Pemmican and Berries in the BC gold rush

What did gold miners eat in the gold rush?  Many brought flour, salt pork and beans, but they soon saw value in the edible plants that were found growing near the trails such as ‘miner’s lettuce’. Vitamin-rich plants were often identified by names in the Chinook trading language. Here are just a few:

salmonberry

salmonberry

Olallie: salmonberry
Amote: wild strawberry
Camas: ‘sweet’ starchy bulb

Miners in the Cariboo gold rush would often stop to eat wild strawberries on their way to the gold diggings. Harry Jones recalled in his diary that he spent almost an afternoon eating his fill of strawberries while some others even became lost in their pursuit of the tasty berry.

Overlanders travelling through the Prairies would have purchased or traded for pemmican. The word ‘pemmican’ comes from the Cree language: pimii ‘fat’ + kan ‘prepared’.

Buffalo meat was dried and then braised over a fire. After, it was laid out on buffalo skin and pounded with stone mallets until it was tenderized. At this stage it was called ‘beat meat’. Bags made of buffalo skin, called taureaux or parflèches by fur traders, were sewn up and half-filled with ‘beat meat’ then buffalo fat was poured into the bag.  Dried berries such as chokecherries, saskatoonberries or golden currants were added.

Each bag was stirred before being sewn tight. Then it was rotated every so often to prevent the fat from settling to the bottom. Pemmican had a long shelf life and the bags even withstood being dumped overboard from a canoe.

‘Rubbaboo’ was a soup made by chopping pemmican, some wild onions, a few roots of prairie turnip and a chunk of salt pork. Some flour could have been added to make it the consistency of a stew.

The name ‘rubbaboo’ was derived from a combination of words from various languages: the Ojibwa and Cree words for soup, ‘nempup’ and ‘apu’; the Alongquin word for the meat that has been pounded (the first stage of the pemmican making process) ‘ruhiggan’; and finally a word from 18th Century naval slang, ‘burgoo’ which referred to oatmeal gruel eaten by sailors.

James Carnegie, who travelled across the Prairies in 1859 wrote about pemmican in his journal which was later published, “Saskatchewan and The Rocky Mountains: A Diary and Narrative of Travel.”

Pemmican is most endurable when uncooked. My men used to fry it with grease, sometimes stirring in flour, and making a flabby mess, called ‘rubbaboo’ which I found most uneatable. Carefully made pemmican, such as that flavoured with the Saskootoom berries…or the sheep-pemmican given us by the Rocky Mountain hunters, is nearly good—but, in two senses, a little of it goes a long way.

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