Bison are full of tasty, tasty meat. However, in an age before refrigerators, even killing a single bison could net you hundreds of pounds of meat which would soon spoil. If you were hunting bison en masse with buffalo jumps or buffalo pounds, you and your entire community could have enough meat to lasts months… if you could prevent it from spoiling. One of the main means of preserving meat was by turning it into pemmican.
What was pemmican? At it’s heart, it’s two, perhaps three ingredients: dried meat (usually bison, but it could be the flesh of moose, elk, deer, or even fish) combined with melted and rendered fat, and sometimes berries.
Paul Kane, an Irish-Canadian artist who travelled to the prairie west in the 1840s, described the process of making what he called “pimmi-kon”:
“The thin slices of dried meat are pounded between two stones until the fibres separate; about 50lbs. of this are put into a bag of buffalo skin with about 40lbs. of melted fat, and mixed together while hot, and sewed up, forming a hard and compact mass; hence its name in the Cree language, pimmi signifying meat, and kon, fat. Each cart brings home ten of these bags, and all that the half-breeds do not require for themselves is eagerly bought by the Company, for the purpose of sending to the more distant posts, where food is scarce. One pound of this is considered equal to four pounds of ordinary meat, and the pimmi-kon keeps for years perfectly good exposed to any weather.”
- Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1859), 78.
Pemmican was essential to survival on the prairies for First Nations peoples and fur trade company employees alike. Blood was shed over control of the pemmican trade. During the nineteenth century, it was being industrially produced in such large quantities that shovels had to be used to stir the ingredients. Pemmican was packed into bison hide bags and sewn together in packets weighing 100 lbs or 45 kg: the standard packet size for portaging. It was recorded that to produce one of these bags of pemmican, you needed the dried meat from one and a half bison cows.
While it was a great source of protein and lasted an incredibly long time, not everyone was enamoured with its taste or texture. For fur traders on the boats eating pemmican day in and day out, pemmican became exhaustively monotonous. Company boatmen, like William Gladstone, tried preparing pemmican in every variation they could imagine, trying to make it slightly more interesting to eat: mixing it with flour and frying it, re-hydrating it with other ingredients to make soup, or just eating it straight. Gladstone, bemoaning eating pemmican decades later, said that:
“We used to call it rab-a-bo at breakfast, bo-a-rab at dinner and rab-bo-a at supper, but in spite of the change of name, the food used to taste much the same at each meal.”
- Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton (Victoria; Calgary; Vancouver Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005), 29.
Recently, I found an incredibly evocative description of pemmican from someone who was clearly not a fan. This description was quoted by Garrett Wilson in his book Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West and was written by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at Fort Garry in 1879.
“Take the scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast-beef, add to it lumps of tallowy, rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs, on which string pieces, like beads upon a necklace, and short hairs of dogs or oxen, or both, and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican. Indeed, the presence of hairs in the food has suggested the inquiry whether the hair on the buffaloes from which the pemmican is made does not grow on the inside of the skin. The abundance of small stones or pebbles in pemmican also indicates the discovery of a new buffalo diet heretofore unknown to naturalists….
The flavor of pemmican depends much on the fancy of the person eating it. There is no article of food that bears the slightest resemblance to it, and as a consequence it is difficult to define its peculiar flavor by comparison. It may be prepared for the table in many different ways, the consumer being at full liberty to decide which is the least objectionable. The method largely in vogue among the voyageurs is that known as ‘pemmican straight,’ that is, uncooked. But there are several ways of cooking which improve its flavour to the civilized palate. There is rubeiboo, which is a composition of potatoes, onions, or other esculents, and pemmican, boiled up together, and, when properly seasoned, very palatable. In the form of richot, however, pemmican is best liked by persons who use it, and by the voyageurs. Mixed with a little flour and fried in a pan, pemmican in this form can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp, and there is nothing else to be had. The last consideration is, however, of importance.”
- Garrett Wilson, Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014), 263-5.
I’m not sure I’d like my pemmican filled with pebbles or hair, but properly prepared pemmican will get you through the time between bison hunts. This simple food – dried meat, melted fat, and berries – fed the West.
- Brink, Jack W. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008.
- Kane, Paul. Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America. London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans & Roberts, 1859.
- Silversides, Brock. Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton. Victoria; Calgary; Vancouver Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005.
- Wilson, Garrett. Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014.