Not everything I bring home from the Farmers’ Market can be purchased there. I recall, years ago, at Portland Farmers’ Market, shopping at a booth run by a very interesting gentleman. After a lengthy chat on a slow market day, the conversation turned to chanterelle vodka. The vendor wasn’t selling mushrooms, and certainly wasn’t selling vodka, but there was an easyness to our exchange, and conversation flowed from topic to topic. The more I inquired, the more information he divulged, and pretty soon, he invited me to imbibe the elixir he had tucked away in his tote. It was lovely. The vodka, the conversation, and the invitation. I’ve made chanterelle vodka every year since, and fondly remember our brief friendship.
So, last Wednesday, when dropping off a dish of Asian noodle salad with rutabaga & carrots for Greenville Farms to sample at the People’s Farmers’ Market (I do this every Wednesday – stop by for a different sample & recipe each week!), I visited with Herman. Herman, the honey & apple vendor (read about the farm his father started here), located right next to the Greenville Farms booth, has been enjoying the weekly samples. On more than one occasion, he’s suggested I come cook for his family. Very sweet, and very flattering. We’ve chatted, this & that about food, and that day he asked me, “Do you eat meat?”
I love that question. It makes me laugh. Yes, I eat meat. Steaks, chops, funky cuts, bits, butts, offal, fat, feet. The muscle meat behind the eye on a pig head is a tender morsel. And here is testimony of my testicle eating experience. The “Do you eat meat?” question is so very Portlandia. But I have found it essential, here in this town composed of Raw Food Carts & Bacon-Fests. When offering samples at Farmers’ Markets, I have actually offended people by adding meat to a mushroom dish. I guess they were pretty excited to try it before they found out it was laden with carcass. Ok, stomp off in your leather boots – more for us savage carnivores!
Herman told me that he had gotten some bear sausage – a lot of bear sausage, he said, from the processor where he takes his kill after the hunt. The bear hunter never returned for his meat, so it was offered up. Apparently, Herman acquired quite a bit of bear. He seemed enthusiastic for me to try it. “Sure, I’m game!” I punned. “I’ve always wanted to try bear meat.”
The evening I came home with two hefty packages of bear sausage, my husband also brought home meat. He is a butcher, working for a specialty meat company, and had several packages of ground grass-fed beef. “Wow, bear!” he said when I showed him the paper-wrapped bundle. He was anxious to try it. In fact, the next morning, he pulled a package from the freezer to thaw.
I worked the Farmers’ Market on Saturday, serving pounds of bacon that I had cured, atop egg sandwiches, and rich pork “wedding” soup. I had eaten quite a bit of bacon, and slurped hot soup all morning. The post-market meeting with my business partner included a pint of beer. I persuaded my husband to hold off one more day before serving up the bear. I’ve heard time & time again that bear is very rich. Occasionally I hear that it is greasy, grizzly, & heavy. I just couldn’t stomach the thought of bear on top of all that pig meat & beer.
But there was no holding him back the next day, so for our Sunday supper, on a cold, snowy day, bear was served.
Maybe it was the bowl of Porcine Wedding Soup I indulged in for lunch, or perhaps the gin martini that did me in, but the smell of frying bear was unsettling. The fact that my husband chose bacon fat as a cooking medium might very well have been just a wee bit over the top.
There was something about the aroma – it wasn’t bad or stinky, just intensely rich. Unctuous. And I don’t mean in the way chefs & food writers like to use the word to describe something rich & delicious, I mean unctuous, as in overwhelmingly fatty, oily, excessively smooth. The scent was overwhelming. It made the room feel heavy. The headiness filled my lungs. I needed to open up the doors, and found the crisp, cold air quite a relief.
Dinner was served. I admit it was quite beautiful. There was a sheen to the pasta. It glistened. And the nuggets of bear were dark and inviting. But I couldn’t sit directly over my plate, and pushed it forward a bit. There is something that I have known, but am reminded of at that moment – I have trouble with smells overwhelming my senses. My olfactory sense is by far my most sensitive sense. I enjoy tripe, but can’t if I’ve cooked it. Even though the aroma of the end result doesn’t resemble the stench of simmering tripe, it’s all I can smell when I confront a dish of that which I’ve prepared. I faced this in my plate of bear. It tasted really good. My husband commented that they did an excellent job with the sausage seasonings. Plenty of salt, and just enough sage. My 4-year old son devoured it eagerly. With great care, I lifted morsels of sausage on the tines of my fork and took them between my teeth. I ate gently, trying to savor. Trying to enjoy. Finding myself, again, overwhelmed.
Yes, I would eat bear again. In fact, I still have some in my refrigerator. And more in the freezer. I’m thinking Moroccan spices (like those used for strong lamb or mutton), or maybe bear chili. Something to cut the richness – white wine, tomato, and the like. I’ll also be sure to make it a day ahead, open some windows, and go for a walk outside in the cool while it cooks!
Years ago, my husband & I took a weekend trip to the Washington coast to our favorite little motel. There is a bit of forest that has evolved where the beach has grown. The motel used to look out over the ocean, but years of sand settling along the beach has increased the land between the structure & the shore so that now there is a good quarter-mile jaunt down a winding path to the beach from our room. Giddy with the excitement of a porcini hunt (we had stumbled upon them here before), I went scampering down the path. My husband, who had just driven several hours, chose a respite in the room. I meandered, looking low, scanning the forest floor. It didn’t take long before I was crawling under the pines, over sand and needles, searching the spot where I had luck previously.
I breathed in woodsy sea air, and sat for a bit beneath a tree. It was the moment on a trip where you feel your body relax, your mind lighten. It was quiet, the sound of the surf beyond the wooded patch. A deep sigh. Then a rustle. Oh, I thought, he’s come to join me! I crawled out from the tree and softly stumbled into the clearing.
There were mounds of sand, like little dunes, that humped here and there between the pines. Growing up all around them in the small open patches were tall, sandy-colored sea grasses. I was standing still in the grasses between the trees & the tallest dune. The bristly grass came up to my neck. The bear was straight ahead of me, a room-length away, hunched over a bush, eating berries.
There was a wonderous National Geographic moment. I felt I was privy to a private viewing of wildlife…live…in the wild. I stood perfectly still, smiling, giddy. Then a wash of realization swept over me as a gentle breeze floated through the rushes. Oh my god – a bear! My mind scanned its survival mode database…quickly. I didn’t want to startle it. I didn’t want it to know I was there, but it would if either I moved or it smelled me. If the wind changed direction, it would smell me. Ok. Black bear. Least aggressive. It was coming to me like a check list. I went through with the one plan that made sense, at least in the moment – I crept up the dune and stood as tall as I could. I wanted to appear non-threatening, but large. I watched for several seconds, not really thinking of the what-ifs – they seemed too frightening, I just concentrated on the moment. Slowly, but intently, I reached down, arms extended, and swished the grasses, pivoting back then forth, rustling up a gentle, purposeful sound.
The bear rose on hind legs, front paws held up, but dangling at the wrists. Circus dancing-bear posture. He looked at me, nose to the air, then down on all fours, lumbered away. Whew. I think at that moment, it hit me that there was an entirely different way that scene could have played out. Excited, relieved, invigorated, I rushed back to the room. There were no porcini in the woods that day.