Pemmican

A delightful side benefit of writing historical fiction is that is it theoretically possible to go the places your characters have gone, own the objects they might have owned, and eat the food they would have eaten.

The book I’m writing ultimately ends up in what is now Alberta, Canada. At the time it was called the North West Territory, and was only beginning to be explored. My story begins in 1795; a year earlier, Alexander Mackenzie followed the Peace River to the Arctic Ocean, becoming the first European to do so. On his way back he established several fur-trading forts.

The fur trade began on the banks of Hudson Bay and expanded to Lake of the Woods and the Great Lakes. It wasn’t long before competition between the Hudson’s Bay Company, who had a monopoly on the right to export furs via the Hudson Bay, and many other companies–among them the North West Company–forced the fur trade to move farther and farther to the north and west.

The effort it took to do this was, in retrospect, astounding. Forts had to be built, and everything that couldn’t be harvested from the land had to be brought out by canoe. Tin roofs for the buildings, axes, saws, guns, trade goods, tobacco, rum, and personnel–everything was paddled along Canada’s plentiful lakes and rivers. The largest concern, of course, was food. How to feed this capitalist army? How to fuel exploration to the west?

The answer was pemmican. Pemmican is pulverized jerky, usually bison, bound with fat and sometimes enriched by dried berries. It keeps nearly forever, can be easily packed into sacks for transport, and can sustain a human for months at a time. The American Indians who introduced fur traders to pemmican depended on it during the cold weather, and enriched their diets with wild rice, berries, fish, and fresh game when possible. Still: pemmican was the key. Pemmican sustained the men at fur-trading forts through the long sub-arctic winters. Pemmican stashes along the trail assured explorers like Alexander Mackenzie that they would have enough food to return home.

I wanted to try pemmican, but being a lazy sort of person, didn’t want to make my own (though there are many online tutorials). Imagine my delight when I found that it’s commercially available.

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Epic’s Bison, Bacon & Cranberry bars are true pemmican. Jerky, fat, fruit. No question about it.

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Yes, it did feel odd to be eating a processed, commercial “store food” version of this First People’s staple. But, you know, I am a modern girl.

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The packaging was certainly attractive.

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The bars had a high bacon-to-bison content, lending a soft texture and strong bacony flavor. There were a lot of cranberries, too, which gave an odd sour note. It had been twenty years since I last ate bison meat, but I remember it had a strong flavor. That flavor is pretty much squashed by the other two ingredients in these bars.

It was an interesting historical lesson. I have one or two more food-related experiments up my sleeve: bison burgers and wild rice. Later.

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