Looking for Louisville's King of the Cool Jerk

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The Back Door interiorLast year, the night after Christmas, or more specifically, the very early morning of the day after the night after Christmas, I left the house where still nothing was stirring -- save for ripped ribbons and scraps of tissue paper skittering across the wood floors from gusts of central heat. I found myself drinking beers and small glasses of Jim Beam on ice with a friend on the damp, cold patio of my favorite bar in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The Back Door hugs the side-alley edge of a depressing strip mall in an otherwise lovely neighborhood. Despite a few relatively recent attempts at renovation, Mid-City Mall remains a wan collection of establishments: a husk of a supermarket, a huge basement thrift store, a small gym, a wizened bakery, and a movie theater -- all save the latter permeated through and through by the distinct, inescapable odor of old cigarettes mingling with doughnut glaze. I sat in my uncomfortable plastic chair, letting crushed ice suffused with liquor melt in the back of my throat, compulsively checking the time on my cell phone again and again. I was listening to a friend of my friend I'd just met -- an aging, chain-smoking rocker lady who claimed to have once managed The Jesus Lizard. Curly-haired, shifty, and fast-talking, like a nervous auctioneer, she chattered on through the chill -- upbraiding her absent housemates, flirting, guffawing weirdly, talking about drugs, touching repeatedly on a failed attempt to bed Chris Cornell in the early 90s. The party is over, I thought. My flight was in seven hours. I hopped up to order another whiskey, my last.

When I returned, a man wearing blue overalls was hunched over our table. His hair was gray, but he could have been any age. It was hard to tell. An amazing Witness-style beard jutted out from his chin like a grass-tipped rock formation. He may have been wearing a hat. I'm not sure. I was intoxicated, and staring at what he was holding in his gnarled hands: a broad wicker basket filled with plastic baggies marked with indecipherable paper stickers containing what looked, in the dark, like shards of dried seaweed or the worst weed in the world. My friend had already bought a bag. He was stuffing bits of the stuff into his mouth and chewing deliberately, somehow grinning at the same time. "Jerky," he said. "Get some." I don't actually remember if that's what he said -- I was in my cups, after all -- but he informed me in some verbal form of expression what he was so intent on devouring. I got some -- two bags worth -- and started tearing away, balancing the sharp jolts of bourbon with salty strips. This jerky was the first beef I'd eaten since elementary school. I'd get a full-blown inauguration in Kyoto several months later, but this was an ideal re-introduction: consorting drunkenly with a rich, ancient-seeming flavor, as if my vaguest recollection of steak had been realized, condensed, and boiled down, and then -- in some dazzling Wonka-esque process -- rendered slim, portable, and hard as sheet-rock.

I don't actually remember that the vendor's hands were gnarled, but the adjective suits the smoke-cured paws of a bearded Kentucky jerky-man. He didn't give a name; he just left -- trudging down the steps, disappearing into the shadowy reaches of the bar's tree-covered parking lot with what I'd like to imagine was an affected hill-country whoop. My friend's friend seemed to know him, but unlike us, she didn't want to talk about jerky, much less the man who made it. "It's low in calories!" she'd bellowed, sort of throwing up her hands in exasperation at our lack of interest in her preferred topics of conversation. "It's a great source of protein!"

I brought most of one bag back to San Francisco. I ate it all the following morning, while sitting at the kitchen table in my Mission District apartment, surfing the Internet. When it was empty, I stared at the bag, a little forlorn. "I've got to get some more of this shit," I said to myself. The jerky salesman was the real deal, I thought, a Kentucky classic, an intrepid street food hustler in a lean and largely cart-less land. I wanted to meet him again, to interview him perhaps, to most importantly get my hands on some more of his delicious wares.

I told my friend back in Louisville that I wanted to re-up. He had his own agenda. In exchange for sniffing out the traveling jerky-man, he wanted me to send him a large quantity of marijuana -- some good medicinal stuff with a fantastic name. From my perspective, no amount of jerky joy was worth the potential consequences of stinking up Fed-Ex with a sativa-spiked Folgers can. Imagining how hard a judge would laugh at me, I declined, putting down the phone and casting aside my longing -- temporarily.


Today is Friday, October 2nd. I arrived in Louisville yesterday afternoon. I came here to see my mother and my brother, to get some work done, to read a little, and to watch football on a big television. I also came to look for jerky.

While San Francisco, my city of residence for the past seven years, remains in the grips of a giddy street food obsession, Louisville, an over-achieving restaurant town boasting the likes of 610 Magnolia and Proof on Main, has little in the way of pavement cuisine -- although my Saturday morning trip to the neighborhood farmer's market revealed a lively scene. In a June 2009 article published in Velocity, one of Louisville's local weeklies, Marty Rosen assailed the perceived deficiency as one of several standing in the city's path to gastronomic greatness:

"We live in a temperate zone...We have sidewalks. We have sidewalk dining. We have folks who walk on sidewalks. What we don't have -- except for a few downtown exceptions and a few taco trucks -- is an entrepreneurial crew of sidewalk vendors hawking falafel, chaat, shawarama and sausages..."

I haven't really lived in Louisville since I was in high school. My sense of the changes time has wrought on its physical and cultural landscape arrives in swells and swoops, when I'm back for pockets of time, around holidays mostly. On every ride from the airport to the house where I grew up, my mom rattles off a reel of news -- which shops have closed, major construction projects of note, the revitalized waterfront, the new basketball arena, the growing art scene -- as if I'd been gone for a decade. Then I realize, when you're used to looking closely at a smaller place, such shifts are more palpable, and they can seem so major. Me, I don't even remember how to get around town anymore. Most of my friends have left. Hunting for jerky, I had no leads beyond knowing where I'd first had it.

I started my search on the computer. Googling is an unromanticizable form of sleuthing -- no stake-outs, no disguises -- but it often works. First, I uncovered a 2006 night-on-the-town chronicled in LEO, Louisville's other, more venerable alt-weekly. A drinking party wound up at The Back Door, where a bag of beef jerky made the rounds as closing time approached. Next, I came across a 2004 piece in The Courier-Journal running down the 50 coolest things about Louisville with, at #39, a likely reference to the man I had encountered: "Rusty Sturgeon's homemade varieties [of beef jerky]...are a well-kept secret among meat-o-philes."

After that, a Courier-Journal article from two weeks ago popped up, a short list of favorite local foodstuffs offering more details to corroborate my fleeting experience with what I'd already read:

"Rusty Sturgeon is a Louisville food artist. The overall-wearing gentleman wanders the Highlands selling homemade beef jerky to Louisvillians after a night at the city's myriad clubs and drinking holes. Sturgeon is a friendly guy, but some folks might be (understandably) concerned about buying food off a guy on the street. Don't be. Sturgeon's jerky is way better than anything you'll get at the convenience store. May we suggest the flaming ass, a particularly spicy jerky strong enough to shake you out of a bourbon stupor."

I knew the trail was flaming ass-hot when I tracked down Sturgeon on Facebook, or at least a page someone had created in his honor. A benevolent face sprouting tendrils from the chin grinned out at me, frozen in a streetlight's unflattering glow. I immediately became his "fan."

Of course, I still wanted to find the dude in the flesh. His Facebook page didn't link to Twitter -- or otherwise suggest he ever announced his intended schedule prior to hitting the streets, basket in hand. Later in the afternoon, I called The Back Door to ask when he usually came through. "Speak slower, please," a deflated female voice yawned on the other end. I repeated the question. "Oh yes," she said, perking up just the slightest bit. "Sometimes he's here during the day, sometimes at night, sometimes during the day and at night as well. He's everywhere."


That didn't help. At 10:00 p.m., I walked out the front door of my mom's house and hoofed it over to the bar. I had a drink. I waited for an hour. I saw a guy who'd taught me history in middle school, but no one selling jerky. When you're hunting for something, I wondered, as I drained my whiskey -- are you more likely to find it if you keep moving, or stay in one place? The problem with Sturgeon being everywhere, of course, is that, while he may cover a lot of ground, he's nowhere until you actually see him. Street food vendors tend to show up when you don't expect them, or when you need them most -- when you're, say, one tamale away from fainting. Maybe I shouldn't have eaten that pizza for dinner, I thought -- then I'd have needed him more. I got up, and left. I'd be back in December for another try.