Monday, March 13, 2023

In praise of pemmican


Thanks to all the research I've done for my Western novels, I've long been aware that pemmican was regarded as a complete food by travelers in the early West.  There were trappers who traveled and worked for an entire season eating almost nothing but pemmican for months on end.  It kept for long periods, never went rotten or stale, and provided almost all the nutrition a body could desire.  Later, early Arctic and Antarctic explorers took pemmican with them for the same reasons.  (You can read more about trappers' and explorers' use of pemmican in this article.)

Wikipedia describes the preparation of traditional pemmican as follows:

Traditionally, pemmican was prepared from the lean meat of large game such as bison, elk, deer, or moose. The meat was cut in thin slices and dried, either over a slow fire or in the hot sun until it was hard and brittle. Approximately 5 pounds (2,300 g) of meat are required to make 1 pound (450 g) of dried meat suitable for pemmican. This thin brittle meat is known in Cree as pânsâwân and colloquially in North American English, as "dry meat". The pânsâwân was then spread across a tanned animal hide pinned to the ground, where it was beaten with flails or ground between two large stones till it turned into very small pieces, almost powder-like in its consistency. The pounded meat was mixed with melted fat in an approximate 1:1 ratio by weight. Typically, the melted fat would be suet that has been rendered into tallow. In some cases, dried fruits, such as blueberries, chokecherries, cranberries, or saskatoon berries, were pounded into powder and then added to the meat-fat mixture. The resulting mixture was then packed into rawhide bags for storage where it would cool, and then harden into pemmican.

There's more at the link.

I have friends in the blogosphere and writing community who are also aware of the benefits of pemmican.  A number of us have been wanting to try it as part of our diets, to see whether the health benefits were as good as claimed, and particularly whether it was so "complete" a food as to be able to replace almost all other elements of a modern diet if necessary.  We also wanted to consider it for inclusion in our emergency food supplies, for times of trouble.  Unfortunately, pemmican is very expensive - not surprising, given that, as described above, it takes five pounds of lean, fresh meat to make one pound of pemmican.  However, I decided to take the plunge, and turned to Steadfast Provisions for a supply of their premium product.  I bought several pounds of pemmican to distribute among my friends and acquaintances, inviting them to try it and see how it worked for them.

That project is still a work in progress, but I've been so impressed by pemmican's effect on my own health that I wanted to share some of the results in advance, as it were.  For two weeks, excluding the weekend between, I ate no other solid food at all besides minimal quantities of pemmican.  I found I didn't need much of it at all to satisfy me, along with liquids such as water, black coffee and tea, bouillon, and occasionally some bone broth.  I've used it as part of an intensive weight-loss fasting diet, and the pemmican more than made up (nutritionally speaking) for the "regular" foods that I was no longer eating.  (Yes, I'm checking that through blood tests, which are an integral part of such a strenuous diet for obvious health and safety reasons.)

Steadfast Provisions makes pemmican in one-meal-size 750-calorie bars (in seasoned, unseasoned and "simply salted" flavors) and bricks containing enough nutrition for one person for three days or more (in seasoned and "simply salted" flavors).  I bought the latter, simply salted, because it was the only item available in their online store at the time (they sell out their production runs very quickly, to a dedicated customer base).  As noted above, it appears expensive at $97 per brick;  but when one works out the amount of fresh meat involved, the price is far more justifiable.  At over two pounds in weight, one brick of pemmican contains over ten pounds of lean fresh meat;  then there's the cost and time involved in drying, crushing, preparing and packaging it.  On a pound-per-dollar basis, that's a very reasonable price, IMHO.

On its own, the "simply salted" version of pemmican doesn't taste particularly appetizing, in my opinion (although it's not at all unpleasant - just bland;  the seasoned version might add more flavor).  However, if one cuts a slice and then spreads a little honey on it, or even a fruit preserve, it becomes far more palatable.  (I note that Native American tribes used to eat pemmican with wild honey.). Also, when combined with beef bouillon or bone broth, pemmican adds a huge dose of protein to the drink.  That's mainly how I've been using it.  As part of my liquid fasting diet, I've occasionally used Campbell's Beef Consommé, which has minimal calories and/or carbohydrates but a lot of flavor.  Chopping a small amount of pemmican into it is a great way to increase its food value.

As for emergency use, I think the immense food value stored in pemmican is likely to be very useful indeed during a "bugging out" situation.  One can carry three days' worth of food in a two-pound brick of pemmican, needing no other nutrition.  That's pretty weight-efficient, if you ask me, and doesn't add much bulk to one's load.  It'll also be useful at home as a backup to more conventionally preserved foods, adding nutritional value to their flavor.  Pemmican has a very long shelf life, so it's unlikely to go bad unless carelessly stored.  I'll be adding some to our supplies.

I'm still collecting feedback from friends who've also tried Steadfast Provisions' pemmican, but so far their verbal responses have been very positive.  I'll report them more fully in a few weeks.  Meanwhile, I can only encourage my readers to try pemmican for themselves.  I think it's well worth its cost.

(In case you were wondering, no, I'm not being compensated in any way by Steadfast Provisions for reviewing their product.  I chose to buy from them after researching customers' reviews of several online vendors, and paid for my pemmican out of my own pocket.  After such positive results, I'll be buying more!)



Gerry said...

"There were trappers who traveled and worked for an entire season eating almost nothing but pemmican for months on end."

They must have been piss poor trappers. Beaver is very tasty and they would pot any deer, elk, antelope moose or rabbits they came across.

Peter said...

@Gerry: Go read the accounts they left behind. Also, remember that trapping season was in winter, so many of the usual game animals were not available.

irontomflint said...

I would think that the trappers would add whatever was available to them to their daily diets in order to extend their rations whenever possible.

On another tangent; When eating this way, how shall I say it, does "evacuation" continue in a normal fashion?

Anonymous said...

How does pemmican differ from beef jerky?

Peter said...

@Anonymous at 11:02AM: See the Wikipedia description provided above.

Pasitelidas said...

That's one doozy of a price tag though. Has anyone had success with using any of the homemade recipes out there?

Michael said...

Pemmican is easy enough to make at home if you have the ingredients. I've done it at Mountain Man Rendezvous over the weekend.

As far as eating it full time, it's a bit like MRE's. Low fiber needs a lot of water to keep things moving well.

Anonymous said...

My father was an Air Force Survival Instructor towards the end of the Korean War era. He was issued canned pemmican as a survival ration for "treks" they would take in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the dead of winter. He spoke highly of the efficiency of pemmican as a ration. He passed away in 1991, and I found a pemmican ration can in his (Phoenix area, non-climate-controlled) storage room. It had split the seam, and was completely spoiled and very smelly. I wish I would have washed the can out and saved it.

BGnad said...

This is very interesting and I would love to hear more about your experiences with pemmican over time. Especially how it helps with the physical challenges you are coping with.
I've run across it in fiction many times, but know next to nothing of it in the real world.

BTW: I went to the website and they are completely sold out now.

Skyler the Weird said...

Townsends 18th century cooking on you tube has several videos on Pemmican.

coyoteken48 said...

Gotta be looking for a nice road-kill to make some.-ken

michigan doug said...

might be fun to make your own, amazon has tallow.

Steve Sky said...

I'll quote from a sausage cookbook I was reading which noted that the meat, fat, & packing into a hide essentially made it a Native American dried sausage and as such, it fell into the sausage preservation techniques before refrigeration. The cookbook then provided a recipe.

RSR said...

Epic protein bars are somewhat similar to pemmican, albeit with more spices.. Though I haven't had them since General Mills acquired them.

Most folks actually don't get enough protein or healthy fats. Protein in particular is lacking once you account for lack of bioavailability of plant-based proteins:

And which is to say schools doing no meat lunches (or forcing vegetarianism on kids generally) should be criminal.

Aesop said...

Please do not confuse this with "pelican".
They are not interchangeable.

Andrew Smith said...

This is amazing to discover as I had no idea that such a thing as pemmican existed.

PeterW. said...

It’s been known for a long time that an all-meat diet is nutritionally complete and very healthy, and is a very convenient way to lose weight.
Pemmican is a great way to preserve it - in cool climates.

The idea that fibre is necessary of proper bowel movements…. Well let’s just say that I disprove that on a daily basis.

JNorth said...

I haven't tried the stuff from Steadfast Provisions but I've gotten some from US Wellness Meats;

Their bars are smaller (2.2 oz, 301 calories) but cheaper ($3.59 each). I've found the texture leaves something to be desired but I dislike cold beef fat more then most, adding it to something like beef broth would probably work.

Anonymous said...

You can often find thin-sliced beef suitable to make things like Philly cheese steak sandwiches at institutional cooking supply stores in fairly large packages at a reasonable price. The local Chef store has them typically in 4-5 lb packages for 5 to 6 bucks a pound. Very lean. Just salt and pepper (and maybe a little garlic) them, toss them in the dehydrator, and wait a day or two. Chop fine, or use a food processor. weight them out, along with an equal weight of tallow or lard, and cast them with the hot fat in a glass bread loaf pan, or use a large-mouth quart jar so you can seal it. Very good thing to have.

Max Wiley said...

I am unsure that you can actually buy real pemmican. I say that because as far as I know, some gov't agency has a rule that you can't sell meat that hasn't been heated to at least, I think, 120 degrees. Cooking meat even this much removes a portion of the nutrition. Real pemmican is made with meat that is dried at normal temperatures, never heated or cooked.
Second, there is a big difference in pemmican made with standard meat and tallow and those that are sourced from naturally range fed animals. The grass fed tallow has a noticeable yellow color to it that indicates its high levels of vitamin D, among other things. It was reported that French Canadian trappers traded Plains Tribes for pemmican and often subsisted on nothing else through long winters with no ill effects, including scurvy. I'm not sure the same could be said for pemmican made from meat and fat that doesn't come from a grass fed animal.
Here's the best information I have ever found on the subject, after lots of trial and error and much searching:

PeterW. said...

The grass-fed-is-better theme gets a lot of debate in carnivore circles.

The most obvious responses are..
1. There are a lot of people getting slimmer and healthier eating lot-raised beef because that is all they can afford.
2. If you cannot afford “niche” grass-fed beef, then it is better to eat cheap beef than processed frankenfoods.
3. Those arguing for a specific product containing more of “X” nutrient, need first to show how much is actually enough, and that alternatives are actually deficient when eaten in adequate quantities.

Incidentally, I raise grass-fed sheep and eat some of them, myself. The fat is not yellow.

Peter…. I wish you all the best. Pemmican is a great way to eat beef, but the main benefits seem to come from eating animal protein and fats, regardless of how they come packaged. You will probably be familiar with Africans who eat little other than meat, blood and curdled milk. The Mongol’s traditional diet consists of those three foods, and the work of Vilhjamur Stefansson on the Inuit diet is well-published.

My evening meal was a steak, topped with bacon, egg and butter. I ache less than I did 20 years ago, and today has involved a lot of heavy lifting.

Anonymous said...

We make our own pemmican and tallow from grass fed longhorn beef, bought from the rancher down the road. We've used blueberries, cherries and cranberries in it.
We vacuum packed a few pieces and tried them 6 months later and it was fine. Normally we just end up snacking on it or a grab and go lunch.
The mold we use to make the pieces is a mini cupcake mold. The big issue we had at first was how much tallow to mix into it. The first try we put way too much tallow in it. After that we figured out that it was pretty much equal weights of dried beef and tallow mixed together.