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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Meating and exceeding expectations

UC Davis Meat Lab Team excels at collegiate California Association of Meat Processors’ Cured Meat Competition

Sweet and Spicy Meat Candy. Bourbon’s Revenge. Asian Invasion Jerky.

These are just a few of the jerky products that placed at the California Association of Meat Processors’ Cured Meat Competition. These same products allowed the UC Davis Meat Lab team to gain back possession of the Norm Eggin Championship Cup, a trophy awarded to the team with the highest sum of three individual scores. After losing the cup to Cal Poly by 10 points last year, the Meat Lab students struck back by winning first, second, fourth, fifth and eighth place.

While the category for this year’s competition was jerky, last year’s cured meat was one that UC Davis students were much more familiar with: bacon. According to Jared Hickory, a student supervisor at the UC Davis Meat Lab, the students at the Meat Lab had never experimented with jerky since he had begun to work there in 2018. In order to prepare for the upcoming competition, the students went through a continuous cycle of brainstorming, testing and perfecting each of their products from the beginning of December, when the category of the year was released, to the day of the competition in the end of February.

According to Caleb Sehnert, the Meat Lab manager, the recipe ideas are completely in the hands of the students aside from a few pointers and words of advice. He explained that the ideas range from building off of recipes from the students’ heritages to testing completely new ones.

“A lot of my decision was based upon what I thought others would be entering,” Hickory said. “Most college students love spicy food, so I figured they’d be entering spicy jerkies. I decided to go the other route and go with a sweeter bourbon tone with black pepper to give it crisp mouthfeel and heat. I also generally try to take into account what the judges would enjoy and play to the eye of the beholder. A lot of them are professionals that make jerkies themselves and would be looking for something innovative and distinctive.”

Mario Valdez, a fourth-year animal science and management major and meat lab employee, who placed in second with his pastrami jerky, explained that one difficult aspect of the preparation process was smoking the meat in the smokehouse. Sehnert attested to the dedication of the students, as he described how students would come early before class or late at night to take the jerkies out of the smokehouse to test. Sehnert believes that this consistency from the students is what allowed them to excel in the competition this year. After talking to coaches from other schools, he learned that other students brought their jerky to dry at home rather than placing it in a smokehouse.

“I think the fact that our students were coming in here in the middle of the night and testing them out and pulling them out of the smokehouse and really working with consistent [use of the] smokehouse every single night and not doing it at home and part of it here, that’s why they did so well,” Sehnert said.

Having taken first place 10 times out of the 11 times they have competed, returning members of the UC Davis team were determined to win back the trophy.

“The atmosphere was intense,” Valdez said. “We all wanted to win, but wanted to maintain a friendly relationship and have good sportsmanship. In social events prior to the competition, we set our rivalry aside and had a good time. On the awards night, little to no eye contact was made. The only time it did was through the reflection of our gaze in the trophy.”

Valdez believes it was the union and lack of competition between the members within the UC Davis team that led to their success. He explained that everyone contributed to each other’s recipes and shared the collective goal of taking back the trophy regardless of individual placement.

“I think a lot of our success came from us pushing each other to succeed and

put the best product out there that we could,” Hickory said.

According to Sehnert, the continued success of the UC Davis Meat Lab team places a target on their backs that motivates the students pushes the students to work hard and continue the legacy.

“I have to admit that we are anxious to compete next year,” Valdez said. “It was a fun experience and many friendships were made.”

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org

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