Berries weave an interesting thread through the history of western Canada. They entered the story early, an important food source for many living creatures on the prairies, and proved to be essential to the success of the buffalo hunt for Indigenous peoples. Local berries would eventually be welcomed into the diets of most newcomers, and even celebrated with festivals in their name!
One of the staples of the Indigenous diet on the Great Plains was pemmican, “a portable, high-energy, highly nutritious, and filling food, especially convenient for crossing long distances in pursuit of the buffalo herds. Pemmican is a Cree-Chippewa word meaning fat – appropriate because 50% of pemmican was rendered buffalo fat with 45% lean shredded buffalo meat, and 5% dried and ground berries. As the fur trade spread throughout the Hudson’s Bay watershed, pemmican became a portable food source for traders, voyageurs, and early travelers, too. Today, pemmican is popular as a survival food for hikers, and modern recipes feature all sorts of variations, including vegetarian options (see links below).
Speaking of recipes, a few years back I visited Fort St. James, a Hudson’s Bay Company fur trade post in northern British Columbia. They were passing out samples of Indian ice cream made from soapberries. Soapberries will foam when crushed, but are too bitter to eat by themselves so are usually mixed with something else. The recipe shown below features soapberries, water, and sugar. The berries also possess a number of medicinal qualities, as do many native plant species.
Settlers, of course, were familiar with berries, even though they may have been different from the ones in their homelands. Berry patches were located, berries were picked and preserved, eaten with fresh cream, and baked in pies, muffins, etc. St. Walburg in west-central Saskatchewan celebrates wild blueberries. Why? I’m not sure, but their 30th Annual Wild Blueberry Festival finished up last weekend.
Who else likes berries? Well, at Fort Pitt I found evidence that the bears probably really like the chokecherries down by the river – as you can see here.
Photo: Drying meat, Wilderness College