Pemmican and How To Make It Part 2

Pemmican and How To Make It Part 2

James Isham, writing fifty years earlier, comments on the quality of the marrow-fat, it being "...fine and as sweet as any butter or fat that is made, moose and buffalo fat they reserve after the same manner in great quantities." He mentions that the meat, cut in slices, is dried on poles over a fire, which takes about four days, and then pounded or beaten between two stones till some of it is as small as dust. "Pemmican" he claimed, was "reckon'd by some very good food by the English as well as natives."

There were three ways of eating pemmican. There was the soup or stew called rubbaboo in which a lump of pemmican was chopped off and put in a pot of boiling water. If it was available, flour was added and possibly wild onions, sometimes a little sugar, occasionally a vegetable and a scrap of salt pork. Frying the pemmican in its own fat resulted in what was called rousseau (or rechaud or richot) and to it also might be added some flour or a suitable wild plant for flavour. The third method was to hack off a lump and eat it raw, a slow process, since it dried extremely hard, but a satisfying concentrated food for the travelers with no time to stop.

Though they realized its worth, not everyone enjoyed pemmican, no matter how prepared. A party from Boston traveling to the Saskatchewan to see the solar eclipse in 1860 commented that "rousseau is by comparison with the other palatable, though it is even then impossible to so disguise it as to avoid the suggestion of tallow candles; and this and the leathery, or India-rubbery, structure of the meat are its chief disqualifications. But even rousseau may lose its charms when taken as a steady diet three times a day for weeks."

While it is known that pemmican lasts for a long period it is doubtful if there is any lying about now. At times a strange lump of organic matter is dug up and is claimed to be "fossil pemmican." This is a trap for the unwary for in a all likelihood this "relic" will turn out to be a fungus known as tackahoe (Polyporus tuberaster) which is found in the prairie black soils in conjunction with aspen.

The first step in making pemmican is to procure a moose, or other large animal. The raw meat is sliced, as thinly as possible, in sheets or strips. A rack is built to hang the sheets and strips of meat on and this rack is enclosed in a canvas shelter, or a lumber smokehouse is built. A slow fire of dry poplar, willow, or other hardwood is made under the meat and kept going till the meat is completely dried and smoked. This takes two or more days.

The dried meat is then partially enclosed in a moose hide or a strong canvas bag and pounded with a heavy instrument such as an axe or a wooden mallet made for the purpose till the meat is in very small pieces or, for the best pemmican, completely powdered. In these days after pounding, the meat might be put through a grinder.

The best parts of the animal fat are taken and rendered. The bones of the animal are broken up and boiled for their marrow content. The rendered fat is heated to boiling point and put in a container. Then as much of the pounded meat as can be absorbed is added to the hot fat.

This is now pemmican and it is put in animal hide bags, or, more probably today, in moulds such as small dishes to set. Such is the food on which the western travelers of former years depended.

By Dorthea Calverley [now dead]
Posted to by Jim Weller (in Yellowknife)