As I stared at the caribou leg in front of me and tried to figure out how to get the meat off the bone, I suddenly remembered how I would hide in my room when my dad and brothers came home with their catch. It seemed kind of gross and I just wasn’t interested.
Now I am fascinated by how the muscles wrap around the bone, layer upon layer. It is a puzzle to unwrap it and remove the tough tendons and gauzy connective tissue. It is a lot of work for a few hamburgers-worth of meat. I can see why some hunters might leave this behind, but our ethics will not let us waste anything useable.
My dad grew up in Palmer and hunting was a huge part of his life. He has many epic tales that occasionally come out when you can get him to talk. My grandparents were not farmers so they relied on wild game as a big part of their diet. For us it was the same. There were four of us kids and my mother didn’t work, so money was tight. There was the occasional holiday ham, but other than that it was mostly caribou or moose. Sometimes there was hares or dall sheep, and one time we got some black bear from a family friend. We were thankful for what we had because some years we didn’t get anything.
Occasionally my mom would drag me downstairs to help grind the burger. After getting over the gross-factor, I enjoyed working together with my family to get the job done. Everyone was in a good mood and there was a comradery in the kitchen that didn’t exist at other times. Our normal sibling bickering temporarily ceased and for a while there was just good-natured teasing.
When I went away to college my mom warned me not to become a vegetarian. She was concerned the liberal school I had chosen would corrupt me. My first semester I took an ethics class where we discussed animal rights and I learned about the cruelty of slaughter houses. I stopped eating factory farmed meat but would still eat wild game when I went home. This seemed to be semi-acceptable to my mom as she didn’t have to make too many concessions with her cooking. But while I was away from Alaska I didn’t have access to wild game and ate vegetarian.
Four years ago, Matt went on his first Alaskan hunt and brought home a spring black bear. We awkwardly butchered it and put it in the freezer. Although black bear is not known for being good-tasting, we thought it was wonderful and were hooked on having our own meat.
When Matt got a caribou the following fall we had my parents help us butcher so we could learn from them. Over 60 years of butchering knowledge passed on to us. We learned the names of all the cuts and which ones made the best stew. We learned how to package it safely and effectively.
Today Matt and I are working efficiently together. My mom is watching the kids and it is eerily quiet in the house. We have developed our own, slightly different practices that suit our cooking styles. Matt breaks down the large muscles while I work on the smaller stuff and package everything for the freezer. We will grind the meat when we use it. Later we will make stock from all of the bones for use in soups, stews and sauces.
Having a freezer full of meat now seems like such an important part of our lives that I have a hard time believing I ate vegetarian for so many years. My eating habits have come full circle now, returning to a simple place-based diet similar to what I grew up with.