I’ve already written on a “recipe” poem in this series, back in the beginning of February when I focused on Phil Metres’ “Recipe from the Abbasid.” As I mentioned then, there’s something I like about how a “how to” poem forces us to be deliberate and specific in our writing. Also, the imperative voice used in a recipe (do this, do that) stands in fruitful contrast to most other kinds of poems.
But it’s never enough simply to reproduce a recipe or instruction and call it a poem – there needs to be some sort of tension added to the directions. In Metres’ poem, historical-political information is blended into the recipe to produce a surreal monstrosity of a meal. In Marilyn Dumont’s “How to Make Pemmican,” the tension is… well wait a second. I’m getting ahead of myself.
Marilyn Dumont traces her ancestry to Gabriel Dumont, one of the central figures (along with Louis Riel) who resisted Canadian authority in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the late 1800s, just after Canadian Confederation. The Pemmican Eaters explores aspects of Cree and Métis culture, retells episodes from the Riel and North-West Resistances, and challenges textbook versions of the history of western Canada. Apparently the title comes from a term then-Prime Minister John A. MacDonald used to refer to the Métis who were giving him so much trouble, but it seems to be a moniker that Dumont wants to reclaim. There’s lots to learn about this period in Canadian history and I am a novice here myself, but in addition to Dumont’s book, you might start here or here. (I will be happy to link to better sources online if anyone wants to call them to my attention.) I should also mention that it’s a bit unfair to look at this poem on its own, out of context from the rest of Dumont’s book. Like my discussion of Metres’ “Recipe for the Abbasid,” this essay only gives a narrow glimpse into what’s going on in this wide-ranging and ambitious collection. But I hope it might serve as a doorway in.
Pemmican (from the Cree word for fat or grease) is a protein-rich combination of fat, dried beef (usually buffalo) and berries which, because it is portable and doesn’t spoil, was an important source of protein for travelling trappers and hunters in the nineteenth century (and for native peoples much earlier). Nowadays it’s championed by a wide range of enthusiasts beyond its Cree and Métis origins, including wilderness campers, Canadian history buffs, and some spookier sites like “Off the Grid News” and “Urban Survival Site: How to Survive in the City When Disaster Strikes.” I’ll refrain from providing you all of these links, but you can find them on your own if you’re curious.
All this goes to show that even a “simple” recipe for pemmican carries a lot of baggage with it. So to the poem:
How to Make Pemmican
Kill one 1800 lb. buffalo
Slice the meat in long strips for drying
Construct drying racks and lay on tarps for pounding
Pound 1000 lbs. of dry meat
Mix with several pounds of dried berries, picked previously
Add rendered suet
Cut buffalo hides in quarters
Fill with hot dried meat, berry and suet mixture
Sew quarter-hide portions together with sinew
Bury in a cache for later mmmh.
— from The Pemmican Eaters (©Marilyn Dumont, Published by ECW Press, 2015), used by permission
On the surface, there is nothing particularly attention-grabbing here. The language of the poem is straight-forward, the lines clear despite minimal punctuation. Unlike Metres “Recipe from the Abbasid,” which spins off quickly into the bizarre, this one stays on task. One is tempted to blithely say to oneself, “With these instructions I could probably make pemmican too.”
Except that you can’t, because what’s missing is everything – every line only leads to more questions. “Kill one 1800 lb. buffalo.” How exactly does one set about doing that? Even an outdoorsman with a lot more experience than myself might be hard-pressed to bag the type of animal Dumont so flippantly starts off with here. And if we somehow manage to kill one, how are we to gut, skin, and butcher it?! Perhaps I’m revealing myself to be a city mouse without much worldly knowledge, but I suspect that the majority of poetry readers likely fit a similar profile to myself when it comes to buffalo butchering. So even the opening lines of this recipe become a way to let us know that we’re not going to learn how to make pemmican after reading a one-page poem. There’s a lot more to learn before we can even really begin.
This tone continues, with more slyly simple-sounding directions that open up further questions and challenges. What sort of drying racks hold 1000 lbs. of buffalo? How might one construct them? How does one pound that much meat? How does one render suet?!
All of this makes this short poem less of a recipe and more of a table of contents for a series of recipes and instructions. Because pemmican is so closely associated with the Métis, especially during the period with which this book is concerned, the implication is that we must understand pemmican in order to access the most basic aspects of Métis culture. However, obtaining that knowledge is going to require a lot more work than we might have previously thought. A reader might wonder to herself, If I can’t even imagine the taste of this staple food, how can I possibly get inside the culture of the people who developed it?
On the other hand, you don’t have to know how to make pasta from scratch to appreciate it. Ditto gefilte fish, tofu, or apple crumble. There’s ultimately, then, an element of invitation here as well. To my ear, the speaker in this poem is saying, You know almost nothing about what pemmican is, but if you try harder, keep asking good questions, and then listen, you might be able find someone to show you. This poem is only the beginning. Partly I’m importing this tone from other parts of the book, but the assured voice here seems to indicate that if the next poem in the book were titled “How to Kill a Buffalo” (it’s not), Dumont could list a series of similarly vexing, simple-sounding instructions that would lead us further in our study. I think of this mixture of rejection and invitation as one of the particular strengths of The Pemmican Eaters.
This is why that final “mmmh” at the end of the poem isn’t just a throwaway line, or a taunt. It is a taunt, but it isn’t only a taunt.
Quick explanatory tangent: My wife likes to watch cooking shows – Chopped, Iron Chef, that Chef’s Table show on Netflix that makes chefs look like the most fascinating and important people on earth. I admit I have very little patience for these shows, not because the people they profile aren’t interesting, but because we never get to eat the beautiful food we are seeing. When we watch The Voice or American Idol, we can hear the emerging virtuosity of the singers. When (if) you watch Dancing with the Stars, the proof is in the performance, and if you know anything about dancing you can judge and (perhaps) appreciate a contestant’s success right there on the stage. But there’s always something crucial missing from the experience of these cooking shows. Maybe that’s part of the appeal for my wife, leaving the final results up to the gustatory imagination. The “mmmh” at the end of this poem is a similar kind of tease. The speaker is letting us know that she knows the taste of pemmican, that she finds it delicious, that it’s worthy of a hum of satisfaction for her. Those of us who have never tasted pemmican can’t fully access the whole range of experiences, stories, beliefs, and cultural nuances that The Pemmican Eaters explores. However, it’s also a promise that the rest of the book attempts to make good on: if you’d like to know more, read on. By pushing me away (you know nothing about this), it also invites me in (come learn more). So in the end this poem/recipe is about confronting our ignorance. There’s a challenge in it, and it requires a certain amount of humility to accept that challenge. But the rewards promise to be very tasty.