Buffalo as a Food Source
Greetings from the shores of the Dried Meat River, AKA, The Far Side Bear River and known by the whites as the Musselshell. The reason the Musselshell was called the Dried Meat River by the Blackfoot people is it was the last area which held free roaming herds of Buffalo. In the "gone days", the people would set camp near the river. They chose to be up on the flats to avoid bugs during the warmer seasons, and down in the valley amongst the cottonwoods and sheltered by the willows in the cooler seasons.
If you had been a free trapper who had married into one of the Indian bands of this area on the plains you would have witnessed, and surely participated in the on-going ritual of hunting, killing, butchering and preparation of buffalo meat for immediate eating as well as long term storage.
Life in the East, with its European influence, would have not prepared you for the delicacies of the people on the prairies. While in New England or Kentucky you might have eaten a roast duck or suckling pig, gray squirrel or venison, these items more than likely would have been prepared by gutting, cleaning, removal of legs and feet and then cooked in the proper, healthy manner to make the food palatable and pleasing to you.
On your first hunt and all subsequent hunts, and also depending on the tribe you were with, you saw the butchering done by the men or women of the tribe. While the Blackfoot often considered the butchering a job for strength and dexterity of a man, other people recognized the chore as drudgery and assigned it to the women.
One man to comment on the butchering of the buffalo by women, was Father Louis Hennepin, a missionary. He observed in the 1600’s that women of the Miami tribe were more than able to handle the chore when he noted:
As you, a, free trapper, participated or solely watched the goings of he would have seen the butchering become a tumult of activity, shouting, laughing quarreling and carrying on by all. All in a cloud of flies and often yellow jackets.
Raw morsels of the meat would have been snacked on while the butchering was taking place. You as a participant might have been offered raw liver, kidney, eyes, belly fat, testicles, parts of the stomach, marrow from leg bones, gristle from snouts, hoofs of unborn calves and tissue from the sack they had been in. Bile from the gall bladder was sprinkled on the meat and used as a condiment as we might use mustard. Word has it that bile did a lot for the taste of liver. Bile, liver and onions, anyone?
You might have bashed holes in the tops of skulls in order to scoop out the brains. Once the belly was slit open and the entrails removed hands reached in the cavity to drink the fresh warm blood. According to the Cree, the drinking of the blood would keep them from being perturbed by the sight of blood in battle. Teats were slashed off and warm milk drank from them. The kidneys were desired by those who were ailing. All of this taking place without the benefit of a clean environment and water to wash hands and knives with.
John James Audubon once noted that after the killing of a buffalo by his party, the surrounding group of Indians asked for ‘certain parts of the entrails, which they devoured with the greatest Voracity.’ Audubon was intrigued.
Blood was also drank just to quench the thirst. Often the chase of the herd lasted for hours and the hunters made their kill far from water. Often the gristle of the buffalo’s snout served to quench the thirst. In areas where the hunting took place in an enemy’s territory, it was not uncommon for entire meals to consist of raw meat in order to avoid detection by the smoke of a fire.
While most of the plains tribes relished the viscera, there were those who would not eat them. The Kootenai would throw away all the innards except for the prized heart. They held their neighbors, the Blackfoot in contempt for their eating of the liver.
With the butchering completed, the meat was distributed and you, as a part of the tribe, might have prepared the meat for transport by wrapping it in the hide of the animal and securing it on to your horse or travois. If the trip back to camp was not too terribly far, your horse was expected to be able to carry the skin and meat from a cow buffalo. Dogs with travois were expected to pull a quarter of the buffalo.
You, your wife and your adopted people would now head back to the main camp to prepare the meat. Surrounding the butchering ground, just out of an arrow¹s reach, and awaiting your departure had been all sorts of scavengers who would quickly converge on the bones and scraps.
You and your people would celebrate. There would be cooking fires at every lodge and singing and laughter in the air. Large bones would be tossed into the fire to cook the marrow inside. Pits were dug inside the fire pit and whole calf¹s heads were placed inside to slow cook. Ribs and choice meat was cooked and the celebration lasted well into the night. Often several pounds of meat were eaten by each of the men.
On waking with a full stomach, and everyone in a joyful spirit, work would begin to cook, dry and in some instances cache the meat.
If the tribe intended to continue their search for other buffalo herds to add to their winter¹s meat supply, the meat from the day before was often cached then retrieved on their way back through the area. The techniques of the cache varied from tribe to tribe. Often the meat was simply placed between two hides in an out of the way place. Others dug pits and placed the wrapped meat inside. In winter a cave was dug into a snow bank. The caching of the meat was only a temporary means of storage.
Dehydration was the most popular means of long term storage. The meat was sliced thin, hung on scaffolds where streamers were placed and allowed to blow in the wind in an effort to keep wolves away.
While dried buffalo meat weighed only about one-sixth the amount of fresh meat, it was very bulky, somewhat like a bundle of tree bark. In rain or damp air it absorbs moisture, gaining weight as well as molding and decaying, often both. The jerky was often pounded, and dipped into melted fat to make chewing easier. The difficulties with jerky were eliminated with the development of pemmican.
While recipes varied then as much as today, the method of storage was most always the same, or close to it. The pulverized jerky and what ever else that was desired, was placed into buffalo rawhide bags about the size of a pillow case. Then hot melted marrow was poured in with the jerky and surrounded each particle of meat, then the end of the bag was sewn shut. Before the contents became hard from cooling, it was walked upon to flatten it to about six or seven inches. A single sack or ‘piece’ weighed close to ninety pounds. It was ‘pieces’ such as these that were traded at forts and trading posts. Shaped in the flat rectangles, they could be placed across small logs or rocks in order to be kept up off of the damp ground. In forts they could be stacked and stored similar to cordwood which conserved space in the often small, establishments.
It was figured that on an average, and as a result of individual tribe’s recipes, each pound of pemmican was the same as three pounds of buffalo steak. The Blackfoot used far less fat and claimed that one pound of their pemmican contained the goodness of five pounds of fresh meat.
‘Summer’ pemmican was lighter due to the dryness of the jerky used in its production . ‘Winter’ pemmican was heavier due to the difficulty in drying meat in the winter and the jerky having more moisture. ‘Berry’ pemmican had the addition of wild cherries, saskatoon or buffalo berries. While the addition of berries made the pemmican more palatable, they also increased the chance of spoilage.
The dried, pulverized meat, saturated in fat, sealed from the air and encased in its rawhide bag could last for many years, up to thirty had been reported. Not a better food could be found to carry along with you. No fire was needed to prepare it for eating, a small amount would go an awful long way and it could be eaten for weeks at a time in order to sustain energy and health. It could be stored for times of famine as successfully in Manitoba as it could in Texas.
One description of pemmican by a Scotsman was not so favorable: "Take scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast beef, add to it lumps of tallow rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs... and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican, though I should rather suppose it to be less nasty."
In 1810 a trader at a post in North Saskatchewan river remarked: "Even the gluttonous French Canadian that devours eight pounds of fresh meat every day is contented with one and a half pounds per day. It would be an admirable provision for the Army and Navy." Now that your woman had prepared the winter¹s meat supply for storage you could hunt for more, and eat as much fresh meat as possible, because fresh, was the preferred way to eat it and it was preferred rare. It did not have to be fresh to be enjoyed. Most Indians hung their meat until it began to decay. During spring break-up, rivers floated bloated carcasses down stream to waiting Indians who ate and enjoyed it in spite of the fact they had all the meat they needed. Yumm.
In most lodges you would have visited there was always soup cooking. In fact, soups were most popular because anything and everything was tossed into the boiling water. Broken bones were saved and used as a soup base because of the flavorful marrow. Bones were also laid beside the fire and turned occasionally, then split open for the cooked marrow. Before the availability of metal pots, a pit was dug, lined with a section of hide and water was kept boiling with heated rocks as was the technique with a paunch suspended on a tripod or some other frame.
While early travelers and trappers did not necessarily partake in all of the delicacies of the Plains, some were brave enough to try the customary meals set before them. George Catlin claimed that the taste of dog, beaver tails and buffalo tongues was pleasing. Others claimed that the hump was the best part. It was a strip of muscle from next to the spine. It was wrapped in a hide and pit-cooked for about twenty-four hours. Along the top of the hump was a layer of fatty tissue. This was known by the French name of depouille. It was about two inches thick and weighed from two to eleven pounds depending on the animal it was taken from. The Blackfoot dipped it in hot grease and suspended it from high up in their lodge where it became smoked and would keep indefinitely. It was also sometimes used as a sort of bread, with jerky between slices.
A favorite dish you may have tried in your village was boiled fetal buffalo calf. There’s one for your recipe book ladies. According to a trader in 1868, the Gros Ventre prepared it thusly: " ... a young calf, before it is born, is considered the greatest delicate of all. When first eaten, early in the winter, it is never larger than a kitten, and gradually increases in size until near spring, when it becomes too large and coarse. The idea of eating such a barbarous dish was at first revolting, but afterward, when better able to appreciate these Indian luxuries, I found it very palatable, particularly the natural liquor or broth in which it was boiled; which, with the addition of salt and pepper made an excellent soup."
Blood soup was popular. It was boiled in the above mentioned fashion, or for large get togethers, the Blackfoot turned the gutted carcass onto its back and using the rib box for a container, and adding a bit of water, used the heated stone method to cook it. A Hidatsa woman related her recipe she had used on a hunt in 1870. For the base of the soup she retrieved the pool of blood which settles between the lungs and diaphragm, discarding clotted blood which is difficult to cook and often spoils the soup quickly. She poured one and a half to two gallons onto a container. Added one cup of water, one piece of buffalo marrow-fat the size of a large duck egg, and two handfuls of dried root or vegetable. Then brought it to a boil. In order to add a delightful flavor she stirred the concoction with a chokecherry sapling whose end had been fringed. To tell if the soup was ready she stripped the bark from a small twig and dipped it into the soup, if it came out clean and white, it was ready to serve. Blood pudding was made by adding small bits of meat to the cooked blood and stuffed into parts of intestine (Kishka?). The Crow called their version of this, "Crow-Indian-Guts."
You, as a member of your adopted tribe were, in for a whole new variety of meals. If you were repulsed by the content at first, you no doubt would have given in to trying most, if not all of these prairie gourmet dishes.
Further on the subject of pemmican: In World War II, the German soldiers were issued pemmican. When the idea of pemmican as a war ration was suggested to officials of the US military forces, the promoters argument for its use stated that it was a lightweight, compact emergency ration. Dietitians however analyzed it and ruled in 1942 that it wasn’t wholesome, with most not liking the taste. Those in search of gold during the gold rush found it revolting. Oliver Hazard Peary, of North Pole fame, used pemmican on his arctic expeditions and stated it was the only food which could be eaten twice daily for a year and taste as good at the last bite as it did with the first. After a days long march he savored his half-pound ration of pemmican stating that " By the time I had finished the last morsel I would not have walked around the . . .igloo for anything . . .the St. Regis, the Blackstone or the Palace Hotel could have put before me." As with any food prepared, it will taste according to its means of preparation. Some experienced good pemmican while others, bad. Those who tasted it after eating modern foods all their lives usually found it to be rather too much. I have tasted pemmican and found it very rich. Only able to take a small portion at a time.
© 1996 Tara Prindle.