18th Century Pocket Soup and other portable comestibles


Interestingly, while Europeans dried fish, and salted down meat, they were not familiar with either pimîhkân, “pemmican” (from the Cree word meaning “fat” or “grease”) or Ch’arki“, literally “dried meat” from the Quechuan language of the Incas, what we know as “jerky.”  By the time Claire and Jamie land in the Carolinas both jerky and pemmican are well on their way to the pinnacle of their popularity, carried by explorers and traders as they wander forth across the continent.  There is a tremendous trade at the edge of the northwestern lands organized by the Métis people.. the fascinating name given to the offspring of indigenous mothers from the Algonquin, Cree, Saulteaux, Menominee, Mi’kwaq or Maliseet nations and white fathers.  At one time there was a distinction between French Métis, born of voyageurs, and Anglo Métis from English or Scottish fathers, but today the Métis have merged into a distinct and recognized aboriginal culture largely based in Canada, North Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota.

In the early 19th century the Métis buffalo hunts were held twice a year, summer and fall, and in 1824,  a single summer hunt returned with 1,089,000 pounds of dried meat and pemmican, the meat of 10,000 to 10,500 buffalo. That buffalo hide Jamie wins at cards may well have come from one of the early 18th century hunts.

As you might imagine, it didn’t take too many years of hunts of this size to completely decimate the buffalo herds of Montana and western Canada. While much has been written about the effect of white hunters on the buffalo herds, arriving with the railroads, rather little attention has been paid to the impact of the great hunts of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which not only had a huge impact on the herds, but also on the politics and perceptions of the nations of the Plains when it came to dealing with hunters coming onto their traditional grounds.

The stuff you buy today, packed in plastic and smothered in spices, bears little resemblance to the utilitarian jerky of the 18th century.  Venison jerky, made in the old way, is the meat equivalent of hardtack.. requiring vast quantities of saliva and aching jaws to shred into something you can swallow.  It’s relationship to the original steaks it was made from long lost in the drying process one might, at best, be able to coax some flavor from it with long stewing.

Pemmican at least has the advantage of being dried meat combined with dried fruit, and held together with a bit of lard which must add something in flavor if you’d a pot to stew the mess in.  But it wasn’t popular with Europeans, outside of the French voyageurs, fur traders, and explorers.

Instead travelers carried something called “Pocket Soup.” Hannah Glasse has a recipe for Pocket Soup in her 1747 Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy and while it might be “plain,” “easy” is not the word I’d use to describe this, which is the rendering of meat down to a jelly, then from a jelly to what she calls a Glue.  Essentially, the first bullion cube.  The recipe is, however, fascinating reading:

To make Pocket Soup

Take a Leg of Veal, strip off all the Skin and Fat, then take all the muscular or fleshy Parts clean from the Bones. Boil this Flesh in three or four Gallons of Water till it comes to a strong Jelly, and that the Meat is good for nothing. Be sure to keep the Pot close covered, and not do too fast; take a little out in a Spoon now and then, and when you find it is a good rich Jelly, strain it through a Sieve into a clean earthen Pan. When it is cold, take off all the Skim and Fat from the Top, then provide a large deep Stew-pan with Water boiling over a Stove, then take some deep China-cups, or well glazed Earthen Ware, and fill these Cups with the Jelly, which you must take clear from the Settling at the Bottom, and set them in the Stew-pan of Water. Take great Care none of the Water gets into the Cups; if it does, it will spoil it. Keep the Water boiling gently all the time, till the Jelly becomes thick as Glue; then take them out, and let them stand to cool; then turn the Glue out into some new coarse Flannel, which draws out all the  Moisture; turn them in six or eight Hours on fresh Flannel, and so do until they are quite dry. Keep it in a dry warm Place, and in a little time it will be like a dry hard Piece of Glue, which you may carry in your Pocket, without getting any Harm. The best Way is to put it into little Tin boxes. When you use it, boil about a Pint of Water, and pour it on a Piece of Glue about as big as a small Walnut, stirring all the time till it is melted. Season with Salt to your Palate; and if you choose any Herbs, or Spice, boil them in the Water first, then pour the Water over the Glue.
The hours involved, the careful tending of a fire, the volume of liquids to be reduced to arrive at a walnut sized “pocket soup” capable of flavoring a mere pint of water is more than a little daunting.  And yet, if what you had in your haversack for supper was hardtack and a bit of cheese augmented by whatever wild edibles you’d managed to scrounge up?  Pocket Soup might be more than welcome.
Think of it… 250 years after a man left the port city of Boston with a bundle of provisions, an ax, and title to a farm up on a hillside in Mansfield, VT the portable food of travel really hasn’t changed all that much.  We still travel with crackers and cheese, dried fruit, dried meat, a handful of nuts, a bit of chocolate.. for longer journeys we include a kettle so we can make porridge, coffee, or tea.  We still make camp stews flavored with “pocket soup,” and bake biscuits in dutch ovens.
The past? It’s closer than you think.
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