Outdoor enthusiasts of a non-vegetarian stripe, do you weary of garden variety energy bars and trail mix?
Perhaps you’re feeling adventurous enough to make your own pemmican, variously described by Tasting History’s Max Miller, above, as “history’s Power Bar” and “a meaty version of a survival food that has a shelf life not measured in months but in decades, just like hard tack.”
Perhaps you’re already well acquainted with this low-carb, ketogenic portable provision, a culinary staple of the upper half of North America long before the first European traders set foot on the land. Many indigenous communities across North America are still producing pemmican for both personal and ceremonial consumption.
Back in 1743, Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader James Isham was one of the first to document pemmican production for an English readership:
[Meat] beat between two Stones, till some of itt is as small as Dust…when pounded they putt itt into a bag and will Keep for several Years, the Bones they also pound small and Boil them…to Reserve the fatt, which fatt is fine and sweet as any Butter…Reckon’d by some Very good food by the English as well as Natives.
Perhaps now would be a good time to give thanks for the plentiful food options most of us have access to in the 21st-century (and pay it forward with a donation to an organization fighting food insecurity…)
A time may come when knowing how to make pemmican could give us a leg up on surviving, but for now, execution of this recipe is likely more of a curiosity satisfier.
To be fair, it’s not designed to be a delicacy, but rather an extremely long lasting source of calories, four times as nourishing as the same weight of fresh meat.
If you want to try it, lay in 2 pounds of meat – bison is historically the most popular and most documented, but deer, elk, moose, beef, fish, or fowl work well too.
You’ll also need an equal amount of suet, though heed Miller’s advice and add just enough to make things stick.
Bump the flavor up a notch with ground dried berries, sugar, or salt.
(Miller went the traditional route with chokeberries, procured in an extremely 21st-century manner.)
In terms of appliances, feel free to use such modern conveniences as your oven, your blender, and a small pan or mold.
(Please report back if you take the old school route with fire, direct sunlight, mortar, pestle, and a bag formed from undressed hide.)
Given Miller’s response to the finished dish, we’re hunching most of us will rest content to feast on historical context alone, as Miller digs into the Pemmican Proclamation of 1814, the Seven Oaks Incident and the unique role the biracial, bilingual Métis people of Canada played in the North American fur trade…
Those still up for it should feel free to take their pemmican to the next level by boiling it with wild onions or the tops of parsnips, to produce a rubaboo or rechaud, as bushcrafter Mark Young does below.
You can also get a taste of pemmican by ordering the Tanka Bars that Oglala Lakota-owned small business produces on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.
Watch more of Max Miller’s Tasting History videos here.
– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.