December 8, 2023

Outdoor enthusiasts of the non-vegetarian stripe, tired of garden variety energy bars and trail mix?

Maybe you’re feeling adventurous enough to make your own pemmican, variously described Tasting history’with Max Miller above, as “a historic Power Bar” and “a meaty version of survival food that has a shelf life not measured in months but decades, as well as a hard-on grip”.

You may already be well-acquainted with this low-carb, ketogenic portable, a culinary staple of upper North America long before the first European traders set foot on the land. Many indigenous communities throughout North America still produce pemmican for personal and ceremonial consumption.

In 1743, Hudson’s Bay Company fur trader James Isham was one of the first to document pemmican production for English readers:

[Meat] beat between two stones until some of them are as small as dust…when they are beaten they put them in a bag and keep them for several years, the bones also they beat small and cook them…to reserve the fat which is fine and sweet as any butter…Counted with some Very good food of both English and natives.

Perhaps now would be a good time to give thanks for the abundant food options that most of us have access to in the 21st century (and donate them to an organization fighting food insecurity…)

There may come a time when knowing how to make pemmican might help us survive, but for now, making this recipe is probably more of a satisfying curiosity.

To be fair, it’s not designed as a treat, but rather as an extremely long-lasting source of calories, four times more nutritious than the same weight of fresh meat.

If you want to try it, put on 2 pounds of meat – bison is historically the most popular and documented, but deer, elk, moose, beef, fish or poultry also work well.

You’ll also need the same amount of tallow, but follow Miller’s advice and add just enough to keep things together.

Enhance the taste with ground dried fruit, sugar or salt.

(Miller went the traditional route with extremely 21st-century acquired aronias.)

As for appliances, feel free to use such modern conveniences as an oven, a blender, and a small pan or mold.

(If you go the old school route with fire, direct sunlight, mortar, pestle and bag fashioned from stripped leather, please report it.)

Given Miller’s response to the ready meal, we think most of us will be content to feast on the historical context alone as Miller delves into the Pemmican Proclamation of 1814, the Seven Oaks Incident, and the unique role the biracial, bilingual Métis of Canada played in the North American trade with furs…

Those who still have the guts should feel free to take their pemmican to the next level by cooking it with wild onions or parsnips to make rubaboo or rechaud, as bushcrafter Mark Young does below.

You can also get a taste of pemmican by ordering Tanka Bars, made by a small Oglala Lakota business on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Check out more Max Miller tasting history videos here.

Ayun Halliday is the chief primatologist East Village Incas zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and A creative, not famous, activity book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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