Flash in the Pan 

Pemmican: the original energy bar

Sometimes I go hunting in the morning, planning to return by noon, only to extend my hunt for extenuating circumstances—too much fresh sign, too much fun, too long a hike to even get there, or once in a while, because I get something. It seems like no matter what my plan, unless there is something in town I must return for, I stay out until I’m out of food.

I choose food that will provide three types of energy: items for short-term burst (chocolate covered espresso beans, Snickers, shot-blocks) which hit and fade quickly; medium-range carbo-rich snacks which take about a half-hour to hit (wild rice sesame sticks, dried fruit, bread); and long-term foods (smoked salmon, cheese, jerky) which contain protein for body re-building and fat for extended energy release.

This diet gets me through an all-day excursion, possibly in cold, rain, snow, or all of the above. But my friend Buck has a better meal plan.

An outdoorsy 20-something with a deep interest in primitive skills, Buck wasn’t satisfied with the offerings of conventional energy bars, which are too much like candy bars. “They have brown rice syrup instead of sugar,” Buck says. “I wanted more meat and fat.”

Buck and a friend like to climb East St. Mary’s (in the Missions) in the dead of winter. For those who don’t know, this climb is essentially a 6,000-foot, straight up bushwhack, very difficult in any season and certifiably extreme in winter.

“I used to pack all kinds of snacks for the climb,” he explains. “PB&Js, sesame sticks, chocolate…then one time I decided to just bring a jar of pemmican and a spoon.” After a successful, hunger-free hike, Buck realized that pemmican is for real.

A Cree word that literally means “manufactured grease,” pemmican is a Native American food, once widespread around North America. It stores well—it’s been known to last 20 years wrapped in buckskin—and it was the preferred food for hunters and travelers who needed a lightweight nutrient and energy rich food supply.

In simplest form, pemmican is a pounded mix of dried meat and rendered fat. Depending on the region where it’s made, sweeteners are added, like honey or berries.

In Buck’s kitchen, he runs dried deer meat through an electric grinder. Before the meat was dried, it was first pounded. (“The more you obliterate the meat before you dry it, the easier it is to pulverize it later.”) After pounding, the meat was dried on the lowest temperature setting of his dehydrator. “Certain proteins can get denatured at high heat,” he explains. “So I don’t heat it above the temperature of a really hot day, say, 110 degrees.”

When the meat powder comes out of the dehydrator, it looks like dust. “One of the reasons it’s the perfect energy food is that the hard work has been done,” Buck says. “The proteins are already masticated.”

Next, he runs “a couple handfuls” of dried blueberries (huckleberries, cranberries, blackberries, and others work too) through the grinder. “This can all be done in a mortar and pestle too,” he explains.

Buck measures the ingredients by eye—the natives, of course, didn’t have measuring cups. He puts about 10 times as much meat as berries, explaining, “With berries, you can’t go wrong because it’s like, if you got ’em.” The northern Chippewa, he reminds me, used only meat and fat, stored in a caribou intestine.

Next, he scoops rendered fat from a clean Mrs. Renfro’s Salsa jar. Derived from organic beef fat, Buck rendered it by boiling chunks of raw fat in water, then straining out all the meat bits and other pieces of non-fat, and then boiling off the excess water. Deer fat can also be used, he says, but is more waxy and less creamy. “The best pemmican,” Buck explains, “is made from bone marrow fat.”

He heats the rendered fat in a skillet, pours the hot grease into a cup and lets it cool until he can stick his finger in it without too much pain. (From a man who climbs St. Mary’s in winter for fun, I’m not entirely clear on his concept of pain.) “I don’t want to denature the honey proteins by heating it too much,” he explains. When cooled to finger-comfort, Buck mixes it with honey (3:1, fat to honey) and combines this mixture with the meat powder (3:1, meat/berry powder to honey/fat).

He mixes it all in a bowl (“you want it soft, but holding together”) and then presses the brown mixture into a rectangular slab on a piece of wax paper, which he folds around the finished pemmican.

I put some in my mouth. It is soft and easy to chew, with tiny chunks of gristle that somehow evaded Bucks efforts to obliterate and pulverize them. I can taste the nutrient-density; it tastes good. Not the kind of snack you want to munch on the couch, but when you’re working hard outside and need to stoke the fire inside, pemmican is what you need.

He gave me a slab, which I’m bringing on my next hunt.


Ask Ari: Re-freeze meat for tender results

Q: Dear Flash,

My brother and I disagree on how long to hang wild game. He claims hanging 8-10 days prevents him from farting.

But our camp eats tenderloin the same day of harvest (with no “stinkies”) and it’s as tender as could be (sliced thin). I’ve spoken with meat processors in Missoula, Polson, Pablo and Ronan and asked them about the proper way to handle wild game.

They say wild game only needs to hang long enough to “set up”—two to three days. Wild game doesn’t need to hang as long as beef because it doesn’t have “marble.” So that’s how I handle my wild game—in the freezer within 5-6 days.

As for the “stinkies”—what are your thoughts?

—Denny


A: Dear Denny,

Let’s disentangle the “stinkies” from our otherwise enjoyable discussion on meat hanging. If you can confirm that hanging meat 8-10 days reduces your brother’s farting, write back and we’ll go from there. Otherwise, lets quit thinking about your brother’s bodily functions and stick to the meat of this issue.

Here’s a new twist, provided by Robert: According to studies at the University of Pennsylvania, meat can be thawed and re-frozen over 10 times without adverse effects. For best results, re-freeze the meat at the ‘sherbet’ stage of thaw, when it still has some ice crystals in it.

This breaks down the solid matrix of the meat, and works great. I like to take out a few packs of steaks/loins, etc., when I get a pack of burger. I let these thaw and put a hash mark on the outside of the packs before putting them back in the freezer. That way I know how many times the meat has been thawed. After three times the meat is very tender. If you have a tough old bull it may take four cycles.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.
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