Ron Marinucci: April Column

Ron Marinucci: April Column

They were marathon paddlers, even triathletes of their time. Accounts of their exploits are sometimes so mythic it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction.

These were the voyageurs, the fur traders of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th Centuries in Michigan. They paddled canoes up and down rivers and streams and across the Great Lakes, canoes laden with up to 7,000 pounds of supply and trade goods and fur pelts. Most days meant fourteen and even sixteen or more hours of paddling, usually averaging 40 to 60 strokes a minute. When portaging, a frequent necessity, they ran, “dog-trotting” sometimes as long as two or three miles one way, carrying bundles of furs, before running those same two or three miles back for more. And they lifted weights, in the form of goods and packaged furs. Legend has some voyageurs running while carrying four or five 90-pound bundles, one in each hand and the others by using tumplines (“portage collars”) or slings.

Surely such physical exertion, with only 10 or 15 minute breaks to smoke their ceramic pipes, was exhausting. Massive amounts of food were required for energy, strength, and stamina. Yet, as it is today, time was money. Stopping to hunt, fish, or gather for meals usually wasn’t an option. How, then, did these voyageurs manage?

One of their dietary staples was pemmican, a centuries-old ancestor of energy bars. “Pemmican” comes from an Algonquin word, “pimihkan,” which means “grease” or “fat” or “one who makes grease.” And that’s just what it was, mostly fat or lard from bear, deer, moose, goose, or some other animals.

The voyageurs learned how to make (and eat!) pemmican from the Indians. Narrow strips of venison, elk, moose, and, later, buffalo meat were cut and dried, either slowly over a fire or in the sun. The dried meat was then pounded with stones or rocks, pulverized to a near-powder consistency. Meanwhile, fat, lard, or grease was liquefied and poured into a leather pouch or mocuck (basket made of birch bark). The powdered meat was added, sometimes with fruit such as cherries, apples, or berries that had been similarly prepared. The grease then congealed, providing a light (but not on the stomach, I’d imagine), easy-to-carry food that would last a long time, several years even.

If time was available, the pemmican would be mixed with water and flour to cook as a sort of porridge or stew. This was called rubbaboo.

One historian who studied the eating habits of the voyageurs noted, “Pemmican is supposed…to consist only of pounded meat and grease; [that is] an egregious error…. Hair, sticks, spruce leaves, stones, sand, etc. enter into its composition, often quite largely.”

It all sounds pretty yummy. If not, well, pemmican and rubbaboo served the energy and strength needs of the voyageurs quite nicely.

To compare “energy bars,” past and present, I consulted Liz Bailey, RD, CDE, a clinical dietician and diabetes educator at Huron Valley Sinai Hospital in Commerce Township. She’s also an accomplished marathoner and triathlete, of the modern variety, though.

“Pemmican is used today,” she said, “by long-distance hikers, like those doing the Appalachian Trail, because it is packed full of so many calories. A pound of pemmican can provide up to 3600 calories.”

But, she added, “The downfall of pemmican is that it is very high in saturated fat and cholesterol and provides no fiber.” It “is strictly fat and protein. In the past it has been mixed with some berries, which added small amounts of carbohydrate, but in general it is mostly fat and protein.”

So, the “fat” provided energy and the “protein” strength, both needed by the voyageurs. Runners also require both energy and strength, but our tastes are a bit more discriminating. And, as Bailey explained, science helps us out, too.

“Carbohydrates and protein have four calories per gram versus fat which has nine calories per gram. So fat provides one and a half times more energy per gram than protein and carbohydrates. Fat, however, cannot be used for quick energy like carbohydrates can. The carbohydrate in energy bars is available for quick energy where the fat in pemmican is slow to digest and be converted into a usable form of energy.”

Energy bars, then, are our answer to the voyageurs’ dietary requirements. Bailey summarized, “Carbohydrate is arguably the most important source of energy for athletes. No matter what sport, carbohydrates provide the energy that fuels muscle contractions. They are the main fuel sources for the muscles and brain.”

“Proteins,” she added, “are the building blocks of the body. They consist of combinations of structures called amino acids that combine in various ways to make muscles, bone, tendons, skin, hair, and other tissues.” But proteins aren’t stored well by the body, so must be taken in regularly to help rebuild and restore muscle tissue after strenuous exercise.

Fat, on the other hand, should be restricted, but not eliminated, kept to “20% to 35% of total energy intake.” It does “provide fuel for long distances and low- to moderate- intensity exercise, such as marathons and ultra-marathons. Even during high-intensity exercise, fat is needed to help access stored carbohydrate (glycogen).”

For more specific information on percentages, recommended daily allowances, and more for individual needs, consult a registered dietician.

Bailey, in her athletic endeavors, uses energy bars, but issues cautionary notes. “They do not typically work well for pre-run consumption due to the fat and fiber in them. Fat and fiber cause food to stay in the stomach longer and can cause GI [gastro-intestinal] issues.”

Although they can be advertised as such, she said, “I don’t like people to use them for meal replacements because they can get much better overall nutrition from complex carbohydrate foods, fruit, etc.” She noted, “Many people select energy bars by taste, but other aspects of their nutrition and purpose affect the decisions of what bars people choose to use.”

“I never use energy bars before a run, but I will use them when I am doing a long bike ride, kayaking, or backpacking. They are small, lightweight, and easy-to-pack [like pemmican?]. In the kayak, they are waterproof and I can put them on the deck for easy access.”

She urged users to check the labels, noting the amounts of carbohydrate, protein, fat, and fiber. She recommended, “Watch calories and fat. Up to 300 calories and 10 grams of fat are reasonable for a meal replacement, but cut that in half for a snack. Choose a bar with at least 30 grams for carbohydrates if you plan to engage in long periods of exercise. The same for protein if you’re working those muscles. Look for vitamins and minerals like calcium and iron that you wouldn’t get from foods. Limit saturated fat to three grams or less per bar. Go for bars with three grams of fiber, for weight control.” She admitted, “As far as I am concerned, they don’t offer anything great,” “I use them only for convenience.”

In the history of Michigan, the voyageurs played an important, if rarely recognized, role. Imagine what they could have done with energy bars instead of pemmican!

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