be nibbling their brains out, attracted by new, “softer textures, bite-sized pieces and milder meat flavors [that clearly favor] the new female user.”

The meat snack masters have apparently experimented with pastel packaging, sweeter honey ham sticks, other light meats like turkey, chicken, and even emu, and the seemingly irresistible reclosable bag!, all in an effort to lure the fairer sex.

I decided it was time to poll the ladies.

Girls, what would it take to get you into a meat snack today? In any of its forms—jerky, sticks, nuggets or bites? I asked around.

“The one time I purchased and ate a Slim Jim, I had an allergic reaction to the MSG in it, which caused my throat to nearly swell shut,” reported Lynn. “So, as much as I love a smoky, meaty treat, they will have to reformulate the recipe before this lady will bite again. Unless, of course, I learn to do tracheotomies on myself.”

Anne suggested making meat snacks vegetarian. (Done, done, and done, ladies!) “Or maybe tout them as something you eat when you have PMS?” she added. (Though much industry attention has been paid to impulse and point-of-purchase displays, it is worth noting that no one has yet thought to put beef jerky next to the tampons.)

Michele offered that meat snacks might be more appealing if they were not made from “meat flavored meat stuff,” or “meat-like items,” or meat from “the jungle.” They might also be more attractive to the female palate if they were “made from candy.”

None of the women I polled found pastel packaging to be a selling point, although Melanie, an architect, had this to say: “The more I think about it, meat sticks are usually in heavy-colored packaging—blacks, browns, reds, maroon. Maybe if they went with a lighter color—even a tan—it could psychologically make people view them as less heavy foods. All of the lower fat meats are lighter in color—chicken, turkey—and I equate dark-colored meats with high fat. How many grams of fat are there per serving of beef jerky anyway? Shit, I love beef!”

Which is good, because though the industry has tried to introduce ostrich, alligator, and chicken jerky, beef remains its best seller.

The upshot seems to be that meat snacks, be they jerked or kippered, in nuggets or resealable bags, are still enjoying a decidedly survivalist and masculine profile.

“It’s a rare day when I purchase a meat snack,” my friend Jess weighed in. “And usually it’s to accompany a trip to a cabin up north with some Knob Creek in hand.”—Shannon Olson