Yukon Territory Pemmican Recipe

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ANDREAS GRADIN
The myth of Yukon Pete and his pemmican recipe made of moose and bear meat.

Once in a while you hit it lucky and meet someone like
Yukon Pete.

Pete was born in Dawson half a century plus ten or fifteen
years ago, and grew up on a wilderness farm where the
family had a milk cow, raised their own pork, planted a big
garden, and lived off the land. And, of course, they made
good use of the north country’s plentiful wild game . . .
fresh, canned, smoked, and preserved as pemmican.

It’s been fifty years since Pete ate his mother’s pemmican,
but he remembers it as if it were yesterday . . . and
here’s the pemmican recipe.

Yukon Pete’s Pemmican Recipe

One-third lean bear meat
One-third lean moose meat
One-third lean pork scraps
Salt, pepper, sage
Berries
Bear grease

To paraphrase another celebrated recipe, “First catch your
bear.” Lucky hunters might substitute other wild
meats — venison or elk, maybe — for those listed
above, to add the true pemmican flavor that only game can
give. Us tenderfeet, though, may have to imitate the
mountain men of the old West, accept the fact that “meat’s
meat”, and use what we can get. Now about beef, pork, and
mutton? (Pete’s recipe is somewhat unusual in that it
calls for fresh meat. More often, pemmican was made from jerky. — MOTHER.)

Whatever makings you decide on, grind them with the medium
blade of your, food chopper, mix ’em well, and season with
salt and pepper (and, occasionally, sage for a change of
pace). Then cook the whole shebang together with very
little water — just enough to steam rather than boil
the pan’s contents — until the meats are done. Toward
the end of the process, remove the lid from the kettle to
let the moisture evaporate while retaining the rich juices.

How much fruit you’ll want to add to your pemmican is a
matter of taste. Personally, I’d keep the amount down to
not more than a quarter of the mixture . . . but suit
yourself.

The kind of fruit you add is also up to you. Pete’s mother
made pemmican in late fall, when the hogs were slaughtered,
and spiced her mix with the cranberries she’d put up in
jars earlier. If you, too, choose canned berries, stir them
in when the meat is almost done.

Fresh fruit is also suitable for pemmican-making. I like
the idea of using serviceberries and chokecherries, as the
Indians did here in Idaho (but chokecherries, let me tell
you, are a curse to pit). Any such freshly picked
ingredients must be added earlier than canned berries to
allow thorough cooking.

For the next step you’ll need a white cloth bag about the
diameter of a saucer. I sew mine from worn sheeting,
because new material doesn’t allow surplus grease to seep
out. And I make a point of boiling the sack just before use
(I like to know that the fabric is sterile, and wet cloth
packs more easily in any case).

Fill the sack with the steaming mixture of meat and
berries, and have grease hot and ready to pour over the
contents. My Yukon friend tells me that his mother used a
big dipper to ladle out melted bear fat . . . about a quart
for 20 pounds of meat. No real substitute exists, he
claims, but adds that — since “there ain’t no bear
grease” — I’d better stick to good pure lard and “stay
away from all that vegetable oil and shortening”.

If you take Pete’s advice, remember that lard will foam
when heated and should be melted in a large container. Pour
it into the sack at once, so that the hot fat will seep
down and mingle with the hot meat mixture. (This is one
reason why all cuts used must be lean.)

Another purpose of the added lard is to coat the sack and
make a tight casing which preserves the contents very
effectively. “Keep pemmican cold and it’s good for ten
years,” says Yukon Pete. I store small batches in the
refrigerator for short-term use, and wrap and freeze the
rest.

Using pemmican is an art in itself. The old northerner said
that when he was a kid he used to cut a couple of thick
slices, wrap them in newspaper, and stick the package in
his pocket. Then he’d snowshoe or drive his dog team to
school. At lunchtime, out came the pemmican — still
frozen — and he’d lay the slices on top of the old wood
heater to fry. “It’s a rich food and really sticks with
you,” he told me.

Pete could have eaten his pemmican cold — the
ingredients, remember, are precooked — and you’ve no
doubt heard stories about old-timers wolfing down the food
straight from the bag. Nevertheless, the mixture is too
greasy to be at its best in that form. You’ll like it much
better heated . . . preferably by light frying.

Pemmican is a fine breakfast meat when served with hash
browns and eggs, sourdough hotcakes, or buttermilk biscuits
as its sidekicks. Or you might take a hint from Pete and
make a real Yukon feast by simmering a hefty chunk of the
preserved meat with carrots, potatoes, and onions (as you’d
cook a New England boiled dinner). It’ll stick to your ribs
. . . and boy, is it good!