Thursday, December 22, 2011

Snacking State-by-State: Montana II - It's Pemmican-tagious!

If I am reading Big Sky Cooking author Meredith Brokaw correct, Montanans eat a lot of foods that grow, walk and swim right around them.  This is something they've been doing for millenia, and much of that includes food preservation techniques that also give one a lot of energy.  Take, for example, that Great Plains classic ball of fat, berries and dried meat known simply as pemmican.

Official Name: State of Montana
State Nicknames: Big Sky Country
Admission to the US: November 8, 1889 (#41)
Capital: Helena (5th largest)
Other Important Cities: Billings (largest), Missoula (2nd largest), Great Falls (3rd largest)
 West, Northwest; Mountain (US Census)
RAFT NationsBisonPinyon Nut
Bordered by: North & South Dakota (east); Wyoming (south); Idaho (west & southwest); British Columbia, Alberta & Saskatchewan (Canada) (north)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: grizzly bear (animal - no longer eaten); blackspotted cutthroat trout (fish); Ponderosa pine (tree - the pine nuts, of course, not the trees)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: frontier foods and Native American foods; huckleberries, chokecherries; beef & bison; game (venison, moose, etc) & trout.

Pemmican, so notes Wikipedia, is a Cree word that shares the same etymology as the Cree word for "fat".  Although I'm showcasing it for Montana, it isn't specific to the state.  Pemmican has been eaten for thousands of years throughout the Great Plains and Canada's prairie provinces.  Once made, it lasts indefinitely in storage.  When European fur traders came to the area they adapted the food as their own.  Today you can find many recipes online for this high energy, high protein, low waste snack that just lasts seemingly forever.

Mark Sisson at the Mark's Daily Apple blog describes what early 20th century Icelandic-Canadian explorer Vihljamur Stefansson found out about pemmican when he first visited the Inuit:
Pemmican consists of lean, dried meat (usually beef nowadays, but bison, deer, and elk were common then) which is crushed to a powder and mixed with an equal amount of hot, rendered fat (usually beef tallow). Sometimes crushed, dried berries are added as well. A man could subsist entirely on pemmican, drawing on the fat for energy and the protein for strength (and glucose, when needed). The Inuit, [Vihljamur] Stefansson noted, spent weeks away from camp with nothing but pemmican to eat and snow to drink to no ill effect. [Sisson 2009]
The procedure sounds simple - just dried meat and melted fat, maybe mixed with some dried berries - but as I found out in my research, it is time consuming to make. Very time consuming.

Why the recent pemmican craze?  Apparently it goes back to the book NeanderThin, the book and now website that claims to tell you how to achieve a lean body by "eating like a caveman" (not that we actually know yet what exactly Neanderthals ate, but it probably wasn't just meat. Scratch that: it definitely wasn't just meat).  Since then several blog posts have been written about plebeian attempts to make pemmican.  I've looked at a few of them in preparing for this post.  The most straightforward of these I found on the NativeTech site, posted by R.L. Garritson, affiliated with the Les Roche Jaune Métis of Montana.  Perhaps the most entertaining was this one by Rix White - WildeRix - who like most would-be pemmicanistas attempts to make it from scratch.

As the Paleofood website [1998; 2011] points out, "The boiling of suet takes a long time. Many hours. It does not melt easily. I would start it early in the morning."  I don't have that kind of time, but fortunately I found a shortcut in WildeRix's pemmican post that turned ten hours of work into three!

The Recipe: Pemmican

In all truth, I used a few websites to make the pemmican you will see below, but I mostly went back to the aforementioned Mark's Daily Apple (who has helpful photos) and WildeRix (who has helpful humor) for guidance.  You will need the following to make your own quickie pemmican.  Yes, quickie pemmican.

* some sort of jerky - today beef is widely available, but I ended up with buffalo jerky from Trader Joe's ($5).  Yes, mine had lots of flavorings.  I didn't have the money, patience, time or equipment to buy a large beef or buffalo roast and thinly slice it, and I wasn't mass producing this stuff anyway.  One bag of jerky will work just fine for my purposes.
* suet, if you don't want to cut corners, or lard, if you do. Kim at The Nourishing Cook website suggested either suet or lard.  Though I ended up not using the lard, I got it out just in case I needed it.  You may need it too.  The truth of the matter is that it's not as easy to find suet - typically beef fat around the kidneys - as you might think.  If you don't ask the butcher you're pretty much up the creek.  I was about to give up when, imagine my surprise, I found frozen suet at Wegman's.  Seriously, these people seem to have just about everything.
* dried berries of some sort.  To stay in the Northwestern spirit, I used some dried blueberries (about $4), again from Trader Joe's, combined with some of those huckleberries I ordered through the mail a few months ago for that post about Idaho.  Since those were pricey, I have been saving them for the most special of occasions, such as this one.

The first thing I did was carve up some of that suet, which doesn't feel like wet and gooey fat that you typically are used to, but instead it feels like hard, waxy and crumbly fat.  I tried to dice it up but it ended up being easier to just kind of half-dice, half-chop it up with my knife.

Put your mincings into a baking dish of some sort.  Most people do what NeanderThin author Ray Audette advises, and simmer it barely covered with water on the stove top for about 10 hours until it reaches a temperature of about 260°F, at which time it'll start melting.  Neither I nor Rix White had the patience to do that.  Lucky me, White found out the hard way:
So I boiled my fat for about 3 hours, but it didn’t look like it was melting all the fat. When I thought about it, I realized that my fat wasn’t reaching the 250 degrees that Audette recommended. I don’t know if that was the problem or not, but I decided to abandon the boiling and put my fat in the oven. I picked out the stray meat (which hadn’t fallen down to settle in the water) and ate it–it wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t bad. Then I put the messy concoction in a casserole dish and baked it at 250 for a couple more hours. The oven method definitely seemed to work better. [White 2007]
After about three hours, I got just enough rendered fat to use for my pemmican.

You don't see it too well but there's pure liquid suet in there.

While the suet was rendering, I needed to dry out my jerky.  That sounds redundant, but jerky from the bag is actually too moist to just make right into pemmican.  You need to powder it, and so I had to dry it out somehow.  My solution: the microwave.

Yes, I am cheating here - native peoples, fur traders and Icelandic-Canadian Arctic explorers didn't have microwaves available to them but I do.  I ended up nuking a few pieces at a time in my 1100 Watt microwave at a very low setting: about 4 minutes (1 to 2 minutes at a time) at 30% power.  I tried 20% but it was just too low.  In the end I got jerky that looked slightly burnt but really wasn't, and was just about completely dessicated and hard.

Okay, the one thing which I made harder for myself was in the powdering of the meat.  Yes, to make pemmican you meed to grind the meat completely down into a powder.  Most websites recommend a spice or coffee grinder.  I just broke out my mortar and pestle.

After a few minutes the meat was mostly powdered.

Like so.

Funny that: I spent Friday night powdering buffalo meat.  I've had less interesting evenings.

See, how could anyone mistake the two? 

I also tried to more completely dry out my blueberries and huckleberries but the microwave actually seemed to get them less dry.  Eventually I would just throw in some of the dried berries as-is.

To assemble your pemmican, put the powdered meat into some sort of flat dish.

Next pour over top of it just enough of the melted suet (or tallow) to cover it, and mix it up.

Throw in some of those berries, and smooth it all out.

It will harden soon enough, but hell, why not just throw that bad boy in the fridge to speed up the process?

As I was first getting ready to eat the pemmican, my first thoughts were along the lines of "meat candy bar".  Ewww.  But it dawned on me that it tasted more like a roast with some sweet spots (the berries) in bar form. And this stuff will last a very long time, and not even in the refrigerator at that.  Granted, I am not going to be eating this on a regular basis, but it isn't meant to be eaten as a meal.  It gives energy when you most need it, and perhaps that is its best use.

- - - - -

Wait - I'm taking you all  back to the Midwest!?  Yep.  I head south from Big Sky Country to the heart of the Great Plains, the home of corn, wheat, steak and maybe, just maybe one of America's favorite sandwiches (Omaha, can you hear me?).  We're off to Nebraska!


Brokaw, Meredith, and Ellen Wright.  Big Sky Cooking.  Artisan: New York, 2006.

Garritson, R.L. "Pemmican". Indigenous Food and Traditional Recipes.  Date posted unknown.  Copyright 2011 NativeTech.

"Kim" (contributor), "How to Make Pemmican – Great Snack for Hiking!"  The Nourishing Cook.  Posted 2010. Copyright 2011 The Nourishing Cook.  "Rendering Suet for Pemmican".  Date posted unknown.  Copyright 1998-2011

Sisson, Mark, "How to Make Pemmican". Mark's Daily Apple.  Posted May 22, 2009.  Copyright 2011 Mark's Daily Apple.

Visit Montana.  "Baked Trout".  Reprinted from Butte's Heritage CookbookJean McGrath, author (Butte-Silver Bow Arts Foundation: Butte, MT,1980)

White, Rix ("WildeRix").  "The Pemmican Brief".  Posted February 28, 2007.  Copyright 2011 WildeRix.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Montana" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Montana".