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What Is Pemmican?

Lean meat, like from a deer, is added to pemmican based on availability.
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  • Written By: S. N. Smith
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 23 July 2014
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Pemmican is a concentrated, ready-to-eat food that originated with the Native American tribes of North America. Today, pemmican remains in use as a high-protein, calorie-dense fuel for body-building weight lifters and as a survival food with a long shelf life.

Functioning as a high-fat, high-protein energy bar, pemmican was used by native peoples, trappers, and traders, even early Arctic explorers — any individuals needing a relatively imperishable food source that was rich in calories and that would store well for overland travel or times of scarcity.

Pemmican was made chiefly from buffalo, but any lean game meat might find its way into the mix. Deer, elk, moose, even caribou, were all utilized, according to availability. Bear generally was avoid, as it tends to have a higher fat content.

To make pemmican, the lean meat was first cut into thin strips or slices. The meat strips were then dried completely by laying them out in the sun or hanging them from racks over a slow fire. When absolutely no moisture remained in the meat and it was hard and brittle, like jerky, the meat was pulverized between stones until it was broken into very small pieces. The small particles of meat were then combined with hot tallow, or melted beef fat, in roughly equal proportions.

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Sometimes, other ingredients were added to improve the otherwise bland character of the pemmican. Well-dried cherries, blueberries, or Saskatoon berries were common enhancements. These were stirred into the meat-and-suet mix while it was still fairly liquid. Admiral Peary, the American polar explorer, was said to have favored his pemmican flavored with raisins.

Meat-and-suet pemmican was a tradable commodity in the nineteenth century. The pemmican mixture was poured while warm and still malleable into large sacks made from buffalo hide. The sacks were then sewn shut and the pemmican within was compressed into stackable cakes that were traded, in these hide sacks, at forts and outposts. Properly prepared and stored pemmican had an amazingly long shelf-life — measured in years — and was a convenient food source to stack and store.

Some modern-day performance athletes such as heavy-weight lifters still rely on calorie- and protein-rich pemmican for an energy boost. A 3-ounce (84-gm) bar of pemmican will contain about 20 grams of protein and provide approximately 400 calories. Pemmican bars, plain and flavored with dried fruit, can be purchased on the Internet from commercial suppliers.

Recipes for pemmican are also available online, and the process for making it is not difficult, provided one has access to a dehydrator or a drying oven. By all accounts pemmican is a bland food, consumed for function more than flavor.

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