One of the most controversial statements I have ever made was when I declared that a person can enjoy sustained and superior health on a diet of beef, fat and water. This roused such ire among the many experts. To that, I say, those who don’t know their history are destined to repeat it. Although, in this case, that won’t happen because ignorance of these facts will prevent repetition in this case and that’s a bad thing! People always argue and say, “one cannot re-create the diet of the Inuit in modern times because those Inuit ate the entire animal” and other such things. I could waste time by refuting those points, but why bother. I’ll provide Vihljamur Stefansson’s quote from Not by Bread Alone which addresses those concerns:
Of the incorrect things said about my writings concerning how we had lived in the North, and about the RussellSage tests, probably the most serious were those which first praised us and then went on something like this: “Stefansson has proved, by his experience and observations while living with Eskimos and by his and Andersen’s year on an exclusively carnivorous diet at Bellevue Hospital, that you can be healthy indefinitely on an exclusive meat diet, provided you eat a large part of your food raw or underdone, and provided, further, that you eat the whole animal” In fact, my observation and experience in the North, and the results, (of the Russell Sage tests, run contrary to both of these provisos.
Stefansson goes on further to say that muscle meats cooked to medium provided all the nutrients necessary to sustain a man in perfect health indefinitely. It may not have every nutrient that the experts claim is needed, but it clearly has enough.
The way in which Eskimos divide, for instance, a caribou between men and dogs has been described with some detail; here the fact is emphasized that the organ commonly spoken of as richest in vitamins, the liver, is nearly always given to the dogs—as are the sweetbreads and, indeed, all things from the body cavity except the heart and kidneys. The kidneys are usually given to children, somewhat as if they were candy.So far as I know the Eskimos of northern Alaska and northwestern Canada, and the forest Indians just to the south of them, the only condition under which they ate nearly or quite the whole caribou was in time of famine. Ceasing to give the dogs the parts which normally are theirs was that stage of a famine which immediately preceded the killing and eating of the dogs themselves. So far as present knowledge goes, there is in ordinary red meat, or in ordinary fresh fish, without the eating of anything from the body cavity, enough Vitamin C, or whatever it is that prevents scurvy, to maintain optimum health indefinitely, with a cooking to the degree which we call medium. Certainly this is true if the meat is cooked in large chunks, as with both Eskimos and northern forest Indians, rather than in thin slices, which latter style of cooking may, for all I know, decrease the potency of the scurvy-preventing factor. There is no intention to deny, of course, that cooking to medium will somewhat lessen the meat’s antiscorbutic value. What is to be said is only that even with medium cooking there appears to be left over, in fresh red meat or fresh fish, an abundance if not a superabundance of all the vitamins and of all the other factors necessary for keeping a man in top form indefinitely. If results contrary to this are obtained from experiments on guinea pigs, rats or chimpanzees, then it may be advisable to restrict the conclusions in each case to the animal from which these results were drawn.
In fact, when Stefansson left the Arctic he dedicated a large portion of his years arguing the benefits of Pemmican and even tried to convince our armed services to consider pemmican as a survival ration. He learned this from the Plains Indians and his studies concerning a nutrient-dense form of food that was called the “bread of the wilderness” by many writers. What else? Beef and fat. What is my version of zero-carb truly based on? Pemmican.
Pemmican was controversial. It is part of the reason for my existence it seems, to revive the controversy of years gone by and join with those who said that pemmican is the best concentrated food known to mankind. A US Navy admiral declared that pemmican contains more nourishment per ounce than any other complete food and he considered it to be the only condensed ration that could sustain a man’s health and strength indefinitely, using it as the main dish at every meal 365 days in the year. He used it for twenty years and never tired of it. This was zero-carb diet at its finest. Despite his experience, the nutritionists of the US Navy said, no, pemmican shall not be used in that service. A general of the US Army used pemmican and studied the history of it but Army dieticians reported that they tried it out on soldiers, who found it unpalatable and would not eat it. They lost their strength within three days and became ill from it such that they would rather starve than eat it. Seems they never heard of Induction.
Scientists said it was good in cold weather but unsuitable for hot climates. Strangely, Europeans first encountered this food of the Plains Indians in the Texas-Missouri-Dakota-Manitoba sector where it’s hot. Pemmican was very impressive here as the exclusive diet of large numbers of men for long periods and that included transportation crews of the fur trade working 18-hour days. They worked during the heat of the day in scorching heat. The only army that seemed to approve the use of pemmican was the German army in World War II. It seems one either thought pemmican was the “be all, end all” or thought it wasn’t. We’ve learned throughout history that people tend to enjoy what they’re used to. It is very difficult to overcome one’s upbringing and embrace the foods of another culture, despite the health benefits. Those who manage to do so find the elixir of life it seems.
Historians all agree that pemmican was the best food in terms of preservation. Packages that were merely shielded by rawhide would remain in good condition after twenty or more years without any preservative such as salt and without protection from the rain of summer other than that given by the leather covering. This data came mostly from the American Great Plains. However, scientists contended that during World War II, pemmican had enzyme control problems and thus needed to be canned. Those who loved it said it could be cooked but it does not require cooking and it is good to eat under practically all conditions. Opponents say that pemmican is never fit to eat so its readiness is irrelevant. Either way, thousands of Europeans used pemmican in the exploration and colonization of North America. Only a few kept diaries that were preserved. The main ingredients in authentic pemmican were just lean and fat. The berries and other garbage were added later by Whites and those Indians influenced by them.
The British were connected to pemmican due to the wealthy families who invested in the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) whose success depended largely on pemmican. In the United States at that time, there was a derogatory saying about the Indians which reflected the fact that the Indian hunter and the animals he hunted were in the farmer’s way. However, the HBC recognized the importance of the Indian because he hunted, trapped, and sold furs to the HBC. They had financial reasons to keep the Indian alive. When game was plenty, they encouraged the Indian to sell them as much pemmican as they could make which they stored and sold back to the Indian in times of leanness, for a profit of course. The Indians knew that pemmican was a complete food upon which one could rely to maintain full health and strength indefinitely. The chief deterrent to pemmican was always its costliness in labor and time. The only lean suitable was that which was so free of tendons and connective tissue that it would powder or shred easily and the process was so long that some early writers say it required two buffalo to feed the Indian’s family and dogs while they made a single piece of pemmican, ninety pounds. The common figure is that a buffalo, weighing perhaps 1,000 pounds on the hoof, would make one piece of pemmican. Naturally, pemmican was used only at feasts, on journeys, or in time of famine. The easiest to make food was eaten first, which included the fresh stuff or the cheapest in terms of labor. This was followed by jerky and pounded meat supplemented with fat taken separately. Pemmican was the last thing they ate. A single piece of pemmican could serve the average business man who also does significant muscular expenditure approximately three months. Pemmican was important to the frontier historian because it was used by the explorer and the fur trader during the pioneer movement of the nineteenth century that colonized the middle and west of the United States and Canada.
Pemmican was dried in the sun by the North American Cree Indians, pounded and shredded; and, mixed into a paste with melted fat. The drying happened either in the sun or the wind and the speed and effectiveness depended on the climate and season. The pounding was done with a wooden mallet on a block or on a stone with a stone hammer. They did this over a buffalo hide to catch all the shreds and powder. At this stage, we have pounded meat. From my experience, it’s really feathery light at this stage and I found it very enjoyable to eat the lean in this way. It’s so light and really delicious. Then, they made the rawhide bags to hold the pemmican. They took the hide from the animal from which the pemmican was made. It was about the size of a pillow case. When filled, it was 80 to 100 pounds with the average not being far from 90. They would fill the bag with lean and then they would render suet and pour the liquid fat into the bag covering every part of the shredded lean. They would knead the fat and lean and stir it so it was thoroughly mixed as they added in more fat and lean until the bag was full. They would then pile the bags once the bag settled and the fat dried. This bag was then known as a “piece” of pemmican. This made it highly transportable and was the perfect size for travel. These fur trade journeys of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century were observed in the summer.
Some thought pemmican was originally designed for military units or parties where each person had to carry his own food. It could be eaten without building a fire which would give away the location to the enemy. To the Indian, pemmican could be stored against famine indefinitely and still be as fresh as the day it was packed. The expression “will keep for 5 years” was only said because that’s typically when they would get around to using the next bag. Numerous references showed it still good at 20 years. It kept well because all water was removed from the lean and the fat preserved all the lean. Plain pemmican was the real article. Berry pemmican contained dried fruit of some sort such as choke cherries or Saskatoon berries. I tend to agree with those who argue that the Europeans concocted this idea to make pemmican more like what they were used to. They loved meat in Europe but it was hard to come by. In Medieval times it was mostly the nobility who had as much meat as they wanted according to the literature. The rest lived on bread, porridge and garden produce. The European settlers to the New World were also commoners and they settled in the New world with their inherited tastes for these carbohydrate-rich foods. In the New World, they found plenty of cereals and garden foods. This all served to support the idea that they added the berries to pemmican. Some still remain of the opinion that the Indians had some berry pemmican for special occasions or something. However, Sir John Franklin wrote of pemmican being made in England for their sailors that was sweetened with sugar and dried fruit and flavored with raisins or with currants. Admiral Peary was annoyed when a dealer pawned off some pemmican with pea meal as an ingredient.
Pemmican varied in terms of what types of fat were used. Morrow fat was the best tasting but it may not have kept as long as the back fat because it was typically softer from the outset. Fat grows rancid according to its softness according to Stefansson. Mutton tallow may be the best of all since it is the hardest. The kidney tallow of sheep is non-greasy but it is nearly the most tasteless of all domestic animal fats. Rendered beef kidney suet was said to be the most agreeable of all fats. Many testified that pemmican made properly would keep indefinitely and Stefansson provide some examples where pemmican was left open or found after a period of time, used, and found to be in excellent condition. I reach for mine from time to time and it always tastes the same as when I first made it. Bad pemmican was that which was carelessly made or made with deliberate intent to cheat through leaving water in contributing to the weight which would fetch a higher price. Sometimes winter pemmican was misrepresented to be summer pemmican.
Pemmican came from nature, it seems. Step one involves drying the meat. Meat clings to the bones of animals which have been devoured and get dehydrated by the elements in the cold of a long winter or the heat of a hot summer. This gives jerky. Jerky is tough to eat, especially for the young and the elderly so the next logical step is to pound the meat. Pounded meat is dry and difficult to swallow but if pinches of it are dipped into water, the result is a rather tasteless food. The flavor and feel comes alive if you dip this pounded meat into melted fat. The final step in this invention would be making the pounded meat and fat in quantity so it could be stored against the next meal, journey, or a future year of bad hunting. Without refrigeration, it was simply ingenious! The Plains Indians did just that by making it in quantity, putting it in rawhide bags and storing it by protecting it from dogs and damp. It wasn’t always necessary to shield it from rain because the rawhide covers were waterproof and the outsides would dry when the weather changed. The only consideration would be to keep them from the dirt, sticks and stones underneath.
I followed the instructions and made my own pemmican. You can read all about it and even see pictures.Share on Twitter