In North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, every day was a survival situation for most people. High-calorie foods that would keep in all weather and stay fresh for long periods of time were a hot commodity. The flavor wasn’t a high priority, but calories and durability were.
To supply their caloric needs, native people used staples like jerky and pemmican. Industrious businessmen even engaged the native people of the American West into creating buffalo pemmican and offered it for sale across the continent. Families relied on bannock and hardtack during hard times, and bannock was a staple food on the Oregon Trail.
Hardtack is difficult to ruin and tough to eat, but soldiers of all of the American wars survived on it, sometimes for weeks at a time. Knowing how to make and preserve these foods might mean the difference between life and death—even in modem times—should you find yourself in a survival situation. Making these survival foods is a good skill to acquire and pass on to future generations.
History of Survival Foods
While survival seems like a distant threat these days, it wasn’t long ago that It was what most North Americans thought of when they got up In the morning and before they went to sleep at night.
From Native Americans to voyageurs to fur trappers to soldiers and hardy families of the westward expansion, survival foods—Jerky, bannock, hardtack, and pemmican—were on the menu almost daily. Buggy loads of hardtack were sent to the soldiers fighting in the Civil War, and sometimes a piece of hardtack and a cup of coffee made up the main meal of the day.
Mountain men traveled up the Missouri River to the beaver-rich streams of the Rocky Mountains In the early 1800s and teamed how to make pemmican and jerky from the native people they met. The history of these foods is much richer than their flavors. Still, they were developed using the available materials at the time, and they fitted a need to put fat, protein, and carbohydrates Into the bellies of hungry people.
Pemmican is made from dried berries, fat, and meat. Seeds and nuts are sometimes added, too. By dried meat, I mean jerky, but don’t be tempted to use commercially packaged jerky. It’s not sufficiently dehydrated for long-term storage, and it contains nitrates and other preservatives.
Commercial jerky is also cut with the grain to be as tender as possible, which is exactly the opposite of what you want for pemmican. To make natural pemmican, you must dehydrate the jerky yourself.
Originally, the fat in pemmican was made with interior buffalo fat, such as the suet that surrounds the kidneys. This was melted to create liquid tallow that separated from the membranes.
I made my first batch of pemmican from a recipe I found in an outdoor magazine when I was in my early teens. I went to a local butcher shop to get some suet, only to find that the butcher had just thrown out everything he hadn’t ground into hamburger.
He pulled a box of lard off the shelf and suggested I use it. I took his advice and soon learned my mistake. My pemmican had poor flavor and never really hardened. Lesson learned. The harder the fat you melt into your pemmican, the better.
One of the keys to making good pemmican is starting out with very dry jerky. You want it brittle so that it can be ground as finely as possible. The best pemmican is made with jerky that can be ground almost into a course powder. This also allows the added fat to be absorbed into the meat. Grind it with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor.
There’s no hard and fast rule for measuring your ingredients. Simply grind up a bunch of jerky, then add dried berries, such as cranberries, blueberries, chokecherries, raisins, or any dehydrated fruit that you like. I generally use about half the volume of berries to jerky.
Spread the mixture into a flat sheet in a container, then melt the suet or tallow until enough runs off to pour over the mixture. Add the liquid fat little by little as you mix, allow it to cool, and you have pemmican. It’s that simple.
Pemmican is best wrapped in plastic or waxed paper and kept sealed. Native people of the American West wrapped buffalo pemmican in skins for shipping. It arrived on the East Coast weeks later in top condition.
Pemmican is an acquired taste, unless you’re starving, then it’s delicious. The berries significantly improve the flavor but decrease its longevity. Without the berries, it’ll last for months if kept cool. While the flavor isn’t particularly appealing, it’s so loaded with protein and carbohydrates that it will sustain you through a hard workout in any survival situation.
I’m serious about my jerky. I’ve been making it for more than 30 years, and I make a huge batch of venison jerky every year.
Recently, I started making jerky from bear meat, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well it turns out. I thought the fat content would be too high, but I was wrong. It has a slightly different texture and flavor than venison, which has me wondering if I could make jerky out of pork, as well. Guess I’ll have to try it sometime.
To make your own, trim all of the fat off the meat and slice it into 1/2-inch strips. Try to cut as much meat across the grain as possible for tenderness and easy chewing. The hindquarters’ large muscle groups make great jerky, but I’ve made excellent jerky out of almost every cut of a tough old buck.
Most wild-game meat makes excellent jerky because it’s lean. Elk, moose, and deer all make fantastic jerky. The process is simple, and it’s the most flavorful of the four survival foods covered in this article. In its simplest sense, Jerky is just dried meat, but there are many ways to add flavor.
Recommended reading: How To Make Wild Game Jerky
My favorite way is simple and delicious. I mix 4 ounces of liquid smoke with 10 ounces of soy sauce. Slosh the meat around in the mixture for a minute or two, shake off the excess liquid and place the meat in the dehydrator. I usually double the batch because I make 10 pounds or more at a time.
Any leftover liquid can be kept in the freezer for use with a future batch. The flavor is excellent, and the jerky preserves well using this mixture.
The more moisture you draw out of the meat, the longer it will last unrefrigerated. I prefer to leave in a little moisture, so it’s easier to eat, but if you need it for a true survival situation, you want the jerky to be very dry.
Stored away from moisture, jerky will last for months and retain its flavor well. Sprinkling some salt in the package with the jerky also prolongs its shelf life.
Hardtack is a bread-like cracker that dates back to the ancient Romans. For a thousand years or more, it has been used to feed armies, and it was a staple food during the westward migration of U.S. citizens driving wagons across the plains and mountains in the mid-1800s.
Made properly, it will literally last for years. Civil War soldiers and trappers carried hardtack in their pockets and bit off a chunk any time their stomachs growled.
The key to storing hardtack and keeping it edible for months, or even years, is to seal out any moisture. Besides water, it has two ingredients: flour and salt. That’s it. There are many things you can add that’ll improve its flavors, such as sugar, honey, and cinnamon, but all of those shorten its shelf life from years to just weeks.
As a survival food, it’s difficult to beat its longevity, but the flavor is very bland. Simply mix about 1 teaspoon of salt per cup of flour and add enough water to thicken. Roll the dough out to 1/2-inch thick and cut it into pocket-sized squares. Poke a few holes into each piece, so the dough cooks evenly and doesn’t rise too much. Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes, then turn squares over and bake for another 30 minutes.
The hardtack should be brown and hard to the point where you can barely bite off a chunk. No one eats hardtack for flavor or texture; they eat it to stay alive.
Bannock was a favorite among mountain men because it was the only food resembling bread they could get. For the most part, they only ate bannock at the annual Rendezvous when the traders would come from St. Louis bearing the ingredients to make it. Bannock is made from four simple ingredients: flour, salt, fat and baking powder.
The fat can be bacon grease or cooking oil (or if you’re a real mountain man, rendered buffalo fat). Some people like to add sugar, oatmeal, or powdered milk, and bannock can be made with white or whole-wheat flour.
First, mix 1 cup of flour with 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. This will keep for months if stored in a dry place. When you’re ready to cook it, add some bacon grease, then slowly add water to thicken. You want the mixture thick enough that you can form it like putty.
Roll the dough into a long, narrow strip. It can be fried in a pan or baked in an oven, but the most common way to cook bannock is to wrap it around a dry, peeled stick and cook it over a campfire. Wrap it, so it’s no more than 1/2-inch thick.
Stay away from open flames, cooking it slowly over the coals. For extra flavor and a nice brown coating, spread some butter or more bacon fat on it while cooking. Adding berries or honey when mixing enhances the flavor.
Bannock will keep for a week or more after cooking, but it can be kept much longer if stored in a cool place. Eventually, the bannock will mold. If you eliminate the grease and just use water to thicken, it will last much longer, but the flavor will be very bland.
These four time-tested survival foods have been used for generations. They’ve endured not because of their mouth-watering flavor but because they keep people alive, and they can do the same for you.
This article has been written by Thomas R. Bauserman for Prepper’s Will.
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