Photography by Joanne M. Sheehan
Published in the Winter issue of 1996 – this is the complete article with light editing.
Head to LeRoy for beef jerky that will take you to the ends of the earth
Once past the sign which states “Pull – if that don’t work, Push. If that don’t work, we’re closed.” Martin Luther, owner of Luther’s Smokehouse in LeRoy, takes my hand. He lifts it to his lips. This is really cornball, I think, as I strain not to flinch. Seconds before his lips touch my hand, he flips it over and kisses his own. “Hi, I’m a jerkyholic,” he proclaims, reiterating the message boldly printed on his maroon cap.
With a twinkle in his eye, Luther informs me that becoming a jerkyholic doesn’t happen accidentally, sometimes it’s intentional. Armed with “Luther’s Old-Fashioned Beef Jerky,” his mission for the past 18 years has been one of opportunism. He tries to ensure that everyone who wants a chance to become a jerkyholic gets it. You won’t find him on the television touting his merchandise, though. He evangelizes by letting potential addicts taste free samples of his jerky. Their mouths do the rest, by both craving more and by telling their friends.
Another much talked about part of Luther’s Smokehouse/Restaurant is the zany atmosphere. It is a haven for practical jokers. On the counter is a mousetrap. Instead of cheese for bait, it’s a loaded with a red button. Below the button in bold print a sign states, “Complaints, push here.” Also on the counter is an enormous pickle in the old gallon sider jar. How did he get it in there? There’s a can opener with a label, “restroom key.” Above the counter is a wooden shelf canopy. On its ledge is an assortment of more silly stuff including neon-colored jerkyholic hats, a box of Roadkill Helper and a paper bag labeled “Invisible Shorts, $5.”
Luther tells how he first became aware of the power of jokes. The original plans for the restaurant called for ceiling fans which he installed himself. As he approached the shelf canopy, he realized he had run out of room. A friend walked in and started kidding him, “ Well, what are you going to do now, Martin Luther? You can’t put the next one up now.”
Luther removed one of the arms and installed the fan with just three blades. “The other guy said, ‘Well, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Luther recalls. Luther thought if he could get that much attention from one guy for putting up something stupid, he’d like to see what he could really do.
Luther’s has since evolved into an emporium containing about 100 puns. No part of the place left “un-pun-ished.” Gags are incorporated into the walls, the floor and ceiling. Even the tables, with stuffed blue jeans as legs, and their accompanying benches, bales of hay covered with plastic, play a part in the restaurant’s whimsical theme.
Describing himself has a collector of family humor, Luther modestly gives credit to others for the gags. The smokehouse is his social outlet as well as an ideal way to display the witticisms he’s accumulated over the years. He prides himself on having a place that’s rated “G.” The closest he comes to being rated even “PG” is his exhibit of Jezebel at table five. Jezebel is an old pair of mannequin legs Luther converted into a lamp. Luther’s wife, Shirlee, sewed the colorful skirt/lampshade. The biggest problem Luther runs into with Jezebel is that a lot of customers who sit at table five complain about getting a stiff neck.
The only group of people Luther makes fun of with jokes are “hillbillies.” Luther’s reasoning for that is simple. The term “hillbilly” doesn’t offend anyone because people who are hillbillies don’t think they are. Luther’s Smokehouse is truly a place where everyone can convene.
The largest group of potential jerkyholics to ever visit the smokehouse was the riders from Biking Across Kansas (BAK) last June (1995). “It was quite a deal!” Luther says. Somewhat sheepishly, he admits, “Of course, I advertised.” As one of the riders on the route, I remembered. The night before we would be cycling by the smokehouse, he entertained us in the high school gym in Madison. Luther handed out free samples of his jerky and raffled off one of the restaurant's cinnamon rolls, which are as big as a person’s face! Laughter echoed through the gymnasium in response to his jokes. He extended an invitation for us to stop by the smokehouse the following day and fill the many pockets of cycling jerseys with jerky.
Luther contends if a product is made well enough people are bound to get hooked on it. To make a pound of his jerky, he starts with an absolutely lean piece of Kansas steak and cuts it to one-quarter-inch thick. Next, he sprinkles on a salt mixture which preserves or cures it. Once the steak is curred, it still has all its moisture. He adds his own seasoning before hanging it up to dry. For 16 hours, hot air is forced into the drying room to blow out any moisture that has accumulated. The steak eventually dries out so much that it shrinks. Three pounds of meat yields one pound of jerky.
As happens with dried fruits, the nutrients remain intact. Also, by drying the meat under a low heat, the product becomes shelf-stable. That doesn’t mean the jerky won’t ever go bad. Luther doesn’t add preservatives because they alter the taste. “We take our chances,” he says. “We personally refrigerate the jerky and sell it as a product that should be refrigerated or open to the air.” It tastes better that way.
Since the publishing of the original article, Luther's Smokehouse was sold to Brad Pankey in 2012. The smokehouse is still operating and creating jerky from the recipes used by Luther.