In Honor of Thanksgiving, Pemmican from the Native American Plains Gets Made in Midtown

Be sure to take a peek at the current Edible segment airing on NY1 today and Sunday. (And online right here in perpetuity.) Based on a story in the current issue, it’s on Inside Park chef Matt Weingarten’s take on the Native American snack called pemmican, which has historically made use of both fall harvest foods on the Great Plains and a successful hunt for buffalo. It’s kind of like a cross between a granola bar and beef jerky.

Be sure to take a peek at the current Edible segment airing on NY1 today and Sunday. (And online right here in perpetuity.) Based on a story in the current issue, it’s on Inside Park chef Matt Weingarten’s take on the Native American snack called pemmican, which has historically made use of both fall harvest foods on the Great Plains and a successful hunt for buffalo.

It’s kind of like a cross between a granola bar and beef jerky.

“If you can imagine being on the plains and hunting an enormous buffalo with your clan,” says Weingarten of the tribes on the ancient Plains, “… you have a lot of food all of a sudden, and you have to figure out a way to transport it and make it safe. So they are slicing down nice long sheets of buffalo that’s hanging out by the fire to dry–these nice long sheets by the fire–and then its just sort of pounded with a little bit of nuts and fruit and whatever else was was available, with a little bit of fat to get it into a little bar that everyone could take a little bit of and put it into their satchel and go on their way to the next landscape,” says Weingarten: “It was the original portable power bar.”

These days Weingarten puts pemmican on his Thanksgiving menu, and serves it as part a Native Americans food platter for the next few weeks. “If you’re going to get people to eat pemmican at your restaurant,” he jokes, “Thanksgiving would be one of the good opportunities.”

Like the plains-made pemmican, Weingarten’s doesn’t really have a recipe–he tosses in nuts and seeds by sight– but it is a little more nuanced than the original Native American snack. He marinates his meat in soy sauce and lightly smokes it before drying it until it’s rock hard. The super-stiff slivers of meat are ground with pine nuts and pecans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds and dried cherries and raisins–he’s even used prunes–then mixed with a little rendered leftover bison fat and formed into truly delicious, protein packed bars that could sustain you literally for days. In fact each portion is just a tiny square.

These days Weingarten makes pemmican in minutes in the meat grinder, which is pretty entertaining to watch: When the rock-solid buffalo is put through solo, it’s comes out as jerky dust; with the addition of nuts and fruits, it becomes deep purple strands of wormlike bison spaghetti. But that required trial and error, starting with a pricey food processor incident 10 years ago. “I broke the blades,” says Weingarten.  “I tried a blender and it overheated. I tried a knife, we couldn’t even get it chopped up, it was so tough and fibrous and dense and desiccated. We ended up putting it in a mortar and pestle and just grinding away. It really makes you respect sort of native foodstuff and traditional foodways.”

Yet it’s not just Weingarten’s life-long pursuit of our real American culinary traditions that drives him to make pemmican. “I love beef jerky,” he says. “I’m a beef jerky eater. If I’m driving and I get to an old gas station and they have still-jarred beef jerky I’m definitely gonna buy it.”

Watch Weingarten make pemmican right here: http://www.ny1.com/content/lets_eat/edible/151009/edible–handmade-pemmican-packs-energetic-punch

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.