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This Christmas, give the gift of jerky

Updated: December 24, 2012 7:08AM

Friday is the day that our holiday buying frenzy traditionally begins . . . well, it used to be Friday. Now it seems Black Friday has become unhinged from its usual location on the calendar and is wandering back in time, to Thanksgiving and beyond, on its way towards Veterans Day, heading toward some dystopia of continual shopping.

Horror. If you’re like me, it’s hard enough to shop in an empty store, with a clerk smiling at you expectantly while you browse undisturbed. The prospect of plunging into some sea-of-humanity chaos, fighting to snag $50 off a vacuum cleaner, is unimaginable. But hard times make for hard choices, and I don’t want to pooh-pooh anybody motivated to save money on a big purchase. You do what you must, and if you’re dabbing the scratches on your face with iodine, I don’t want to compound your discomfort by snickering in the background. Nice off-brand home theater sub-woofer system. Use it, as my mother would say, in the best of health.

For those of us squeaking by, however, holiday shopping is not so much about getting an even bigger flat-screen as finding the obligatory love token to serve up to our significant other to prove that, despite everything, our passion has not eroded over the years but remains as bright and fierce as ever, as proven by this . . . um . . . ah . . . nicely wrapped . . .

That’s the rub, isn’t it? Each person has his or her own set of expectations and desires, and your job, as a conscientious loved one, is to somehow figure them out, Carnac the Magnificent-like. I’ve written before that gift-giving is really a yearlong job, 12 months of constant attention, of careful observation, waiting for the small pout, that “Oh I really shouldn’t,” sigh as she sets it reluctantly back on the shelf, then noting the exact type/size/brand, rushing back to snap it up and tuck it away.

Not that it’s always that easy. Last year, my wife admired a certain smart, black, wool, winter jacket at Macy’s. Very French, very ooh-la-la. But the price — whatever it was, a couple hundred dollars — was far too expensive compared to the minimal Kohl’s and T.J. Maxx double digit prices she’d trained herself to spend on just about everything.

As she stepped away, I grabbed the coat, feverishly studied the label like a secret agent memorizing a code, then tripped off after her.

It took me a day or two to get back to Macy’s. And in the meantime — and this will sound like comic exaggeration — they got in a massive shipment of smart, black, women’s wool coats. The floor was filled with them, rack after rack. I stood there, mouth agape, at this expanse of coats, then plunged in, like one of those thriller movies when the detective is chasing a porter who disappears into a mob of porters on a train station platform, and the private eye grabs each by the shoulder, spinning him around, gazing at each face while other porters, hunched, push past.

Eventually — and I think it took the better part of an hour — I found what I thought was the right coat and had it boxed and wrapped and hidden away. Of course it wasn’t the right coat — or my wife just changed her mind, the prerogative of beautiful women, true, but a disappointment nonetheless.

You want something desired but hard-to-find, needed but not bought already.

The only gift suggestion I have this year — and I suppose this is more for guys than gals — is beef jerky. Not the standard gift, I grant you. But I keep thinking about this place, Held’s, in Slinger, Wisconsin. For the past few years, driving up 41 to Lake Superior, we’ve stopped by their hard-to-miss store — the company is family owned since 1886 — and bought a big chunk for the weekend. A pound of this stuff looks like something that slipped out of Rooster Cogburn’s saddle bag, deep brown on the outside, reddish brown inside. It comes in regular, spicy, teriyaki, barbecue, black pepper, hot Jamaican; $17.75 a pound.

“It tastes like a burned-down house,” said a friend, summarizing it perfectly.

“It tastes like tree bark,” said my son, who at 15 lacks the well-practiced determination needed to chew through the stuff, though if you slice it thin enough, it’s quite good.

When I was there last, a slip of paper said the jerky is available for mail order, and I thought, “The perfect Christmas gift.” Some tiny part of us all wishes we could take a break from the routine and responsibility of living in the Chicago metroplex, to escape to the comfortable flannel freedom of Wisconsin, to don antlers and caper in forest clearings at midnight, howling at the moon, as Badger staters are known to do. Beef jerky from Held’s seems a way to approximate that.

Anyway, the website is, or call (262) 644-5135. Though do exercise discretion. I thought of buying a hunk of jerky for my wife but realized that would be more unwelcome than nothing, and I’d have trouble returning it. Good luck, and if jerky doesn’t work, my suggestion is: Don’t procrastinate. Figure it out now, because it’ll only get more difficult and expensive, as life tends to do.

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