In Secrets of Polar Travel, explorer Robert Peary spends several pages waxing poetic about the merits of a ration he brought on his expeditions to the Arctic between 1886 and 1909. In addition to ranking it “first in importance” among his supplies, he genuinely enjoyed the food, writing that it was the only meal “a man can eat twice a day for three hundred and sixty-five days in a year and have the last mouthful taste as good as the first.”
Peary was talking about pemmican, a blend of rendered fat and powdered, dried meat that fueled exploration and expansion long before his attempts to reach the North Pole. Archaeological evidence suggests that as early as 2800 BC humans hunted the bison that roamed North America’s Great Plains and blended their meat, fat, and marrow into energy-dense patties with a serious shelf-life. A single pound of pemmican lasted for years and might’ve packed as many as 3,500 calories.
“Pemmican is a legit ancient indigenous energy bar,” says Shane Chartrand, a chef from the Enoch Cree Nation in central Alberta. Chartrand’s cookbook, tawâw (which, in Cree, means “come in, you’re welcome, there’s room”), contains a recipe for salmon-based pemmican, but he believes the food’s value lies in function more than flavor.
“Some things are not meant to taste good; they’re meant to make you survive. I’ve hunted all my life. When you’re way out there and you’re starving and you can feel your body breaking down and you’re tired and your sugars are low, it doesn’t matter if it tastes good. You want something that helps you live and helps you keep moving. That was pemmican.”