Lon Adams, Who Gave the Slim Jim Its Flavor, Dies at 95

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Those We’ve Lost

Lon Adams, Who Gave the Slim Jim Its Flavor, Dies at 95

Mr. Adams spent a quarter-century developing and refining the recipe for the beef jerky snack.

Credit…Amy Sancetta/Associated Press

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Lon Adams, who created the modern recipe for Slim Jim beef jerky and helped keep it a closely guarded secret, died on Saturday at a hospital in Raleigh, N.C. Mr. Adams was 95.

The death was confirmed by his children, Eleanor Harrington and Eric Adams, who said the cause was complications of Covid-19.

Mr. Adams was “a towering figure in Jimology,” The New York Times Magazine wrote in 1996. While he did not invent the Slim Jim, which was introduced in 1928, Mr. Adams developed the modern recipe for the meat sticks while working as the director of meat technology for Goodmark Foods. (His reserved space in the company parking lot identified him as the company’s “Principal Scientist,” his son said.)

ConAgra Brands, which purchased Goodmark in 1998, said in a statement that it was “grateful for the contributions that Lon made to Slim Jim.”

Mr. Adams in an undated photo. A 1996 New York Times Magazine story about the Slim Jim described him as a “towering figure in Jimology.”
Credit…Adams family

Slim Jims are sold throughout the country, and their distinctive red-and-yellow packaging is as widely recognized as their durable texture and smoky flavor.

Mr. Adams, who had a master’s degree in microbiology from Iowa State University, worked on the Slim Jim recipe for 25 years, The Times Magazine reported, adding that the formula was “locked up” at Goodmark’s corporate headquarters in Raleigh.

Eric Adams recalled his father’s explanation for why he toiled away on the product. “As my dad told me, the bar snack was pickled pig feet and pickled eggs,” he said. His father’s employers, he said, “were looking to upgrade that and have a shelf-stable meat product.”

So Mr. Adams began tinkering.

The details of how exactly a Slim Jim are made is not for the faint of heart.

“Slim Jims begin as 60-pound frozen blocks of sliced meat labeled ‘beef head meat,’ which originates on the foreheads and cheeks of cattle,” The Times Magazine wrote after being given a “one-time peek” inside a factory in Gardner, N.C. The meat is mixed with chicken, 30 spices and “lactic acid ‘starter’ culture” before being “squirted into long collagen casings,” the magazine reported.

The mixture is incubated for 17 hours at 85 degrees, giving it a distinctive “bite.” The sausages, in 7,600-foot coils, are then wheeled into smoker ovens and cooked for 20 hours, their flavor augmented using an aerosol form of liquid smoke.

Ron Doggett, then the chief executive of Goodmark Foods, told the magazine, “You can beat the heck out of them, carrying them in your pocket.”

The man who gave the modern Slim Jim its distinctive flavor was just as resilient.

Alonzo Theodore Adams II was born in Davenport, Iowa, on March 15, 1925. His father, Alonzo Theodore Adams I, was a letter carrier; his mother, Florence Adams, was a homemaker.

After a summer road trip to Seattle with a high school buddy, Mr. Adams enlisted in the Army, serving in the 82nd Airborne Division, his daughter said.

While in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Adams was shot in the face. “The bullet went in under one eye and out on the other side of his face right in front of his ear,” Ms. Harrington said. “It’s miraculous that he lived.”

After a lengthy recovery period in Germany and later in San Francisco, Mr. Adams enrolled in college, Ms. Harrington said.

After he received his master’s degree, Mr. Adams worked for several years at the Rath Packing Company, a pork production plant in Iowa, before he was lured to North Carolina, where he spent his career working for the company that made and distributed the Slim Jim, Ms. Harrington said.

Mr. Adams retired from Goodmark in the early 1990s but continued to work for the company for a few years under contract, his children said.

Mr. Adams was healthy for most of his life, though he developed Alzheimer’s disease in his later years, leading to his move to an assisted living center in Raleigh, his children said.

It was there that he contracted the coronavirus, his children said. He died about a week after his family had been told about his illness, Ms. Harrington said.

In addition to his son and daughter, Mr. Adams is survived by three grandchildren. His wife, Berdine Heerts Adams, whom he married in 1958, died in 1989, his children said.

Meticulous by nature, Mr. Adams measured and tinkered with food with the passion, or obsession, of a scientist. His daughter recalled one at-home experiment in particular: Mr. Adams, she said, bought a roaster and ordered raw coffee beans from all over the world.

“He kept his roasting times exactly the same, his grinds exactly the same,” Ms. Harrington said. “It took probably a year and a half or two years to discover that Dunkin’ Donuts was the best coffee in the whole world.”

His children also recalled Mr. Adams’s bringing home boxes of Slim Jims with flavors that were still in development.

“They went through barbecue flavor and Italian seasoning and pizza flavor and lots of different ones that never made it to market,” Ms. Harrington said. “I did not like them. I think it was all the testing I had to do as a kid.”

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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