There are many things which have been lost in the halls of history. Those who have gone before us had ways of doing things that we can’t even imagine. In some cases, those ways were more ingenious than our own, as they found ways of doing things, without the technology we so much depend on.
Sadly, many of those methods are lost to us, especially in cases of groups of people with limited written language, who passed on lessons verbally, rather than through the written word. These people would have to know how to do a plethora of things on a daily basis, just in order to survive. Rather than sending their children to school to learn, parents would teach these skills on a daily basis.
The American Indians were one of these. They knew how to do countless things which are uncommon today. Some of these were recorded by the white man, in the early days of colonization and pioneering. But many more were never written down, which is our loss today.
Food was a major concern of the American Indians, especially the more nomadic tribes, like the Plains Indians. They were highly dependent on hunting and gathering, and as such, they let little go to waste. Indians used every part of an animal they killed; if not for food, than for some other purpose.
Preserving meat was a challenge in these times. We are all familiar with smoking and making jerky, but believe it or not, those weren’t the only means of preserving meat that the American Indians used. There may even have been many different ways that they did so, depending on the part of the country.
One such method used the inner bark from the slippery elm tree. This tree is fairly common throughout the eastern part of the United States and into the Midwest, as well as the eastern part of Canada. The tree can grow 50 to 60 feet tall and has a heavy grey-white bark.But it is the inner bark or “phloem” we are concerned with. This is the living part of the bark, through which food is passed through the tree. It is constantly being replaced, with the old phloem drying out and becoming part of the bark.
Why Slippery Elm Bark?
The inner bark of the slippery elm tree is actually rather amazing, being used for medicinal purposes as far back as the 1st century. It is useful for treating wounds, sore throats, coughs, and a number of other health problems.
Technically, it is the mucilage and tannins in the inner bark which provide those benefits. It is the mucilage that is useful for treating problems with mucus membrane, such as sore throats. The tannis has strong astringent properties, making it useful for skin irritations.
It also has antibacterial properties, which are important for preserving meat. It has also been discovered that the inner bark provides anti-oxidants.
Unless you live somewhere where slippery elm trees grow, you’ll have to order your slippery elm bark online, as I did. It comes already shredded, making it extremely easy to use, either as an herbal remedy, or for the purpose we’re looking at it for right now – preserving meat.
Preserving Meat with Slippery Elm Bark
Since we’re looking at this as a method that the American Indians used, we want to use it as much as possible as they would, rather than how we might think of using it in modern times. They didn’t have electric blenders or food processors to cut up their bark and they didn’t have plastic bags to wrap it up in.
Unless you harvest fresh bark from a slippery elm, your bark is probably going to be dry, like the shredded bark that I bought. If you harvest the bark right off the tree, you’ll need to peel off the inner bark, which is fairly easy to do, while it is still moist. All you will need to do is scrape it out. But if you allow it to dry, you’ll need to use something like a wood carving gouge to remove it.
Dry bark will need to be shredded and ground, and it will need to be dry to grind it. The Indians would have used some sort of a stone grinding trough, or mortar and pestle to do this.
I don’t have one of those, but due to all the time I’ve spent in Mexico, I have a molcajete, which is a close approximation.
With the bark dry and shredded or ground, it’s time to make it slippery. Place a good handful of it in a bowl and add water. The bark will soak up the water and release mucilage, which is essentially a tree mucus. In case you were wondering, yes, it’s slimy.As an alternative to water, there were times when the Indians would use meat fat. But few of the animals they hunted for food had much fat on them, unlike our domesticated livestock.
It’s impossible to apply the slimy bark to the meat alone and keep it there. Since they didn’t have plastic zipper bags to use back then, they would probably use a piece of soft leather, perhaps buckskin, to wrap the meat in, allowing them to package it and make it portable.
In order to use this as a preservative, we need to coat the meat with it. So, start by laying out a piece of leather or suede and spreading a thin layer of the now slippery bark onto it, covering enough area for the entire piece of meat. It’s hard to spread a layer that’s thinner than about 3/8”.Either raw or partially smoked meat can be used with this method. The way smoking preserves meat is through a combination of soaking the meat in a salt brine, which will kill bacteria near the surface of the meat and then slow cooking the meat to a high enough internal temperature to kill bacteria inside the meat.
While that is happening, the collagen in the surface layers of the meat forms a skin, called “pellicle”.
Place the meat on top of the slippery elm bark and then add more wet bark on top of the meat, being sure to cover it all.It is important to ensure that the entire surface of the meat is covered by the wet slippery elm bark, including the edges. Any gaps left in the bark would allow bacteria to get to the meat, causing it to begin decomposing.
With the meat covered in this way, the leather can be wrapped around it, making a package. Start by folding the ends over and then roll the piece of leather, rolling the meat inside it. Tie it with a couple of leather thongs to keep the package from coming open.When it is time to eat the meat, the package is unwrapped and the slippery elm bark is wiped off or washed off. There is no problem if it can’t all be removed, as slippery elm bark can be ingested without any problem. Some medicinal purposes for the bark require eating it, although nowadays that’s usually done as powder in capsules to make it more palatable.
How Good Is the Preservation?
While this method does preserve meat, it’s not the kind of thing you’d want to use for meat that you’re putting in your food stockpile. This preserving method was something that Indians used when they were traveling or moving from place to place and needed to be able to keep their meat usable for up to a couple of weeks. After that, it may not be so usable.
Nevertheless, this is a useful method to know of, for the same reasons the Indians used it. If you are in a situation where you are living off the land and kill a deer, you’ll probably need to preserve the meat, at least on a short-term basis, until you eat it. This method would allow you to do that, as it can be used with large pieces of meat as well, as long as you have enough slippery elm bark and something to wrap the meat in.
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