Earlier this year we collaborated with Marcelle Phene to experiment in the making of traditional pemmican. If there is such a thing as “super foods,” pemmican must be counted amont them. But where did this food come from, and how was it traditionally made? Read on to learn more.
Buffalo meat drying
History of the American Buffalo
At first glance, it would seem possible, certainly easier, to share a “brief” history of Pemmican without the larger context of the American Buffalo. Since books have been written on the subject of Pemmican alone, it is certainly possible, but I think perhaps a less valuable undertaking than to put Pemmican inside the bigger story. And so…
In the beginning…
The buffalo came to North America from Siberia via the Bering Land Bridge, or Beringia, during the Wisconsinan Glaciation, an “ice age” if you will, between 11,000 and 75,000 years ago, peaking in its intensity about 20,000 years ago. “Bridge” seems to be a bit of a misnomer, as north-to-south the width of the bridge between North American and Siberia measured 1,000 miles! And since we now live in the Great Lakes region, it is of particular interest to note that this area was under 1.5 miles of ice; the weight of which actually caused the earth’s crust to “sink” into the mantle a distance of about one half mile. The earth’s surface is still in the process of rebounding from this event. There were something like seventeen “ice ages” during the Pleistocene epoch, and the first bison migration seems to have taken place during the second-to-last, some 140,000 years ago. 1,2
As a side note: The power of glaciers is unimaginable. During this period the Glacial Lakes Duluth, Chicago, and Lundy were formed; we now know of these as Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.3 So much of the earth’s water was tied up in the glaciation that sea levels dropped significantly; exposing lands such Beringia, or the Bering Land Bridge.
Glacial Lakes Duluth, Chicago and Lundy
Estimates of the number of buffalo ranging across the North American plains prior to the arrival of Europeans, start at 30,000,000 and go as high as 60,000,000; my take is that it is towards the lower end. According to Steven Rinella in American Buffalo, the buffalo “was perhaps the most numerous large mammal to ever exist on the face of the earth.” That’s saying something. From that zenith, humans pushed the American Buffalo to near extinction.
Indians and the Buffalo
It seems to me safe to say, the Indians were living in equilibrium with the Buffalo, and likely would have indefinitely had Europeans not arrived on scene. Make no mistake, the Indians killed a lot of buffalo, and not every buffalo was completely utilized nose-to-tail; you only need so much of each part of the animal, and to subsist you need more of some parts than others. But as in nature in general, reproduction creates a surplus to that necessary for survival of the species, whether we are talking about grains of wheat, nuts falling from a tree, fish and their eggs, or the offspring of mammals. There can be and under normal circumstances is a balance in nature, between supply and demand. Also, the Indians relied on the Buffalo for everything, and the word “everything” is not much of a stretch. Food, clothing, and shelter were just the beginning of what the Indians created from the buffalo they killed, so they had a vested interest in ensuring the survival of the species.
“Ecological Extinction” of the Buffalo
From this point in the story on, “technology” had a lot to do with the demise of the bison. The first piece of tech that worked against the bison was the human mind, and that mind gave rise to all of the other technologies. Of course early tech, like Clovis and Folsom points allowed groups of humans to take down large animals, including the bison, but not on a large scale. That came later.
Rinella argues that the buffalo jump might have signaled the beginning of the end; it enabled the “wholesale slaughter of complete buffalo herds.” This was an invention of the Indians, and make no mistake, it was no simple matter to get a herd of buffalo to “jump” to their deaths. Rinella discusses buffalo jumps in detail, but I’ll leave it at this; finding naturally occurring landscape suitable as a “jump” was not a no-brainer. Not to mention the issue of getting the herd to approach the jump at a dead run. The surplus of buffalo killed, those beyond the need to subsist, allowed for trade between tribes within the bison range, and without.
Horses and their domestication, were introduced to the “new world” by Cortez; the horse arrived in Mexico in 1519 and was in the hands of the Pueblo Indians by 1700. Before the horse, hunting of buffalo had been seasonal, in summer when the buffalo massed at the major rivers. After the horse, tribes became fully nomadic, leaving behind their horticultural ways, able to carry everything they owned with them and following the buffalo year-round. Of course the horse also enabled movement for other purposes, like making war with the neighbors.
Railroads split the bison north and south, and as time went on into ever-smaller subdivisions. The rails brought hunters and guns, and took trade goods including buffalo hides, tongues and bones to faraway markets. In the end it was the market for hides that took down the American Buffalo; tongues came easily as part of a package deal of sorts, and bones were an afterthought. Meat in ungodly quantities was left on the plains to rot.
After the not-so Civil War ended, it wasn’t long before the American Buffalo met its end, for all practical purposes. Ten or twelve years of hide trade was all it took; by 1880 is was pretty much over. It didn’t take much longer before a conservation movement was mounted in an attempt to preserve what was left, this in the early 20th century. Today there are about half a million American Bison; 96% of which are “privately owned livestock,” according to Rinella. And of that, “only three herds of government-owned buffalo – those at Yellowstone and Wind Cave national parks and a state-owned herd in Utah, are know to be genetically pure.”1
This story-line brings to mind a quote from “The Matrix;” Agent Smith speaking to Mopheus, “I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species, and I realised that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment; but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer on this planet, you are a plague, and we…are the cure.”4
Unfortunately that has been all too true since the advent of “civilization.” I suppose we can’t turn back the clock…but time travel…I wonder when I’d go back to, as the future state does not hold much allure for me. Hmmmm.
History of Pemmican
According the the wiki Pemmican entry, “Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food. Historically, it was an important part of Native American cuisine in certain parts of North America, and is still prepared today. The word comes from the Cree word pimîhkân, which itself is derived from the word pimî, “fat, grease”. The Lakota (or Sioux) word is wasna, with the wa meaning “anything” and the sna meaning “ground up”. It was invented by the native peoples of North America.
Pemmican was widely adopted as a high-energy food by Europeans involved in the fur trade and later by Arctic and Antarctic explorers, such as Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Roald Amundsen.”
There seems to be some argument as to which tribe is responsible for the “invention” of pemmican, but it’s probably safe to say that it was plains Indians of the far north of the current United States (Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana) and the southern provinces of current day Canada. Since the origin of the word is Cree, I’ll give the nod to the Cree for the creation of pemmican, although the Métis are oft mentioned.
Uses of Pemmican
Traditionally it was used by Indians as both a travel and survival food, and it became a key advantage of the North West Company in their competition with the Hudson’s Bay Company for dominance of the fur trade. To say that pemmican was an important commodity, is probably a significant understatement. There was actually a bloody “seven-year feud of 1814-1821 between the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company,” known as the Pemmican War.
In traditional pemmican, only lean muscle meat and fat were ingredients. The lean meat was dried, either by the sun or over open fires. The dried meat was then pulverized between two rocks, akin to a mortar and pestle, atop a hide, fur side down, to catch the “beat meat.”
A bag would have been made, about the size of a pillow case, typically from bison hide, fur-side out. A combination of “beat meat” and melted tallow would be mixed in the bag, until the meat (shreds, granules, particles) was fully encapsulated in tallow. The bag would then be sewn shut, and melted tallow dripped along the seams to waterproof the bag. By English speakers the bag was called a “piece,” and by the French a taureau ( for “bull”); each piece weighing approximately 90 pounds. The ratio by weight of dried lean to tallow was generally between 1:1 and 2:3 (50:50 to 40:60).
Pemmican has a number of attributes recommending it both as a travel and survival food:
the tallow protects the lean meat from moisture and resulting decomposition; “shelf life” is said to be north of 20 years, without refrigeration
nutritional value of the lean meat is better preserved by drying, than by cooking or the use of salt curing
once made, no cooking, and hence no fire or cooking utensils, are required
few, as in two, ingredients; simple to make without specialized equipment
very high in calories per unit of weight; over 3,000 kcal in 16 oz. of the 40:60 mix
According to George Monroe Grant, D.D., L.L.D (1835-1902), as cited in Not By Bread Alone, by Vilhjalmur Steffansson, “A bag weighing a hundred pounds is only the size of an ordinary pillow, two feet long, one and a half wide, and six inches thick. Such a bag then would supply three good meals to a hundred and thirty men.”5
Again from Not By Bread Alone, “Rear Admiral Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920) is usually considered the greatest of modern Arctic explorers… ‘Too much cannot be said of the importance of pemmican to a polar expedition. It is an absolute sine qua non.
Without it a sledge-party cannot compact its supplies within a limit of weight to make a serious polar expedition successful. … With pemmican, the most serious sledge journey can be undertaken and carried to a successful issue in the absence of all other foods.'”
Notes on Making Pemmican: How-To
Pemmican is an excellent nutrient-dense and energy-dense food. As you can see from its history, it is meant to be kept for long periods of time, at room temperature. This makes it one of the best possible sources of nutrition for traveling. It is also quite easy to prepare yourself making it very affordable too.
John and I chose to use ground venison for the “lean” in our Pemmican because we decided it would be more similar to the traditional buffalo meat. It was also venison that John had hunted himself, so it aligned more with the traditional lifestyle of living off the land. However, you can certainly use ground beef for the “lean” if you don’t have access to venison.
We made two different versions of the Pemmican as an experiment to see which we would like more. The first version was a 50% lean to 50% fat ratio. For the second version, we tried a higher fat ratio and added dried blueberries, similar to what was traditionally done for a “holiday” Pemmican. The second version resulted in a 40% lean to 56% fat ratio with 4% blueberries (by weight).