A Tricky Stick

FOOD: ADOLPH LEVIS, B. 1911; A Tricky Stick


The New York Times Magazine

Published: December 30, 2001

The Slim Jim was created by Adolph Levis in Philadelphia in the 1940’s. After an unsuccessful early career as a violinist and a failed effort to operate a string of tobacco shops, Levis and a partner had turned to the pickled-food trade, hawking pig’s feet, cabbage and cucumbers to bars and taverns in and around Philadelphia.

mysterious meat snack

mysterious meat snack

Pepperoni, he noticed, was becoming popular among his clientele, and he made an end run around the fad by creating a preserved meat product that, rather than curing for weeks, could be manufactured in a matter of days by a process of fermentation and hot smoking.

The snack sold well in the bars, first in Philadelphia and then up and down the East Coast. Eventually, a bidding war broke out over Slim Jim’s name and recipe, and in 1967, Levis (pronounced LEV-iss) and his partner sold out to General Mills, for $20 million. The brand would pass through three other companies in the ensuing years, and each time it did, the recipe changed a little, to make production cheaper and more efficient. They even started putting chicken into the original all-beef formula. What at first required just 10 common ingredients now calls for 31. But the taste, everyone agrees, remains true to Levis’s original.

The sale of anything, even a stick of dried meat, to a company like General Mills pretty much assures that the instructions for making it become an industrial secret. So when we decided to make a Levis-era Slim Jim, as a salute to its inventor who died this year, we got no help from its current owner, ConAgra. They wished us luck and sent us on our way.

Undeterred, we went to Harvey Brodsky, Levis’s son-in-law, who told us he didn’t know the original recipe. ”It’s not like we’ve got it written down in family scrapbooks,” he said good-naturedly. He supplied one critical clue, however: the use of lactic acid is crucial in the fermentation process because it lowers the pH and imparts a unique tanginess.

We realized that we would have to go freelance, and so our next stop was Wade Moises, the sous-chef and butcher at Lupa restaurant in New York. He is that rare breed, a sausage geek, and he was certain that he could help us reverse-engineer a Slim Jim.

Though he did have some reservations. Before settling down to work, he snapped off a piece of a Slim Jim, chewed it and winced. ”You sure you want to do this?”

From Bruce Aidells, the man who restored the good name of mass-produced sausage in America, we learned that Levis’s original recipe was probably based on an Eastern European thin rope sausage, usually made with pork and beef, because ”its spices are mild and it takes the smoke well.”

A recipe for rope sausage, provided by Aidells, has 10 ingredients (not counting the meat and the fat), like the original Slim Jim. The heat comes from white and black pepper; Moises suggested using cayenne instead and doubling the salt. ”The meat-to-fat ratio is very important and so is the amount of lactic acid,” he says, dropping pieces of top round chuck and beef fat into a meat grinder. ”After that, it’s a question of adjusting the spices.”

Making sausage is really quite straightforward. The meat is ground, then kneaded together with spices, lactic-acid starter (freeze-dried milk, essentially) and a pink curing salt. The meat-and-spice mixture has to be kneaded until it is doughy and can be squeezed through the sausage press and into the sheathing. Slim Jims are now cased in collagen, but we figure that the originals were natural. So we go with lamb intestines,which are properly narrow.

A sausage maker close to the Slim Jim production process, speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed to us that a Slim Jim is smoked at between 110 and 140 degrees for 22 hours and then allowed to cool at 50 degrees with next to no humidity. So that’s what we do.

After tasting the first batch, we decide it needs an additional two tablespoons of salt and eight more ounces of fat to make it into Slim Jim territory. By the third generation, we think we have something close, so we let it dry overnight in a refrigerator and then

smoke it. ”I think we got it,” says Moises, looking up from his prep work on the fifth day of our project. ”It could be a bit greasier, but the spice and the tanginess is there.”

We send a package of our homemade Slim Jims overnight to Brodsky. He is defensive and not at all complimentary. ”The samples are way off,” he says in a voice-mail message. ”The color is wrong, the chop is wrong, the consistency of the casing is wrong. The spicing just doesn’t seem to be there, and the lactic-acid starter culture? Didn’t taste any.”

We decide not to take his word for it, and as his father-in-law might have done, we head out to a local tavern. At Montero’s, hard by the Brooklyn docks, a regular sits at the bar. ”You made your own Slim Jim?” he says, as if he has heard this one already too. When I ask if he’d try one and tell me if it tastes like the Slim Jims of old, he wrinkles up his face and says, ”Why not?”

He chews for a moment, then shrugs. ”Sure,” he says. ”You made a Slim Jim. Good for you.”

Wade Moises’s Take on

The Original Slim Jim

(Adapted ffom Bruce Aidells)

1 lamb intestine casing (4 feet long)

2 1/2 pounds top round chuck, cubed

1 pound beef fat, cubed

3 tablespoons paprika

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 teaspoons cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds

1 teaspoon No. 1 curing salt

4 tablespoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed

1/3 cup lactic-acid starter culture.

1. Rinse salt off the sausage casing. Soak in ice water for at least 1 hour.

2. Combine meat and fat. Run the mixture through a meat grinder into a large bowl, using the finest setting. Add all ingredients, along with one cup of ice water. Knead vigorously until mixture is the consistency of bread dough (about 8 minutes).

3. Rinse casing one last time. Choose the narrowest gauge tube of your sausage press. Splash the tube with ice water, then pull the casing over it. Transfer the mixture, about two fistfuls at a time, to the sausage press and then pump the meat into the casing, splashing more water on the tubing as needed to stop the casing from tearing.

4. Preheat an electric smoker to 100 degrees. Hang sausage in the smoker for 22 hours. Temperature should never dip below 90 degrees or go above 110 degrees. After 22 hours, raise the temperature to 150 degrees and cook until the internal temperature reaches 150 to 155 degrees (about 30 minutes).

5. Remove from smoker and let cool at about 50 degrees in a dry place for 4 hours. Cut sausage into 4-inch lengths.

Yield: 16 servings.

2 thoughts on “A Tricky Stick

  1. Take note – this article was from NINE years ago and NPR and others just began covering the trend of jerky and smoked meats as the newest best bar snack. Yet another Manny Howard ahead of the curve piece…

  2. Sadly, on balance (and especially when it comes to selling editorial), I’ve found this 9 to 10 year omniscience more a blessing than a curse… Thanks all the same, hon.
    I will say, though, and Gawd knows I can’t explain it, as of last month, this piece has been included in no fewer than three college writing textbooks. I’ve had other pieces honored in such a way, but never multiple times. A kewpie doll as prize for anybody who can explain why this is…

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