Since he was a little kid, Ben Rogers has made jerky with his dad. He stresses that he's purely someone who makes dried meat for the love of it. "I'm just an IT guy at MUSC," he says. "I don't really have any culinary training." But when three years ago he heard about the Jerky Off competition, Charleston's premier event for jerky lovers, he decided he might as well enter a homemade batch for the judges' consideration.
"Plus, $10 for all-you-can-eat jerky sounds like a good deal," he says.
But he's just being modest. The judges were obviously impressed with his entry, a jerky with a two-step marinade "that wound up being a Frankenstein super-jerky." Rogers won second place for the concoction, which he called "Tongue Thai'd," after its Thai-inspired peanut taste.
Not only did Rogers win second place that year — he continued to improve his jerky craft. In last year's competition, he was awarded first place by the judging panel and took home the coveted People's Choice award. This Saturday, Rogers will enter his latest creation — the exact nature of which he's not ready to divulge — at the sixth Jerky Off, held this year at a bigger venue than ever before: Lewis Barbecue.
The competition is the brainchild of Anna Faenza, former owner of Elliotborough Mini Bar. She launched the competition in 2012 at the urging of then-employee Ben Lucas, a bona fide jerky fan, as a way to get the word out about the bar. "I love strange, creative things," Faenza says. "So, for me, putting on this sort of event kind of just makes sense."
This year's competition will move to Lewis Barbecue to take advantage of the additional space. When Rogers mentions the venue's owner, a note of reverence creeps into his voice. "He judged last year, too. I was a little bit star-struck because he was doing really interesting things with meat," Rogers says. "He's sort of a meat hero."
This year's judging panel includes celebrity chefs (The Getaway's Emily Hahn and Bob Cook of Edmund's Oast), Cole Flodin, whom Faenza describes as "a metal worker mountain man," food photographer Andrew Cebulka, Post and Courier food writer Stephanie Barna and the City Paper's own Kinsey Gidick. The panel will judge all entries — around 20 to 25 are expected — on their aroma, color, moisture, texture, and overall flavor.
"We kind of touch on all the elements of flavor and creation of the jerky," says Hahn, who famously competed on Top Chef Charleston season 14. "Does it have the right spice? Does it have the right texture, the right smell?"
Like tasting fine wine, it's important to keep your palate cleansed and ready when sampling so many cured meats. Hahn recommends a nice slosh of beer or glass of water between each jerky chew. "If you really like it after the first bite, eat some more," she says. "It's there for the chewing."
Hunting is definitely a thing in the South. But, Faenza says, she didn't realize before starting this event that so many people in Charleston are jerky obsessed. "It makes sense, though," she says. "It's hot down here. If you can't cook it right away, dehydrate it."
The winner of the competition will certainly get a unique form of bragging rights. Winning a jerky competition, after all, is even rarer than winning a marathon. And in a culinary city like Charleston, it's pretty awesome.
"You can go out to eat anywhere in Charleston and get all kinds of different food, but this is the one time of year when you can get something really different and compare lots of it," Faenza says.
If you're looking to get into the hobby for yourself, past winner Ben Rogers says that there's a pretty low threshold. "You need a $50 dehydrator," he says. "You get whatever meat and flavors you want." And that's it. You can start making your own stuff.
Hahn says that being a culinary professional really doesn't matter so much as passion. "I love seeing the winners every year have 100 percent been non-chefs," she says. "I think it's so cool that this is a little community of jerky lovers who get together and have fun with it."
The 6th annual Jerky Off will be held Sat. May 12 at Lewis Barbecue at 464 N. Nassau St. Admission to the all-you-can-eat jerky event is $10. (Drinks will also be available for sale.) A portion of proceeds will benefit Lowcountry Local First. The event starts at 2 p.m., with winners announced at 5 p.m.
To enter the competition, jerky makers need to email email@example.com and make a $20 deposit. Two pounds of jerky cut into bite-sized pieces should be dropped off at Lewis on May 11 between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. Prizes include $500 for first place, a $100 Lewis Barbecue gift certificate for runner up, and a $75 Edmunds Oast gift certificate to People's Choice winner. Plus, everyone involved gets a trophy!