Pemmican is a food made of protein, fat, and berries that originated with Indigenous tribes in North America. The nutritional density and long shelf life of this food made it ideal for hunters that wanted to travel light.
The name of the food comes from the Cree, Pimikan, which means fat/grease. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of Pemmican, it is known that it has been a traditional food of many tribes in North America long before colonization took place. It was a useful source of nutrition after the hunting season ended because, if preserved properly, it would not spoil for months or even years after it was made. Post-colonization, Pemmican was introduced to fur traders and quickly became sold as a form of sustenance during travel, especially to the traders in the prairies. In Canadian writing, Pemmican was referenced as early as 1743, although it’s origins significantly predate this documentation.
The following recipe for Pemmican is from the cookbook, Traditional Indian Recipes From Fort George, Quebec, found in the Fort George Collection of the Shingwauk Residential School Centre Archives at Algoma University. This book was published in 1967, with traditional recipes compiled from Indigenous communities in the Fort George region.
The recipe reads:
The best pemmican is made from the dried, powdered fish. It can be used with lard, bear fat, caribou fat, goose fat or moose fat.
Smoke the dried fish or meat. Pound it and make a nice powder. Melt the fat or lard. Put the powder in. Mix like a batter.
Some people like to add berries and sugar.
In winter put it outside to freeze. Keep it frozen. In the summer, make it more like a dough and cover it. It keeps well for a long time.
Pemmican is used, especially in the winter, by trappers – when they walk all day and want to travel light. A piece the size of a date square is enough for a meal. It is good with a cup of tea.Maryann Sam
Because I’ve never eaten Pemmican, let alone attempted to make it, I thought that some preliminary research was necessary in order to even hope of a successful outcome. I took to the internet to examine the history behind the food as well as looking at several recipes for the Pemmican to see the common measurements of each ingredient, as the recipe is not as descriptive in this area. I found that dried beef or veal could be used as long as it was lean, so I decided to choose this option as it seemed the easiest to recreate without a smoker and the most accessible in modern grocery stores.
I went to the store and bought lean ground veal and a dried fruit that was traditionally used for important occasions: currants. Since this was my first time making the dish, I thought that it was a special occasion in it’s own right.
From my reference recipes, I found that the meat had to be thoroughly dried in order to grind it down. Because I wasn’t sure what to expect from this experiment, I decided it was best to make a small batch in case it didn’t turn out right the first time. For this reason, I started with 1/3 lb of veal, which I spread out on a cookie sheet and put in a low temperature oven.
I wasn’t sure how long it would take to dry out, so I checked it every hour, then took it out after 3 1/2 hours as it seemed well dried.
I thoroughly patted the meat down with a paper towel to remove any moisture and make it as dry as possible. At this point, I knew that I had to grind it down into the “powder” that the original recipe talks about. However, the kitchen of a student is limited. I don’t have a fancy food processor that all my reference recipes talked about…
I knew I’d have to work around this. After all, the original makers of this recipe didn’t have a food processor and that didn’t seem to stop them. This recipe predates the food processor!
I finally decided that the best way to achieve the desired texture was to put the meat in a plastic bag, cover that with a tea towel, and start rolling away with the rolling pin. With a lot of hard work and a little elbow grease, I got the meat to the texture of coarse sand, which is a win in my books.
I added the currants, poured enough fat in to cover the mix, stirred, and put in the freezer. It looked and smelled a bit like cat food going into the freezer, which, I’m not going to lie, concerned me. However, it did seem to somewhat resemble online pictures, which gave me a little hope.
After freezing, it was solidified and ready to take on the trail (if I was the outdoorsy type). It still looked a little like cat food, but it’s not too shabby for my first crack at Pemmican!
From what I’ve learned in my research, making Pemmican is not a science. Measurements do not have to be exact, and there are many variations on the dish. The following is the recipe that I constructed based on the archival source, then filling in the gaps with online resource material:
1/3 lb of lean veal
Approx. 2 Tablespoons of currants
Bacon fat (Enough to cover the meat mixture)
Crumble the veal into small pieces on a cookie sheet lined with tin foil. Place the veal in the oven set to 150F for 3 1/2 hours or until dry and crumbly. Place the veal of a paper towel and pat away any excess fat until completely dry. Use a food processor or mortar and pestle to grind the meat until it is a sandy powder texture. Mix in currants (whole or ground). Add enough bacon fat to cover the mixture, then mix all ingredients together. Freeze.
This recipe makes one 4 inch disk.
I’ve been curious about this food ever since my Canadian History professor explained it’s significance in his lecture on the Red River Colony. The fur trader’s exploitation of this traditional food by increasing it’s production, not simply for subsistence needs as it had been produced pre-contact, but for profit, led to Pemmican becoming extremely important to the regional economy.
The archived recipe from Traditional Indian Recipes From Fort George, Quebec is a good representation of dishes that made use of the goods obtained through hunting and foraging, which was a large part of the culture for many Indigenous groups in Canada before colonization.
Although the origin of the food in general is a pure representation of one aspect of Indigenous culture pre-colonization, there are a few elements of the recipe that show colonial influence. For example, the Fort George cookbook’s recipe for Pemmican mentions lard, an extremely popular European staple, along with a reference to adding sugar, which would only have been available to purchase in stores set up by the fur trading companies.
Overall, this Indigenous food is not only rich in nutrients, but in history too!
Foster, John E., “Pemmican”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published February 07, 2006; last modified December 20, 2018. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/pemmican.
Wentworth, Edward N. “Dried Meat: Early Man’s Travel Ration.” Agricultural History 30, no. 1 (1956): 2-10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3739965.
Recipe Reference: https://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/pemmican-healthy-power-bar/