Rugged Sur­vival Foods

When calo­ries mat­ter more than fla­vor, th­ese four foods will sat­isfy

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Bernie Bar­ringer

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. Fla­vor wasn’t a high pri­or­ity; 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 mod­ern 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.

“… in­dus­tri­ous busi­ness­men en­gaged the na­tive peo­ple of the Amer­i­can West into cre­at­ing buf­falo pem­mi­can …”


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 com­mer­cial 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 ½-inch strips. Try to cut as much meat across the grain as pos­si­ble for ten­der­ness and easy chew­ing. The large mus­cle groups of the hindquar­ters 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. Jerky, in its sim­plest sense, is just dried meat, but there are many ways to add fla­vor.

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.

“Civil War sol­diers and trap­pers car­ried hard­tack in their pock­ets and bit off a chunk any time their stom­achs growled.”


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 mid1800s. 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 fla­vor 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 ½-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 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 ¼ 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 ½-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.

Con­quer Hunger

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.

Women of the Black­feet tribe of­ten sun-dried meat to make pem­mi­can, which is a mix­ture of fat and pro­tein. It’s not the best­tast­ing food, but in a sur­vival sit­u­a­tion, it’ll do just fine. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF GETTY

Jerky can eas­ily be made in large quan­ti­ties us­ing a large food de­hy­dra­tor. Great fla­vor is one of the at­tributes of wild-game jerky done right.



(above) Hard­tack is a his­toric food. Through­out most of North Amer­i­can his­tory, it has been a sta­ple be­cause of its longevity. (be­low) Ban­nock is the bread of the wilder­ness. Very sim­ple to mix up and cook, it can be made lit­er­ally any­where you have a...

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