Pemmican

Winter was a preserving season for women and to some extent for trappers. For example, it was a good time to make pemmican, the best of all concentrated foods. The ‘winter pemmican’ of the literature, which is sometimes spoken of unfavorably, was made not in winter but following the fall hunt, when the weather was likely to be unsettled and thorough drying difficult, so that the product might turn sour. ‘Summer pemmican,’ the Grade A stuff, was made in late winter and early spring. The meat, almost but not quite exclusively buffalo meat, was first dried in the way always used by trappers and Indians whenever they had a surplus following a hunt. It was cut into slices and strips an inch or so thick, scored crisscross, and spread out on racks of cottonwood poles high enough to keep it from dogs, wolves, and vermin. Not so much the sun as the wind dried it and the process, which winter cold did not affect, took four or five days. It could be shortened to three days if during the first one a slow, smoky fire was maintained under the frame, and such smoking made the product sweeter and tastier. The result was the universal dried meat, jerky or charqui, of the literature, a first-rate food in itself. It was always carried by trapping parties.

Pemmican, however, was in a class by itself. All the gristles and sinews that might be present in jerky were removed and the residue was pounded in a mortar or on a parfleche till it was pulverized. This powder was loosely packed in a parfleche bag, melted fat was poured over it, and the mouth of the bag was sewed up. Thus packed, pemmican would keep for years. It was a splendid high-energy food, a complete diet in itself. It was also a great treat (some cynics dissenting), incomparably richer and more flavorsome than jerky. It could be eaten uncooked or fried, roasted, or boiled, by itself or in combination with anything you had on hand. The luxury article was ‘berry pemmican,’ into which pulverized dried fruits of any available kind had been mixed, most often wild cherries with their stones.