Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Small Game in Primitive Living, Part 3: Cooking For Maximum Nutrients

Indigenous peoples all over the world applied universal cooking practices to their animal foods for optimum nutrition.  For larger game, a common practice was to consume nutritious organ meats -- liver, kidneys, heart, etc. -- in addition to muscle flesh and fat after roasting over the fire, boiling in stews, or burying in pits lined with hot rocks.  The full spectrum of amino acids, water-soluble and fat-soluble vitamins exist in these parts of the animal.  For minerals, bones were added to long-cooked broths or cracked open to extract the rich, creamy marrow inside.  Smaller bones were sometimes gnawed on; the flavorful juices perhaps provided a dose of calcium and gelatin, similar to the nutrients found in bone broths.  The Townsend Newsletter For Doctors and Patients (2005) published an article about the properties of traditional bone broths and had this to say about nutritional content:

Broth can be thought of as a protein supplement, and a calcium supplement. The chemical ingredients extracted from broth are glycine and proline (collagen/gelatin), calcium and phosphorus (minerals), hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulfate (GAGs), and other minerals, amino acids and GAGs in smaller amounts.

Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains (Au Press)If my memory serves me correctly, I once read an anthropological account of a few hundred years ago in which one Native American tribe always had a pot of broth on the fire and added scraps and bones to this pot continuously.  The observer of this practice states that this tribe drank "copious" amounts of the broth.  

Aside from the boiling of bones to release their minerals and nutritive elements, some tribes went to great lengths to supply yet another source of fat -- in addition to marrow and body fat deposits -- called "bone grease."  This type of fat was attained by the long boiling of smashed bone and skimming the resultant grease off the surface.  In a book called Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, author Jack Brink goes into incredible detail about the production of bone grease, even going so far as to reproduce indigenous boiling techniques by adding hot, fire-heated rocks to buffalo hide containers filled with water.  He explains how bone grease is different than marrow:

Though bone looks to be solid, it is really more of a latticework of twisted strands of bone tissue interspersed with tiny spaces ... The tiny spaces ... aren't empty; they are filled with small globules of fat.  Called bone grease, it is a fat separate from the marrow in that is located in the bone structure itself, not the marrow cavity. (p. 190) 

Another universal practice among primitive cultures is the use of blood.  In a class I took at Wintercount one year, called "Using the Whole Animal," we caught the blood of a freshly slaughtered goat in a bucket and consumed the thick, scarlet red liquid after cooking it in a frying pan over a fire.  It resembled ground meat and tasted very rich and satisfying.  Of course, many of us know of the Masai and their practice of drinking raw, fresh blood -- so cooking isn't a requirement.  Blood is a good source of electrolytes, especially sodium, which are sometimes hard to come by in primitive living.  It is also high in protein and, in and of itself, a very sustaining food.

Powdered Woodrat

Now that we've reviewed some of the primitive cooking and eating practices for larger animals, let's examine how this information relates to the main subject of this series: small game.  While it goes without saying that all of the nutrients present in large game are also present in smaller game, the difference in cooking techniques to maximize these nutrients requires some explanation.  The cooking of small game is perhaps a simpler, more effective means of maximizing nutrition in primitive living due to the simple fact that long boiling times and extensive processing and butchering is not required.  In fact, many small animals can be eaten whole, bones and all (of course, removing the intestines is a probably good idea in any case).

Survival Skills of Native CaliforniaAuthor Paul Campbell, who I've met at several primitive skills gatherings, documents the traditional hunt and preparation of white-throated woodrat in his book, Survival Skills of Native California (pp. 340-345).  A Kiliwa Indian named Sam Ochurte leads Campbell on the hunt and, after procuring a few woodrats by way of bow and arrow, the native builds a small fire to cook his quarry.  He then singes the hair off, cooks the skin to a crisp, bacon-like consistency and removes the charred pieces of skin, eating each with a pinch of salt.  Ochurte then removes the intestines from the woodrats and returns them to the coals to finish cooking.  When thoroughly cooked, the whole rats are set upon one rock and pounded with another, as in a mano and metate setup, until they are a small pile of shredded meat and crushed bone.  He then picks out any uncrushed fragments and the rest -- smashed up bones, teeth, meat, and organs -- he eats.  As Campbell acknowledges, "The nutritional value of even one complete rodent must have been considerable."

Campbell notes that similar processing techniques were observed historically in several other California tribes.  Rabbits, hares, squirrels, and other small game were prepared this way.  In addition to this, larger game bones, such as deer vertebrae, were also pounded and stored or eaten -- ancient calcium supplements in a sense.  He describes other cooking methods for small game, including the boiling of whole small animals -- taken out temporarily to remove the skin similar to the above account -- and eaten whole, guts and all.               

By using the whole animal, primitive peoples easily attained the nutrition required for optimal health, and modern abos would be wise to follow suit in primitive living excursions and experiments if they are to sustain their health and maximize nutrients to thrive in the wilderness.   


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Small Game in Primitive Living, Part 2: Protein, Fat, & Calories

Without a doubt, the procuring of adequate food while in a primitive living situation is one of the most consuming (pun unintended) tasks that any modern abo-wannabe participates in.  After several days in the backcountry with a group of fellow primitive living enthusiasts, food fantasies inevitably come up.  "Oh, man, it'd be so great if we came across a pizza smothered in cheese, topped with pepperonis and meat. "  Sometimes these food fantasies take on a spirit of their own and the resultant food combinations are often dishes that no normal, well-fed human being would enjoy (or even think of, really) in civilization.  I once heard a guy say, "I had a dream last night that I was gorging on Church's Chicken topped with ice cream and chocolate syrup."  Mmm ... fried chicken and Ben & Jerry's in one glorious conglomeration.

What does it take to keep a person satisfied in the wilderness when he or she is living on the land, solely utilizing what is in nature to fill his or her belly?  Is it possible to live primitively, happily, with a full stomach while keeping the food fantasies at bay?  First and foremost, it depends on the environment in which one is attempting to get fed.  Many natural areas in the world are sorely lacking in many of the abundant plants and animals that used to flourish only a few hundred years ago.  In the Sonoran Desert, for example -- my stomping grounds -- wild antelope, grazing on extensive, lush grasslands, used to be a common sight.  Now, in most areas where the antelopes once roamed and the grass once grew, there remains scrubby, sad-looking mesquite trees, strangling the land and creating an impermeable barrier of interlaced thorny branches.  Along with over-hunting and over-population, this is a direct effect of over-grazing cattle on lands where they never ranged historically. 

Human beings have left a profound mark upon the earth, and this leaves folks who want to recreate a primitive living experience with limited resources.  What modern abos are left with is but a miniscule piece of nature's pie.  "The old gray mare, she ain't what she used to be."  And, unless we go to Alaska or other relatively unspoiled places, we cannot simply walk out into our backyards and find dinner.  Or can we?

A question I've pondered often is whether or not human beings can live comfortably and successfully with what is available in these altered natural places -- can we work with the limited resources available?  While the abundance of large game animals and wild plant foods in most places -- especially deserts -- has dwindled, perhaps there remains an underestimated, underutilized opportunity for sustenance in small game animals, whose populations have remained relatively stable over time.  Can squirrels, rabbits, birds, mice, and other tiny creatures provide all that a person needs to live well in the wild or elsewhere? 

Matt Graham's experience suggests that it is indeed possible to meet at least one person's caloric and nutritional needs on such fare.  By setting traplines of two simple traps -- one being a spring snare and the other being a Paiute figure-four deadfall -- checking them every day, and cooking the caught animals (mostly squirrels and rabbits) for optimum calories and nutrition, Matt was able to provide for himself during his three months of full-on primitive living in the southern Utah desert.  However, over those three months, he also ended up slowly losing body mass, indicating inadequate caloric intake over time.  Just how many squirrels and rabbits was he eating day to day?  If he had attained more, would he have felt more satisfied and maintained a better body composition?  And what quantity of small game would that require?  I hope to discuss some of these questions with Matt at Wintercount.  Until then, I thought it would be interesting to speculate a little.

Using the data from a research paper (intended for the evaluation of predators' diets in zoos) called "Nutrient Composition of Whole Prey (Excluding Fish) Fed in Zoos" -- and a lot of help from Stephan at Whole Health Source -- I was able to make some calculations and come up with the protein, fat, and calorie content of a few small game animals per pound of whole carcass (note: some animals are eviscerated, meaning their hides and internal organs are discarded):

Here we see that, while a pound of each animal provides adequate protein, when it comes to fat and overall calories, any person would be feeling pretty darn hungry after a while on such a dietary regimen.  Aside from that, there's also the reality of just how many successful traps one can set in a day and just how many animals such traps can provide.  Let's say we want a minimum of about 1500 calories per day, give or take.  That would require roughly:
  • 56 adult mice (avg. 20 grams each)
  • 2 gray squirrels (avg. 1.1 lbs each)
  • 1/3 of an eviscerated domestic rabbit (avg. 9 lbs each)*
  • 1/2 of an eviscerated black-tailed jackrabbit (avg. 8 lbs. each)
  • 6 Japanese quail (avg. 1/3 lb each)**
*Wild cottontail rabbits, for comparison, weigh an average of 2.3 lbs
**Similar in weight to Gambel's Quail of the Sonoran Desert

If we want to have enough calories to maintain body mass and even build muscle in primitive living, it would require twice those numbers.  Realistically, no person is going to be able to procure the amount of mice it requires to sustain a person in this way.  I certainly wouldn't be up for setting the number of traps that it would take, considering the fact that one whole mouse is only one bite and down the hatch!  However, when we look at some of the larger animals, surviving comfortably in the wild becomes more than a pipe dream.  Catch a few squirrels, maybe some mice and quail, and a rabbit or two per day and you have the makings of a successful primitive living experience!  The question of fat, however, is inescapable, and may require the taking of some animals soley for the fatty parts, which would add on a few more squirrels or one more rabbit to account for this need (if we are to achieve an ideal 60/40 or, best, 80/20 ratio of protein to fat).

Of course, not all of the animal can be eaten in most cases (aside from the very tiny ones) so we are left with the question of just how much of each animal can, in fact, be digested and utilized for nutrients.  In the next post, we'll discuss cooking small game in primitive living.

Note: I realize I'm leaving out the addition of plant foods to the primitive diet and their caloric contribution.  Seasonal variation and environmental degradation, not to mention the extensive processing many wild edibles require, makes them a questionable food source for practicing abos in many parts of the world.  If they're abundant, though, definitely eat 'em!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Small Game in Primitive Living, Sidebar: Awareness

Our pre-neolithic ancestors were able to achieve the feat of thriving in the wild -- seemingly impossible in the eyes of modern folks -- without a hitch. Why they were able to do this is simple: they knew the patterns; they knew where the food was; and they knew the ingenious methods to put a roast on the spit. In short: they knew the land.

So, before we get into the specifics of attaining adequate food in the wild -- calories and nutrients -- let's first acknowledge a very important primitive living skill that any modern-day abo should have in his or her repertoire: awareness. This means awareness of, not only skills, but also the place where these skills are being practiced. It goes without saying that knowledge of plants, animals, and seasonal variations in any given environment is a huge advantage in primitive living. Where's the water? Where's the food? Where's the hazards? Knowing these things is important. In addition to these things, an abo would be wise to have a keen sense of personal needs. This means asking questions, such as: What does true hunger feel like? When am I strongest? When am I weakest? Am I thirsty? Am I tired? It sounds easy enough, but, in my experience, this self-awareness was sorely lacking until I had plenty of "dirt-time."

To sum it up, awareness in primitive living can be thought of as a sense of one's own needs and how to meet them with the resources available. When we observe indigenous people in their environment -- their element -- it's readily apparent that they are very comfortable and content. They know themselves. They know their place. They are satisfied. With practice, we moderns can achieve a similar comfort and satisfaction in primitive living. In the world of health and nutrition, we cannot go back to the vibrancy in physical being of our ancestors. Similarly, in primitive living, we'll never be as skilled as Ishi, Last of the Yahi, but we can come close. I've met many people who have attained awareness, skills, and, most telling of all, comfort in the wilds. It can be done.

For a great resource on increasing your own personal awareness and nature skills, I highly recommend the Kamana Naturalist Training Program created by Wilderness Awareness School. For absolutely amazing dirt-time experience, check out the Boulder Outdoor Survival School. Also, primitive living skills can be learned hands-on at an affordable price at any of a number of skills gatherings across the country, the big two being Wintercount and Rabbitstick.  By combining awareness and skills, primitive living enthusiasts can become "whole" in nature and truly feel at home.

Small Game in Primitive Living, Part 2 -- in which I'll delve into the calories and nutrients of whole animals and cooking methods to get the most out of your small game quarry -- is coming soon ...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Video Footage of Weston A. Price

I'm currently working on crunching some numbers to put together part two of the "Small Game in Primitive Living" series and will hopefully finish it soon.  Until then, I thought I'd post this video I came across on YouTube the other day.  It's a segment from an odd, somewhat dated television show -- public access, I'm guessing -- called "Homekeepers."  The host is interviewing a woman -- a "Certified Nutritional Consultant" -- who describes the findings of Weston Price.  I'm not sure who this woman is or what she's all about (besides the fact that she's very politically correct when it comes to nutrition) but I'm very grateful that she dug up some fascinating video footage of Price.  If you want to skip the interview (which I would recommend) and go straight to the press release footage of Price, fast-forward to 3:26.