January 5, 1802
The Savage Country
The full importance of pemmican is understood as a vital survival food that could last "through a winter's scarcity of game and fish. It was his staff of life in a way that bread never was in more civilized parts of the world." Two pounds of pemmican was worth eight pounds of buffalo meat.
The Nor' wester on the march was faced with an entirely different problem of food supply. There was remarkably little game along the Northwest Road, and not much else that could be bought from the Indians en route. Once the plains were gained, hunters were sent out to shoot buffalo; but the brigades that continued on to the northern posts could not live off the land; they had to carry their rations with them in already overloaded canoes.
The answer to this problem was lyed corn, wild rice and pemmican. The corn, grown by the Ottawa and Saulteur around Sault Ste. Marie, was processed at Detroit by boiling it in lye water, which removed the outer husk. It was then washed and dried, and was ready for use. One quart of lyed corn called hominy by the Americans was boiled for two hours over a moderate fire in a gallon of water. Soon after it came to a boil, two ounces of melted suet were added. This caused the corn to split open and form "a pretty thick pudding." Alexander Mackenzie maintained that, with a little salt, it was a wholesome, palatable, easily digestible dish. A quart of it, he said, would keep a canoeman going for twenty four hours.
Mackenzie also observed that lyed corn was about the cheapest food the Concern could give its men, a voyageur's daily allowance costing only tenpence. And the elder Henry wryly commented that, since it was fare that nobody but a French-Canadian would put up with, the monopoly of the fur trade was probably in the North West Company's hands forever!
Indian corn and grease possibly supplemented by a few fish, game birds, eggs, and Indian dogs along the way took the brigades as far as Rainy Lake. Here wild rice replaced the corn as far as Lac Winipic. After that, pemmican sustained the western brigades until they reached the buffalo plains and fresh meat; but the northern canoes had to depend on pemmican all the way to their wintering stations. The provisioning of Alexander Henry's canoes, from Lake Superior to the Saskatchewan, would be typical:
At 4 P.M. I arrived at Fort Vermilion, having been two months on my voyage from Fort William, with a brigade of I1 canoes, loaded with 28 pieces each, and manned by five men and one woman. Our expenditure of provisions for each canoe during the voyage was: two bags of corn, 1½ bushels each, and 15 pounds of grease, to Lac la Pluie; two bags of wild rice, 1½ bushels each, and 10 pounds of grease to Bas de la Rivière Winipic; four bags of pemmican of go pounds each to serve until we came among the buffalo generally near the Monte, or at farthest the Elbow of the Saskatchewan.
This, in a few words, was the formula that made possible the long voyages of the fur brigades, which must often be accomplished with hairbreadth precision between the spring thaw and the fall freeze-up. The North West Company's network of hundreds of canoe routes and more than a hundred forts, scattered over half the continent, could never have functioned without corn, rice and pemmican. And of the three, pemmican was perhaps the most important.
The Nor westers got the idea, as they did so many, from the Indians. Or perhaps it should be said that Peter Pond dit since he, before anyone else, realized the logistical importance of pemmican and made a systematic use of it. Where the elder Henry and the Frobishers had failed in early attempts to reach the rich Athabasca country, Pond succeeded; and the key to his success is found in his own words: "Provisions, not only for the winter season but for the course of the next summer, must be provided, which is dry'd meat, pounded to a powder and mixed with buffaloes greese, which preserves it in warm seasons." In other words, pemmican.
Almost every trader, from Peter Pond down, described pemmican, and how it was manufactured; but none so well as David Thompson. It was made, he explained, of the lean and fleshy parts of the buffalo, dried, smoked, and pounded fine. In that state, it was called beat meat. To it was added the fat of the buffalo. There were two kinds: that from the inside of the animal, called "hard fat" or grease; and that which lay along the backbone in large flakes and, when melted, resembled butter in softness and sweetness.
The best pemmican, Thompson tells us, was made from twenty pounds each of soft and hard fat, slowly melted together and well mixed with fifty pounds of beat meat. It was stored in bags made of buffalo hide, with the hair on the outside, called taurenut. When they could be obtained, dried berries, and sometimes maple sugar, were mixed with the pemmican. "On the great Plains," Thompson wrote, "there is a shrub bearing a very sweet berry of dark blue color, much sought after. Great quantities are dried by the Natives; in this state the berries are as sweet as the best currants, and as much as possible mixed to make Pemmican."
Properly made and stored, the ninety-pound bags of pemmican would keep for years. Post masters took great pride in the quality of the product they turned out. But sometimes, through nobody's fault, it went sour, and great quantities had to be thrown to the post dogs. Often, as in the case of dried meat, mold formed; but that, the traders cheerfully agreed, only improved the flavor.
Pemmican could be hacked off the piece and eaten in its natural state; or it could be boiled up with corn or rice to make a highly nourishing and not unpalatable kind of stew. Whereas a daily allowance of eight pounds of fresh meat was required to sustain a man, two pounds, or even a pound and a half of pemmican would do. A better emergency ration for men in a cold climate has never been developed. So vital was pemmican indeed to the North West Company's system of communications that a highly specialized organization was set up to make and distribute it. On the prairies were built the famous "pemmican posts" Fort Alexandria, Fort George, Fort Vermilion, Fort de la Montée whose principal business was not pelts but provisions, chiefly pemmican, for the canoe brigades and the hungry posts in the forest belt. Archibald Norman McLeod gives us a glimpse of the activities at Alexandria: "I got the last Pounded meat we have made into Pimican, viz. 30 bags of 90 lb., so that we now have 62 bags of that Species of provisions of the above weight. I likewise got nine kegs filled with grease, or Tallow rather, each keg nett 70 lb."
Looking into his storehouse in January, Duncan McGillivray noted that he had 8000 pounds of pounded meat, with enough fat to make it up into pemmican sufficient, he added, to "answer the expectations of the Gentn. of the Northern Posts, who depend on us for this necessary article* in April, he made his pounded meat and grease into two hundred bags of pemmican.
For one year, 1807-1808, Alexander Henry listed the returns from his four Lower Red River posts as only 60 packs of furs, but 334 bags of pemmican and 48 kegs of grease; a striking statistical sidelight on the importance of beat meat and grease in the economy of the North West Company.
Getting the huge production of pemmican from the prairie posts to where it was needed was a major problem in logistics: and the Nor' westers solved it with their usual flair for organization. Besides the posts that specialized in making pemmican, certain others principally Cumberland House and Fort Bas de la Rivière were established at strategic spots to distribute it. To Cumberland House, at the juncture of the Saskatchewan and the waterways leading to Athabasca, the pemmican posts sent hundreds of taureaux in skin canoes and roughly built boats. And there the vast store of shaggy buffalo-hide bags was rationed out to the Great Northern brigades for the posts in the forest Fort Chipewyan, Fort de I'Isle, Fort Resolution, Fort Providence where the supply of pemmican made of deer and bear meat was both scanty and uncertain. The pemmican from the Red River and Assiniboine posts was distributed from Bas de la Rivière. And later on, Fort Esperance on the Qu'Appelle became the North West Company's chief depot for rushing emergency supplies to posts in distress.
Wherever he was stationed, and however long the march he must make to his wintering grounds, the Nor wester could usually depend on his supply of pemmican to see him to journey's end and, if necessary, through a winter's scarcity of game and fish. It was his staff of life in a way that bread never was in more civilized parts of the world. It was often his last defense against the forces of famine that hung, like wolves on the trail of a wounded caribou, about every trading post. And he never spoke of it with anything but respect.
January 1, 1951
The Arctic is a dietician's nightmare, and anyone conscious of vitamins or a balanced diet will make himself miserable. Eskimos are almost exclusively carnivorous--at least, they were until very recently. Now they have developed a taste for the white man's flour, sugar, and other soft foods. Their classical food is meat, and they still live on it almost altogether.
"Nekretoritse!"..."Come and eat!"
Above the snarling voice of the wind that sweeps across the ice, the Eskimo's ear always catches this call, his neighbor's invitiation to come and eat. He is suddenly roused from his winter revery.
"Nekrekroyatigot!" he announces, clambering to his feet. "They are calling us to eat."
The call is an indiscriminate invitation, to himself and everyone else. The Eskimo hostess never has trouble making up a guest list for dinner. A social secretary wouldn't be of much use to her. For when there is food, everyone is asked, without exception, and there aren't any place cards. The whole camp crowds into the host's igloo, the men taking teh best places, sitting on the skins, the women standing in the middle of the snowhouse, half consciously swafing back and forth to set up a rhythm that will keep the babies on their backs asleep, the children backed agaounst the wal,l blowing on their numbed fingers and banging their chilled feet on the floor.
On a board in front of the lamp is an armful of frozen fish, or a basin of raw caribou meat, or a potful of half-cooked seal meat. If the meat is raw, or frozen, everyone just pitches in. If it is cooked meat, the hostess first squeeezes each piece in her fingers to get rid of the brownish froth, then tosses a chunk of frozen blood into the pot to add piquance to the consomme that will later be consumed as a chaser, after the meal. First she gives her husband his share, then it is every man for himself, and a squadron of filthy hands descends upon the meat pot, closing around the half-cooked food like so many greasy pairs of pincers. It is not a delicate cuisine, and the manners that go with it aren't elegant. The Eskimo takes a huge piece of meat, stuffs it into his mouth, and then, with a quick swipe of the "oloo"--a razor-sharp knife--snips off the part that won't fit in his mouth. All this is done with a surprising nonchalance, and for fifteen years I have been betting with myself, and losing every time, that one of them will miss and leave a piece of nose or chin on the snow.
Fish bones, and other bones they cannot crack and eat, plus inedible bits of gristle or skin, are spat back into the common pot, on top of the rest of the meat, from which you are expected to serve yourself a second helping, if you are so promted.
From time to time, craving a slightly more vibrant flavor, the Eskimo dips a morsel of meat into a rusty tin can filled with rancid seal oil. Another delicacy is meat that has been buried for a few weeks and is nicely overripe, soft and mushy right down to the bone. When the Eskimo gets hold of a piece of such stuff he smacks his lips with delight.
"Mamaronaktok!" he exclaims stuffing his mouth with the spoiled meat. "Now you are talking!"
The missionary, after a few sojourns in Eskimo camps, gets used to the most bizarre items in the Arctic diet and learns to partake of everything with a smile and at least the semblance of gusto, for at stake are both his own reputation and his host's honor. To turn down a choice morsel of rotten meat or a scabrous bit of dried fish would be taken as a mortal insult to the whole Eskimo village and a terrible reflection on the white man's taste.
Most of the time, living as he does, on the trail, in the open, the priest is hungry enough to ignore the smell or unpleasant associaton, and soon learns not only to eat but to relish Eskimo viands. As to quantity, though, he cannot keep up with them.
No one can eat like an Eskimo. The true Inuk eats all day long, everything, and anything, in sight. The poor wihte man, used to eating on schedule, has no chance against such competition. His best bet is to stop after the first course and excuse himself. Then the Eskimos will smile.
"Ah," they will say. "It is true. You Great Eyebrows have a watch in your stomachs."
The Arctic is a dietician's nightmare, and anyone conscious of vitamins or a balanced diet will make himself miserable. Eskimos are almost exclusively carnivorous--at least, they were until very recently. Now they have developed a taste for the white man's flour, sugar, and other soft foods. Their classical food is meat, and they still live on it almost altogether. In the fall, the women and children search for berries, if they don't mind endless hours of labor for a few ounces of food, and they also dig from the ground a root called "Maso," insipid and quite diruretic, but nevertheless appreciated.
The only green that they eat is half-digested lichen and moss taken from the caribou's stomach--a deep green mush, of a dishonest color, though the taste might not be bad if the origin of the food were unknown.
But the diet of most people is ruled by prejudice. We French eat snails and love frogs, though both these make the Englishman wince and the American shudder. The Americans love maize--Indian corn--and eat it in season by the armful, while the French regard it as food fit for chickens. The Englishman regales himself on suet pudding, though this shocks everyone else. The Arabs like locusts, preferring them fried, and I'm told that people unknowingly served grasshoppers pronounce them the gastronomic find of the century. I'm sure that if you dished up a nice fat cat, being sure to put it on the menu as rabbit, everyone would smack his lips and eat his fill--until you produced poor Tabb's head.
So far as the odor and doubtful appearance of some Eskimo food is concerned--well, it is generally known that the best hunters amoung our people prefer their game somewhat high, and certanily connoisseurs of fine cheese maintain that it is best when well ripened. Turkish tobacco, they say, gets its distinctive flavor from being impregnated with the smoke of burning camel dung.
Surely, it is all a matter of taste.
As for myself, I think I can say I have tried every item on the Eskimo menu. I have enjoyed a drink of blood, and, when hungry, eaten meat that was still warm with the life blood of the caribou. I have lived on frozen raw fish, and been thankful for the meat that was almost ready to get up and walk away. I have eatn seal guts braided with blubber--a la mode de Victoria--and sampled all the birds: sea gulls, hawks, owls. Owls, believe me, are very good, and so is the liver of the scorpion fish.
It is surprising how quickly one revises food prejudices, and what a persuading effect on the taste is worked by a fifty mile soujourn in fifty-below weather. Appetite, as they say, is the best of sauces. And the white man who refuses to follow the customs of the country is apt to go hungry more often than not.