Like an apparition wielding a friendly smile and a basket filled with delicious dried beef, this elusive Louisville legend seems to appear only when the time is right.
It’s not difficult to tell when Rusty Sturgeon has entered a room. When you notice a group of people suddenly congregating around a certain spot in a Louisville tavern or restaurant, there’s a fair chance they’re quizzing Rusty on what flavors of tender, flavorful dried beef he is packing in his familiar dark brown wicker basket.
Always clad in denim overalls and a hat, the bearded Rusty travels seemingly randomly from place to place, usually in Louisville’s trendy Highlands neighborhood, selling small bags of homemade beef jerky. He can also be found in Clifton, Crescent Hill and Old Louisville. The trick is, one never really knows where or when he might show up.
Notoriously elusive of the media — I’ve tried on more than one occasion to get an interview with the man who claims to make “the best damn beef jerky this side of the Mississippi” — Rusty is more comfortable making his own path, his own schedule and doing so in relative anonymity. Well, his “anonymity” is questionable, considering he’s nearly a local celebrity in his home city.
Perhaps he’s a vision who appears from nowhere, leaving behind only grainy Instagram photos and packets of fresh jerky.
Honestly, the first time I encountered Rusty many years ago, my first thought was, “How do we know that’s not people jerky he’s making?” But a personal encounter with the man soon reveals an affable personality paired with a friendly face that seems to glow when people heap compliments upon the wares he makes and peddles with such obvious care and pride.
Although his protruding gray facial hair, in combination with the overalls, gives him the appearance of an Amish elder, it’s nearly impossible to peg down just how old Rusty is. It’s as if he’s a legend stuck in time. Perhaps he’s a vision who appears from nowhere and when you’re least expecting it, leaving behind only grainy Instagram photos and packets of fresh jerky.
And it’s good jerky. No, delicious jerky.
The flavors he infuses are ever-rotating and evolving. Sure, you can easily snack on the basic black-pepper version, but I hear tell there is a sweet habanero that is well worth the plunge. There’s also apparently a variety called “Kitchen Sink,” but that’s one I haven’t tried.
Sriracha-style is a favorite, but most people ask for what is commonly called “Flaming Ass” or sometimes “Flaming Goat Ass.” And basically, the more flames that appear on the custom stickers Rusty attaches to each Ziploc bag of jerky, the more it will burn your, uh, taste buds.
In my experience Flaming Ass is best when savored, not gobbled. I have a particular friend who loses control after a few drinks and will down a dime bag of Rusty’s spicy beef in minutes while sipping a beer or cocktail. And then, sometime that next morning, she’ll text me news that Rusty’s Revenge has struck again, making her a veritable prisoner of her own bathroom.
Flaming Ass is not for the weak.
I recently made two separate excursions to The Back Door, the Highlands hangout where I most often run across Rusty, but couldn’t make a score on either occasion. One just never knows. The last time I saw him there was in May 2016 at around 8 p.m. I snatched a bag of my favorite flavor and went through it in a few days. My cupboard has been bare and lonely ever since.
I have concluded from my failure at purposely tracking down Rusty that it’s truly best to let him come to you. Live your life, spend time out with your friends, and you will be rewarded. When he does show up unexpectedly, it only enhances the experience of being together in your favorite neighborhood watering hole.
What I’m saying is this: If we could buy Rusty’s jerky anytime at any gas station, would we? Or would some of the magic be missing?
If it helps, Eater.com created a map of where Rusty tends to appear. Rusty also has a Facebook page bearing a newly added caricature, but it is updated only infrequently, and he doesn’t seem to have a presence on other social media. You’ll find him eventually.
Meanwhile, be patient — and happy hunting.