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The idea didn’t seem that crazy to me. But when I told people about it, they were incredulous. Flabbergasted. Some were even worried. They asked me… what about fiber? What about your cholesterol? Won’t you get bored?
And then they would all ask their main question:
It was sort of out of character, for me. I’m not a gimmick type of person. I don’t do things just to generate attention. Honestly, I’m pretty normal. But my normalness is exactly why I decided to eat only Pemmican, for 30 days. I wanted to show that it was actually a normal thing to do. I wanted to put my mouth where my money is.
My money is on Pemmican as a “complete” food — one that you can live on, alone, for extended periods of time, without eating anything else.
I am far from the first person to believe this — it’s a matter of history.
Inspired by History
In his book “The Fat of the Land,” anthropologist and Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson compiled many historical accounts about Pemmican. All of these accounts praise Pemmican’s universally-recognized power.
According to William Temple Hornaday, who wrote an authoritative tome about American Bison, Pemmican was “Much sought after, for… its particular staying powers, due to the process of its manufacture, which yielded a most nourishing food in a highly condensed form… of inestimable value to the traveler who must travel light or not at all.”
Pulitzer-price winning historian Bernard De Voto wrote, “Pemmican is by far the best concentrated food I’ve heard about… It is certain that both Indians and trappers lived on Pemmican for very long stretches at a time… a considerable fraction of every year. It is equally certain that both Indians and trappers greatly preferred Pemmican to merely dried meat.”
These fur trappers often traversed the far-northern plains during the Arctic summers, when humid heat could exceed 100º F, and thick clouds of mosquitoes made it hard to breathe. Each man had to be able to carry at least one 90-pound “piece” of Pemmican. Stefansson cites the journal of one of these trappers, a Vermont-born 22-year-old named Daniel Harmon. From August 3, 1800: “Pimican (sic) is a very palatable, nourishing and healthy food; and on it, our Voyagers subsist, while travelling in this country.”
These accounts, which are both firsthand and scholarly, are impressive. But the most powerful historical testimony about Pemmican comes from Admiral Robert E. Peary, one of the greatest American Arctic explorers. Peary wrote a book called “Secrets of Polar Travel,” detailing his successful mission to the North Pole. When describing the foodstuff for the journey, he wrote: “Of all foods that I am acquainted with, Pemmican is the only one that, under appropriate conditions, a man can eat twice a day for 365 days in a year and have the last mouthful taste as good as the first… Pemmican is an absolute sine qua non.”
See? It’s really not that crazy to eat only Pemmican, for 30 days. Fur trappers, for over a century, ate only Pemmican for months on end, while performing daily feats of strength in the most strenuous conditions imaginable.
Complete, or Not Complete? That’s the Question.
But I didn’t want to take history’s word for it. After all, those explorers almost seemed like a different breed of human. I’m a pretty strong backpacker, but I don’t even want to imagine carrying 90 pounds of solid Pemmican on my back, in 100º heat. I’m a normal specimen. So I felt that I needed to test whether I would thrive on Pemmican as much as the fur trappers did, eating their diet.
Here was my experimental question: Does Pemmican, in 2022, have the same complete food value that it did 200 years ago?
Completeness is one of the main selling points of Pemmican (along with non-perishability and nutrient-density). If I thrived during my attempt, then I would keep claiming that Pemmican is, indeed, a complete food. On the other hand, if I suffered poor health because of the diet, or couldn’t stomach it, or had some serious nutritional deficiency, then I would stop calling Pemmican “complete.”
I figured that 30 days was a good length of time — I could extrapolate from there to infer how one might fare for longer periods, on Pemmican alone.
Here was my plan:
A Hypothesis of Health
I had a highly-educated guess about how the experiment would proceed. First of all, I was inspired by historical testimony. Second, I had done a shorter-term Pemmican-only diet several months prior, which had gone pretty well (the only issue was dehydration, which was likely due to using salted and seasoned Pemmican). So I formulated my hypothesis, being as specific as I could. Here’s what I predicted would happen to me:
Basically, I predicted (and hoped) that my experience would be the same as that described by Admiral Peary and the other historical Pemmican enthusiasts.
And so, on a sunny September morning, I walked out of the blood-test lab and ate breakfast: a 4-ounce bar of Steadfast Pemmican. And then I had another one for second-breakfast, and another one for lunch, and another one for dinner. And another one for breakfast, the day after that. And a very strange thing began to happen, in my mind.
A New Food Sensitivity
Usually, if I eat just one thing too much, I get sick of it. By the end of blackberry season, I’m ready to wait until the following August, to eat another. Even my mother’s renowned mushroom risotto would lose some of its savor, if eaten more than twice a week. I thought this was because “variety is the spice of life.” I thought I needed all kinds of different flavors, in different combinations, to be stimulated. But I was wrong.
Sure — during the first five days of the all-Pemmican diet, I occasionally craved fruit (and cucumbers, for some strange reason). But once that adjustment period was over and I had entered (more quickly than ever before) into ketosis, I experienced a profound gustatory equanimity. I craved nothing. In fact, my appetite in general had less intensity than every before. My thoughts about food were strangely… rational. And strangest of all, the sensitivity of my taste buds was dramatically heightened.
I have done a music fast before, when I would go for a month or so without listening to music. During the days when music returns to the ears, the experience is dramatic. Every note moves you. Every detail is highlighted, the timbre of every voice sounds radically distinct. It’s as though a layer of wax had been removed from the inside of my ears, and I could truly hear, again. This is what happened to my sense of taste, while I ate only Pemmican.
As I ate the unseasoned Pemmican, the true depth of meat’s flavors blossomed before me. I had never before appreciated how sweet meat can actually be — in a non-sugary way. The salt I had always poured onto the meat had obscured that flavor. And as my palate’s sensitivity heightened, I began to notice different savory notes, in the meat. Maybe I was tasting different types of grass, different notes of terroir, in each different bar. I began to realize that my hypothesis had been partially wrong.
I had predicted that I would get a little sick of Pemmican, by the end. Instead, the opposite happened. I began to enjoy it more and more. I would eat it slowly, savoring the nuances of flavor. And I didn’t crave anything else. By the end of 30 days, I would have been perfectly happy to continue with only Pemmican. The testimony of Admiral Peary was true: the last bite tasted just as good as the first.
In fact, I only stopped at 30 days because I ran out of Pemmican. Most of the Steadfast Pemmican was, at that point, being held back by the USDA because of a label issue. If there had been Pemmican on hand, I would have kept going.
But would that have been healthy?
Body By Pemmican
Physically, I felt pretty great, after 30 days. Everything was basically normal. I slept well, I worked as well as typically do, my workouts felt good. My hair wasn’t falling out. I was ready to go. But what did the numbers say?
On the 30th day of all-Pemmican (and coffee, and an occasional whiskey and steak), I took another blood test. The results almost confirmed my hypothesis. Nothing had really changed, almost everything was still, as it had been before, normal (at least according to the lab’s standards). The only major change was a significant increase in LDL cholesterol, from 104 to 174 miligrams per deciliter. That starting point, 104, was already considered high, by conventional mainstream medical science. But neither of these numbers worried me. (It’s true that I do eat a lot of cholesterol. I’m not convinced that cholesterol is bad, either in diet or in the blood. The cholesterol rabbit hole is a deep one — this podcast is a good primer on the subject: https://www.carnivoremd.com/resource/how-high-cholesterol-can-be-healthy-and-low-cholesterol-could-be-harmful-with-dave-feldman.)
Other than cholesterol (and slightly-low phosphorus), my bloodwork was almost identical, pre- and post-Pemmican fast.
The other test I had run was a body fat and density measurement. Before, I had been at about 14% body fat, at 212 pounds body weight. After, I was down to 12% body fat, at 207 pounds body weight. I hadn’t lost any muscle mass at all. Overall, a fitness win.
I wonder what those fur trappers must have looked like. Beast physiques, no doubt.
After undergoing the Pemmican fast, I’m prepared to say that the historical accounts of Pemmican are essentially correct.
Pemmican is a complete food that, counterintuitively, tastes just as delicious after a month of continuous consumption as it did on day one. In fact, I found it even more delicious, the more that I ate — I became like a sommelier of dried beef.
And so, as a survival food or as provision for an extended adventure, I can, in perfect conscience, recommend Pemmican alone.
So, will I be continuing an all-Pemmican diet in the future?
Maybe, but only for survival or expeditionary purposes. There are three reasons why I’m not still on an all-Pemmican diet, today. First, fresh meat is significantly cheaper because it doesn’t need to be processed. Therefore fresh meat is a better choice, if storability and transport aren’t priorities. Second, I am not a diehard devotee of ketogenic / carnivore diets. I love meat. I love animal fat. I think they are crucial parts of a healthy diet, which everybody should enjoy. But my instincts tell me that ketosis is not an ideal metabolic state for me, in the long-term. I like fruit and potatoes, and I don’t feel any harm from consuming them. Third, eating is a social experience, for me. I like drinking wine and breaking bread with my friends and family.
That said, Pemmican is still a very frequent part of my diet. I love it more than ever. To me, a Pemmican bar and a good apple is an absolutely perfect lunch. I chow Pemmican snack sticks multiple times per day. And I feel great.
I’m glad to have a good stash of Pemmican, in my pantry, and I’d be glad to rely on it, if a need arose. Pemmican is, historically and even today, the STRONGEST single food in the world — there is no better option to rely on or to supplement your diet with, to help you be strong in the wild.
(I like mixing it with mustard or honey.)