It takes some nerve to take a bite out of any part of a bear. My only anxiety about handling bear up to this moment in the North woods of Ontario was what I was going to do if one crossed my path. The thought of the one whose tracks we had seen on the beach and sandy path leading up to the cottage was worrisome for me. What if he tried to come in through the open screened window while I was sleeping? Because of this anxiety my husband Rolly had to abandon his dream bedroom so close to the water that he could tie a line to his big toe and throw it into the lake to fish while sleeping. (He never actually did that but he probably could have if he had chosen to.) Neither would he be able to watch the hypnotic moonlit ripples in the lake, nor listen to the loons calling from somewhere near the opposite shore if he moved in to the master bedroom with me. But the loon in the master bedroom, who was terrified of bears, wasn’t going to give up her plaintive longing call for her mate to join her either… so he surrendered.
The separate bedroom idea was not because of any marital discord between us. It was a mutual decision we made spontaneously, in order to have a break from one another’s snoring while on holiday, and also to each enjoy what we found most attractive about our preferred bedrooms at opposite ends of the house. The one I chose reminded me of my childhood bedroom. It had tall spruce trees, just outside the windows which were on three sides of the room. The aromatic calming scent of spruce resin reminded me of the smell that used to permeate the air on hot summer evenings as the breeze rustled through the spruce trees very close to one of the windows in the bedroom that I shared with my sister Marsha, growing up. I had a wonderful childhood and it was a wonderful smell.
The cottage dwellers whose loud barking dogs had kept Rolly up on a previous night had gone home and mating season was over for his noisy bedside-water’s-edge bull frog. Rolly’s now quiet bedroom was difficult to abandon, so I was very appreciative when he finally threw his favourite pillow onto my bed. No bear would ever take a bite out of me, with such a bounty of much leaner protein available right beside me. The bear shouldn’t be getting ready to hibernate yet and would have no need to gorge on much more fattening fare so I knew I was now much safer. Besides that, the cottage owners had left a baseball bat behind the bedroom door for us to protect ourselves against “intruders” with. My own best defence would definitely not involve a bat. Maybe screaming and jumping up onto the bed to appear bigger (as if I would remember to do that when it counted!)
Back to me taking a bite out of the bear. In earlier posts I mentioned the Wild Game Fund Raising Dinner for the local historical society here. We finally got our hands on some tickets and we, the “gradually-abandoning-red-meat and choosing-vegetable-protein-options-instead” couple, turned up with 150 other people to have a little game (and I don’t mean Bingo!) I did a little research in advance to assuage my guilt over the very idea of consuming wild game. The local library has wifi and I found out quite a lot on Google. Apparently hunting has strict regulations and permit requirements in Ontario, which are used to help manage the wildlife population. If left totally alone without any hunting permitted, in certain circumstances animals would have real problems maintaining the health of their species, due to overpopulation. Rules for hunters are very strict, with stringent enforcement of hunting seasons to prevent orphaned animals, and quotas for number of licenses to be issued each year varying, dependant on the success of hunters in bagging prey in the previous season.
The trouble is that we humans get in the way of the wild animals’ freedom to be wildly prolific. Where we have chosen to put our houses, to grow our crops, to build our highways, our amusement parks and our industries has greatly cut in to what was once “wild country.” Still there is wild game to be had in enough abundance under the monitored conditions that exist in Ontario to allow for some to be “harvested” each year.Nobody wants to say “killed” of course, but essentially the wild birds at the buffet dinner the historical society put on, cooked according to recipes their ancestors in Haliburton County had passed down to them, were no more dead than the turkey that you or I ate at Thanksgiving.
Our ancestors traditionally ate Pigeon Pie for Thanksgiving dinner way back then, which also happened to be the first dish I tasted at the wild game dinner. “Very much like how Liver Pie must taste…” I thought to myself, hoping to never have to eat such a thing ever again. I managed to consume the entire tablespoon sized portion that I had requested though, as a way of honouring the history of the dish’s origins.The next offering was Beaver and Beans, in which only tiny bits of beaver could be identified. It was white pieces of fat, like that in a can of pork and beans, and fortunately I had only allowed about a teaspoonful of the beans to be dolloped onto my plate, avoiding all but a tiny sliver of the white gelatinous fat. Following that I sampled a tiny tasting of venison (deer), moose, and wild goose. All of it was braised, sliced, and tender, and tasted much like beef (strangely, even the goose!) Much larger portions were offered, of course, but I declined. The moose was also prepared as meatloaf and sausage, both of them delicious, as was the venison sausage. Despite the inclusion of a raccoon in the pen and ink drawn collage of wild animals, on the poster advertising the dinner, there was none on the menu, much to my great relief! The fish offerings were pickerel, bass, and trout —all of them very tasty—as well as sucker, which had the distinct flavour of dirt bombs, the clay clods bored farm kids were always throwing at one another for fun.The fish’s flavour came from its environment of course, the muddy bottom of a river or lake somewhere in the area. It was unforgettable…and not in a good way.
“Would I be able to take even a tiny bite of bear?” I wondered. It was to be the crowning moment of the meal. I realize that not all queens in history are approved of for their actions by everyone who reads about them— nor will I be approved of by all for admitting that the “crowning moment” came with the last dish offered— Braised Bear. “If only I can keep images of Gentle Ben out of my mind long enough to taste it.” I thought, as the server placed the tiny smidgen I had requested on my dish. It tasted delicious! Enough to understand why it is considered table worthy by many. I didn’t think about the animal as Gentle Ben any more. No more than I would think of loveable long eye-lashed Elsie the cow when I eat the occasional hamburger.
I had just finished reading a book called Whispering Pines- A Haliburton Heritage by John S. Hulbig the night before the dinner. I happened upon it, by chance in the local thrift store when we dropped off the books we had just finished reading and were looking for more to occupy us for the rest of the holiday. Hulbig was a local author who grew up in the area; part of the book is about how his family subsisted—as did most of his neighbours during the Depression— in large measure on wild harvested food. It also recorded the experiences of his ancestors and their fellow settlers in that area. They were trappers, miners and struggling farmers. All of them were also, of necessity, hunters. It was the meat from the animals in the wild that kept them alive as our villages, towns, roads and first industries were built. After reading it, I was determined to experience at least once, the authentic flavours of the food that the first settlers and the original First Nations people had sustained themselves with. After the wild game dinner I understood why it was that there was not a fat person in any of the many photographs in the book. They ate to live, not lived to eat. They were likely as tough as a lot of the animals they partook of. They survived; they built this country on Beaver and Beans.They made me feel proud to be a Canadian!