Mind the Meat!

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Fort Clatsop (replica)

Smoked meat hanging in a log cabin

Photo ©1995 by Kris Townsend, used with permission.

Most of the winter, the weather would prove surprisingly mild compared with winters at similar latitudes from the Rockies eastward. That was both a blessing and a curse. At the human level, the temperature would at last be tolerable, even downright comfortable for everyone as soon as they had a warm, dry shelter to return to day or night. On the other hand, the temperature seldom dropped into the low 30s Fahrenheit, and didn't stay there long when it did. Thus it was essential to get the meat processed and into the smokehouse within 5 or 6 hours of being bled out, skinned, boned and butchered. The butchered cuts had to be trimmed of ligaments and fat, all bloody spots or other discoloration cut out, and all "off-odors" as well as slime that signified bacterial growth, as well as visible evidence of parasites and other insects, had to be cut away. Next, it was necessary to cut the leanest large portions of the meat into slabs or "flitches" about 10 inches long and 1 inch thick. The slabs would then be "fleeced"—cut into ⅛" to ¼" slices—to insure fast, thorough drying of each slice evenly from the outside in. Let the slightest bit of moisture remain anywhere, and bacteria will begin to grow right there, and the whole slice will soon be contaminated. And if one slice goes, they will all likely go—a result the Corps experienced numerous times during their Fort Clatsop residence. Today, hunters age their venison until moisture near the surface has evaporated, or else put it in a freezer it until it begins to firm up before slicing it thin. Obviously the Corps' hunters had no choice but to slice their meat raw, which would have been both tedious and dangerous, even with a very sharp knife. Specifically, it would have been difficult to slice it evenly, so it would dry evenly.

Considering all these factors, and the unsanitary conditions under which they had to be carried out, it is no wonder that their meat was often foul-smelling, bad-tasting, nutritionally unsatisfying, and basically sickening. Of course, they soon learned to balance all the factors involved in securing, handling and preserving meat to the point that occasionally, when circumstances conjoined, they could fill their bellies with good viands. But even then, the captains faced another problem, which they quickly resolved:

We have heretofore usually divided the meat when first killed among the four messes into which we have divided our party leaving to each the care of preserving and the discretion of using it, but we find that they make such prodigal use of it when they hapen to have a tolerable stock on hand that we have determined to adapt a different system with our present stock of seven Elk; this is to jerk it & issue it to them in small quantities.–

He never said how well that plan worked, but at least his description of it strongly suggests that the "we" and "us" in his and Clark's journal records usually referred to himself and his co-captain as well as the civilians in the party, Drewyer, Charbonneau, plus Sacagawea and baby Jean Baptiste, whose quarters here adjoined the officers' (Fig. 2).