The Pemmican Adventures

We’ve been reading a delicious series of books by Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons, Swallowdale, and the other books in the series. These delightful stories recount the summer adventures of a family of children who pretend to be intrepid explorers. The children take to adventure on the high seas, camping on the mysterious “Wildcat Island” and even helping rebuild their beloved boat, Swallow! My kids love it all!

Aside from camping in the backyard and playing that they are members of the crew of the Swallow, the children really wanted to experience some of the food eaten in the book. Of all the things eaten, pemmican seemed the most foreign to their experience. But, the pemmican found in Swallows and Amazons is not true pemmican:

[Mother said,] “You will soon get tired of living on corned beef.”

“Pemmican,” said Titty.

Pemmican,” said the female native. “So if I were you I should only open a pemmican tin when you haven’t anything else that you can eat without cooking. (Swallows and Amazons, 58)

Clearly, I could open a can of corned beef and serve it up, but would that truly be adventurous? What is real pemmican anyway? Well, it turns out that there are quite a number of articles on this extraordinary food. People make it with all kinds of interesting ingredients (bacon pemmican sounds good!). Jon Townsend has an article here and a YouTube series on the subject here. We fell down a rabbit hole with his videos and have been lost in period cookery for several weeks now. I highly recommend them.

In true summer school for fun style, we made pemmican.  I was quite nervous about it because I had zero experience with dried meat, and serious doubts about how nice it might taste. Meat straight out of the dehydrator looked like this.

Ground up, it looked, well, interesting….

We then added craisins and stirred in the suet.

This picture is of the mixture quite warm.  As it cooled, it acquired a fat layer that would have sealed it in a jar, protecting the meat beneath. It did not look promising as a food I would willingly ingest. I needed to find a way to use it that would disperse some of the fat content and rehydrate the meat. Did I mention that I had some doubts at this point?

We decided to make “pemmican hash” – a recipe true to the period and common according to Townsend.  Here it is in progress:

We added, potatoes, onion, mushrooms, salt and pepper.  A little water created a rich gravy.  A quick sprinkle of parsley and chive and dinner looked like this.

It certainly no longer appeared to be an oil slick. That was win number one.

So, how did it taste?  I would never consume straight up pemmican.  The fat is off putting and the dried meat is far too chewy. However, pemmican hash is something completely different.  It is a rich, unctuous experience with a lavish beef flavor and hits of occasional sweetness from the craisins.  While the beef is still chewy, it is less so and quite pleasant.  In terms of flavor profile, it is similar to a duck confit (duck leg cooked in its own fat and canned in it as well).  This meal is hot, filling, and altogether a pleasant surprise.  The kids are licking the pan and fighting over little bits of pemmican and fried mushroom.  I would call this experiment a complete success!  

Want a recipe? Visit the Townsend links. I cannot take credit for this one at all. Be careful though. We are having weekly “18th century cookery” nights replete with pewter plates, cast iron pots, candles, and more nutmeg than I ever imagined using on a daily basis!

Did I ever serve corned beef? Yes – the very next day. The children agreed that they preferred the real pemmican to “that stuff you buy at the store.”

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