Discover Pemmican, The Power Bar Invented Centuries Ago by Native American Tribes

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 His­to­rys 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. 

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