CAMBRIDGE — Caleb Mitchell, 13, is setting up a smoker in his backyard. His friend Cooper Ducharme, 13, announces his arrival by throwing a pair of his father’s large suede barbecue gloves over the fence. Dante Greco-Henderson, 12, arrives a few minutes later, carrying soccer gear for a game he has later in the day.
On this Saturday morning, the three seventh graders, who call themselves the “Backyard Jerks,” are smoking beef to sell as jerky to their classmates at Vassal Lane Upper School. They’re probably the youngest entrepreneurs on their block. They charge $1 dollar for jerky that weighs about half an ounce. Invariably, they sell out. But the trio is modest about their success. “Everyone’s hungry,” says Ducharme. This leads into a long discussion about the travails of school lunches. Ducharme says, “Last week, I got a milk that had expired 20 minutes ago.”
The beef jerky business was inspired by an unsuccessful attempt to make jerky at Farm & Wilderness, a camp Mitchell attended last summer in Vermont. Ducharme, who also attended the camp, never made jerky because he didn’t want to give up the evenings necessary in the 48-hour process. Mitchell, on the other hand, came home determined to figure it out. He bought a smoker with his own money, saved from birthdays and holidays, and started experimenting with Ducharme and Greco-Henderson. Their critical research was finding a recipe that didn’t require two days of smoking.
A business quickly followed when they brought one of their first batches into school and were surrounded by kids. “I had to climb a tree to get away from them,” says Ducharme. “Me, too,” says Mitchell. The lunch ladies found them and insisted they get down.
Production follows a rhythm. On Thursdays after school, they bike or take the bus to McKinnon’s Meat Market, a butcher in Davis Square, Somerville. They buy flank steak and marinate it in brown sugar, soy sauce, ginger, and sesame oil for at least 24 hours. On Saturday or Sunday, they’re in Mitchell’s backyard smoking strips of the steak for 4 to 6 hours to create jerky.
The budding entrepreneurs knew they needed a higher temperature than the camp project in order to reduce the cooking time. It’s a bit of a dance. Ducharme says, “We don’t want to have the temperature up so high that we’re actually cooking it rather than smoking it.”
They use a recipe that requires a steady temperature of 175 degrees for very small strips of beef, smoking them for at least two hours or as long as six. The boys know where the temperature gauge should be. “It’s when the dial is on the I in Ideal,” says Mitchell. Ideal falls between warm and hot on their smoker’s gauge. If it falls below, they feed the fire. They know when the beef is done by checking often for color and overall look. And they’ve burnt plenty of jerky, so some of this they learned the hard way.
Mitchell’s father, Adam, says, “All the parents know our kids are in the backyard smoking and we’re OK with it.”
The boys bring the jerky to school in a plastic container. According to Mitchell, someone might say, “ ‘I want a dollar’s worth of jerky,’ and we give them a few pieces.” On Mondays, kids sitting next to them in the cafeteria put their orders in. Jerky is delivered on Tuesday. Word spreads and they’re usually sold out by Wednesday. They’ve paid back the initial loan for supplies underwritten by Mitchell’s mom, Aileen Hsu, and are operating in the black.
Other students have found easier ways to have a sideline business. “One girl at school sells Pixy Stix,” Ducharme says, referring to the powdered candy in straws. Mitchell says he likes making beef jerky because it is labor intensive, and he enjoys the camaraderie of gathering around the smoker with friends and keeping an eye on the fire. Ducharme says there is another reason they spend hours in the backyard smoking meat: “We disapprove of bad beef jerky.” They are dismissive of beef jerky found at convenience stores. “That’s just meat held together by grease,” Ducharme says.
There’s another draw. “We get to play with fire!” says Ducharme.
Full of vigor in the morning, they carefully layer the marinated meat on the grill racks. While waiting to add hardwood lump charcoal or wood chips to the smoker, they chatter about a variety of random topics: the efficacy of gas masks while smoking meat, jungle stalking, wrestling, hiking Mount Monadnock, their plans for the business, and about whether bananas or potatoes have more potassium.
Despite the meandering conversation, they are in fact watching the smoker carefully. They’ve learned to read the signals. When the smoke appears to be dying, they feed it more charcoal. Later, they throw on some wet hickory and cherry wood chips and listen with satisfaction as the chips land with a sizzle. Occasionally, they lift the lid and survey the progress. “See that caramelized color,” Ducharme points out. “That’s the brown sugar.”
They eat very little of their product. “It’s too expensive for me,” Mitchell says. They do eat pieces that fall on the ground. They also eat the ones they can’t sell because they’re burnt. “They’re still good; they’re caramelized,” Ducharme says. “Caramelized fat,” says Mitchell. “Yeah,” Ducharme adds. “But there’s the marinade, too.”
By 3 p.m., slumped in backyard chairs, they look like three old men at the end of a long day of fishing. They are quiet, tired, and contemplative.
Ducharme sees this as part of the process. He says, “My dad says that boredom is an important thing. It makes you creative. You have to learn to deal with it.
“Anyway, what else am I gonna be doing?” he asks. “Playing video games?”