Tasso is a highly seasoned dried, jerked, smoked meat that is not eaten alone, but instead used to as a flavoring agent like salt pork or pickled pork. Originally made from beef, most tasso today is made from pork, though one can also find turkey tasso offered as a more health-conscious option. Culinary historians Carl and Ryan Brasseaux note that the origins of both the word tasso and the smoked meat to which it refers are uncertain, but offer several theories.
One source may be Native American culture. French soldiers retired in the prairie region of Louisiana, where tasso production was traditionally prevalent. These soldiers had originally been stationed at Fort Toulouse, a French settlement in present day Alabama, and while there maintained close ties with the local Alibamon tribe. These Native Americans, like many in the southeast United States, smoked and jerked meat as a means of preservation. Through interactions and intermarriages with the local Alibamons, Fort Toulouse soldiers would have been familiar with this smoking technique and brought it with them to the Louisiana prairie.
Tasso may also come from the Spanish term tasajo, a kind of smoked beef used in Spanish cooking. In 1779 Louisiana’s Spanish government brought 82 citizens from Malaga, Spain and settled them in present day New Iberia on Bayou Teche, in an attempt to Hispanicize the predominantly French region. Though the Malagueños quickly were assimilated into the larger Cajun population, a portion of their culinary tradition lives on in the form of tasso. The Cajun population who engaged in ranching on the Bayou Teche embraced tasso as a means of preserving beef during long cattle drives.
Initially, tasso was prepared in the Cajun prairies that were most active in cattle ranching. In fact, the term tasso first appears in 1859 as the name of a community near present day Duson, LA in the heart of the early Cajun ranching region. In 1880, while George Washington Cable was collecting notes for the 1880 census report, he noted that “jerked beef (tasso) and corn bread were the staples of the Cajun diet in the Carencro area,” an early ranching center.
Tasso was prepared in the summer months, during grand boucheries. Beef taken from a freshly slaughtered animal was cut into half inch strips, heavily seasoned with salt, black pepper and cayenne and then cured for two days. In some Cajun communities, tasso was hung on clotheslines to jerk in the intense heat of the sun before being smoked. After the Civil War, the herding communities were reduced to sharecropping, and as the dietary staple of the Cajun community changed, tasso production shifted from beef to pork.