Excerpt from Malvina Bolus, ed., “Pemmican and How to Make It,” Beaver (Summer 1954): 53–55.
“When the White Men set out across North America, a reliable supply of portable provisions was one of the major problems. It was doubtful that they could live off the country. They knew something about preserving food, a necessity for sailing ships, but it was on the lines of salting and pickling. The resultant salt pork and hardtack were unappetising fare but they kept life in a man. The Plains Indians had a better solution to the problem, and one on which the fur traders and explorers came to depend. The answer was pemmican. The Cree word pimikan meant, roughly, manufactured grease, but there was a lot more than that to it.
Basically it was buffalo meat, cut (with the grain) in thin slices or strips and dried in the sun or over a slow fire. A smoking fire added flavour and was useful for keeping the flies off, though if meat racks were high they tended to be clear of flies. It was then spread on a hide and pounded by stones or mallets to become ‘beat meat’ which was tossed into a rectangular rawhide container (hair on the outside) about the size of a flour sack. To the dehydrated, crumbled meat was added one-third or more of melted fat and the bag was sewn up. The fat might be mixed with the meat before or after it was bagged. While the pemmican was cooling the bag was turned from time to time to prevent the fat all settling on one side. Compressed in a skin bag that was greased along the seams to eliminate air and moisture it would keep for years.
In the best pemmican, which was limited in quantity, the meat was very finely pulverized and only marrow-fat, from boiled broken bones, was used. For variety sometimes dried fruits such as chokecherries, saskatoon or service berries might be added. The pemmican bags were flattened for easier handling. At times rendered fat was also stored in rawhide bags, left round to distinguish them from the pemmican bags, while the marrow-fat, which though better tasting was comparatively scarce and did not keep as well as ordinary tallow, would be preserved in bladders. The bags of pemmican weighed 80 to 90 pounds and it was estimated that each bag accounted for two buffalo (bison). So high was the food value that three-quarters of a pound was a reasonable day’s ration but hard working voyageurs were more likely to consume between one and two pounds each in a day.
Moose and elk meat was sometimes treated similarly but the results were not so satisfactory. In some regions fish pemmican was made by pounding dried fish, mixed often with sturgeon oil, but it was more usual (as it is now among the Crees [sic]) for the pounded fish and fish oil to be kept separately, the oil in animal bladders.
David Thompson, in 1810, described pemmican in detail:
‘… dried Provisions made of the meat and fat of the Bison under the name of Pemican, a wholesome, well tasted nutritious food, upon which all persons engaged in the Furr [sic] Trade mostly depend for their subsistence during the open season; it is made of the lean and fleshy parts of the Bison dried, smoked and pounded fine; in this state it is called Beat Meat: the fat of the Bison is of two qualities, called hard and soft; … the latter … when carefully melted resembles Butter in softness and sweetness. Pimmecan is made up in bags of ninety pounds weight, made of the parchment hide of the Bison with the hair on; the proportion of the Pemmecan when best made for keeping is twenty pounds of soft and the same of hard fat, slowly melted together, and at a low warmth poured on fifty pounds of Beat Meat, well mixed together, and closely packed in a bag about thirty inches in length, by nearly twenty inches in breadth, and about four inches in thickness which makes them flat, the best shape for stowage and carriage. … I have dwelt on the above, as it [is] the staple food of all persons, and affords the most nourishment in the least space and weight, even the gluttonous french canadian [sic] (the voyageurs) that devours eight pounds of fresh meat every day is contented with one and a half pound pr day: it would be admirable provision for the Army and Navy.’
James Isham, writing fifty years earlier, comments on the quality of the marrow-fat, it being ‘… fine and as sweet as any Butter or fatt that is made, moose and Buffalo fatt they Reserve after the same manner in great Quantity’s [sic]’. 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. ‘Pimmegan’ 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 might also be added some flour or a suitable wild plant or berries. 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 traveller with no time to stop.
Harry Bullock-Webster, “His first experience of pemmican,” Sketches of Hudson Bay Life (c. 1874-1880). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Though they realised its worth, not everyone enjoyed pemmican, no matter how prepared. A party from Boston travelling to the Saskatchewan to see the solar eclipse in 1860 commented that
‘rousseau is by comparison with the others palatable, though it is even then impossible to 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 loose [sic] 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 all likelihood this ‘relic’ will turn out to be a fungus known as tuckahoe (Polyporus tuberaster [sic: possibly Wolfiporia extensa, a.k.a tuckahoe, was presented as ancient pemmican—though a number of plant tubers were a.k.a tuckahoe: See “Tuckahoe” this site]) which is found in the prairie black soils in conjunction with aspen. …”