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Friday, November 25, 2016

Pemmican...And You Can Too...

Travel back back with me to the time our First Nation neighbors were called "Indians," not Native Americans or the more contemporary Indigenous Peoples. I was ten years old and going through a phase where I was enthralled by anything and everything "Indian."
As with most cases of juvenile fancy, mine was a romantic vision, the vision of James Fenimore Cooper's "The Nobel Savage." The old chiefs, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Joseph were my heroes. I read everything Indian I could, scavenged the riverbank on weekends for arrowheads, imitated Indian woodlore: fashioned a pipe bowl from clay (smoked Indian tobacco...sick for three days), foraged afield for camas root and coyote berries, munched on live grasshoppers (a nice crunch offset by a stomach-churning taste). Clad only in a homemade breechclout and moccasins made from a pair of Dad's discarded khaki pants, I romped about the neighborhood, scandalizing the neighbors.What most impressed me about Indians was their fierce independence on aboriginal survival skills, their hunting and foraging for sustenance in an oftentimes unforgiving natural world, the most challenging season of which was wintertime.

A principal staple for the "short, white days" was the Indian survival bar: pemmican. You didn't have to read far into a book about Indians before you happened upon a reference to the food. (Just the other day I read an excerpt from James Welch's Fools Crow, had scarcely read two pages when I came across the word used in the storyline not as sustenance for the living but for a child dead of smallpox about to begin its journey to the shadowlands.)

Pemmican: pimihkan, from the Cree dialect, is a natural food solely of Native American origin consisting of meat fiber and berries bound together with animal fat. Pemmican's appeal was twofold: its ingredients were readily available to North American Indians and the foodstuff, needing no preservatives or refrigeration, had a shelf life of years. The meat from buffalo, deer, elk, and bear provided the protein component of pemmican. Berries, harvested and dried from summer berry crops, flavored the meat ingredient. The jerky and berries were finely ground with mortar and pestle and the resulting compound bound together with molten animal fat, pounded flat, and then cut into strips to be stored for future consumption.

Perhaps it was a "second childhood" moment that piqued my interest in pemmican, but the truth of the matter was I saw a recipe for it on the internet, a "survivalists" website and thought with the holidays and winter approaching, "Why not make a batch?" The recipe called for only three ingredients...simple enough, (just like a P-B and J sandwich, right?): one cup each of dried meat, berries, and animal fat. Besides, with several gallons of summer blueberries in the freezer, I had one-third of the ingredients already covered.

As with most simple things like " three step instructions" or "just three ingredients," my pemmican experience became a week long adventure. I retrieved the dehydrator from its summer storage and put it to work drying a gallon bag of frozen blueberries. Three days it took to turn those plump morsels into desiccated kernels. I wanted my product to be as "Indian" as possible, so for the dried meat component I headed to Kelso's Custom Meats in Snohomish where I had seen buffalo meat for purchase. I knew I could count on Kelso's for my "animal fat" (suet) because they had provided that ingredient for my mincemeat recipe.

Once he learned what I was up to, Brian at Kelso's was eager to help. I told him I wanted to make the recipe in "the old way" if possible and did he have any buffalo meat? "Can't get it anymore," he said. "Deer or elk?" He couldn't help me there either. "Bear?"
(I was reaching now.) Brian smiled and shook his head. "Sorry."He then suggested lean beef, a cut popular for making jerky. Brian sliced two pounds of beef into quarter inch pieces. The suet was no problem. I headed home with two pounds of each to continue on down the pemmican trail.

I laid the thin beef slices on foil-lined baking sheets, preheated the oven to 180 degrees, and slid in the trays. Directions expressly warned against cooking the meat but drying it instead until the slices snapped or cracked; recipe said six to eight hours. It took seven hours for the meat to reach the "snap/crackle" stage. And I had to dry two batches.

Once again the "old ways" proved difficult. Our kitchen lacked a mortar and pestle for grinding the berries and meat. The wooden pestle used with the colander was no match for the dried blueberries. I might as well have been grinding gravel. Neither did the pestle work on the dried beef even though I first chopped it finely with a kitchen knife. To proceed, the "old ways" gave way to the "new ways." Even then I had to improvise as we had given away our food processor a few years back. A hand blender and a deep pot (for steaming asparagus) came to my rescue. Even on low speed, shards of blueberry and jerky shrapnel ricocheted from the pot (should have used protective eye wear). A towel wrapped around the blender corralled the contents until the berry/meat mixture was pulverized. A hot woodstove quickly rendered the suet into liquid.

I strained off one cup of fat and stirred it into the ground meat and berries. For sweetening I folded in four ounces of honey and added a tablespoon of salt to bring out the flavor (one teaspoon would have served). On a sheet of waxed paper the pemmican formed easily, like rolling out bread dough.

The mound, which I molded into a half inch thick brick, quickly congealed rock solid. The next day I divided the brick into strips one inch wide and four inches long, wrapped two each in plastic wrap and then zip-loc bags for storage.

I was anxious to try my first pemmican. My review? You would need strong teeth to grind up a bite. The animal fat dominated the flavor, overpowering the berries and honey. Although the salt enhances the shelf life of the product, I went overboard with that ingredient. Unless you're a survivalist, I doubt pemmican will ever make a comeback. After all the staple was intended for survivalist fare, not haute cuisine, as a hedge against starvation during the long, harsh Great Plains' winters. When the human body cries for sustenance, taste and flavor are of little consequence, and no doubt pemmican came to the rescue of many a starving Indian or mountain man. Considering what the doomed Donner party had on its last desperate menu, pemmican, for the stranded pioneers, would have been gourmet dining.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Gladys Has Some "Work" Done...

"Thirty-nine and holding, a-holdin' onto everything I can...."
                                                                            Jerry Lee Lewis

There comes a time in a woman's life when she experiences a mid-life crisis of sorts.
Perhaps "crisis" is too strong a word; "conspiracy" might be a better one: when her mirror conspires against her and her clothing sends back mixed messages. The mirror works its subtleties (Hey, I'm just the messenger here...): a new crop of wrinkles...the older ones more deeply furrowed. And the chin, a new, pendulous look, the skin decidedly dewlapping under her jaw, the corners of her eyes present like river deltas seen from the International Space Station. And is that a trace of mustachio sprouting from the ridges of her philtrum? Her clothes just don't fit like they used to: it's a wrestling match each time she puts on her jeans which for some time now she hasn't been able to "slip" on. Come buttoning time her waistline protests the strangling snugness; her fingers protest the extra stress. At the shopping mall she no longer notices the occasional male shopper fix her with a stare, his eyes linger flatteringly a bit longer than they should. Now even window display manikins are more ogled than she.

Thus her decision: time to cinch things up a bit, mortar over a wrinkle or two, shore up the sagging anatomy, punch down that swelling muffin top, subject herself to a blast or two from the laser. She's not about to go through the next ten or twenty years looking like she's aged ten or twenty years. And so she goes where she needs to go; does what she needs to do; has some "work done...."

Gladys turns forty this year, and the old dame has been around the Loop a time or two. Who knows how much mileage her old frame chocked up before she started hauling me around the Valley. She's had her share of humiliation, too. Age discrimination, I guess you'd call the time she was parked roadside while I talked with a neighbor and a wannabe Tour de Francer pedaled by, looked at her and sneered, "Nice ride." Those forty years have taken their toll on my Valley companion. One clear morning a while back, I wheeled Gladys out of the garage and discovered her rear tire was flat. The tire would not take air, so I removed the wheel, pried the tire from the rim, and using the skills learned in my youth (like swimming, you never forget), yanked the tube, and by refilling it, located a small tear by the valve stem. I purchased a patch kit from Freddie's, fashioned a patch and cemented it over the rip. But to no avail: the tube would not hold air.

Where problems mechanical are involved, there comes a time (to quote the famed Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, "And I've had a lot of 'em"), when you realize you are way out of your league; your tools just scoff at you. Such was the case with Gladys's condition. The rear wheel itself was a disaster. A couple of spokes were missing. One spoke had snapped and wound itself around the axle like a spring. The remaining spokes were loose. A bike physician said finding a replacement wheel for a three-speed girl's 1976 Columbia Tourist III would be near to impossible. The wheel would have to be reconstructed. Only a complete face lift could repair Gladys's rear end.

Gladys was a "rescue" bike. I paid fifty dollars for her. Wheel reconstruction would cost $105, the Dr. said. Did I want to pay double her cost to get her healthy again? It didn't take moment's pause for my decision. We have a history, Gladys and I. I wasn't about to let a few extra dollars spoil our decades-old relationship. After all, you can't put a price on nostalgia.

Presently Gladys is recuperating in the garage, awaiting her reconstructed rear wheel. Any "Get Well" wishes or "Speedy Recovery" sentiments on her behalf may be sent to her C/O The Ripple.