Holly A. Heyser
I finally ate bear last night, and it was good.
For some of you, the fact that bear can be good eating is no great surprise: The hunting and eating of bears has been going on since long before we out-competed the horrific (and thankfully extinct) cave bear for the best places to shelter ourselves from the rigors of the Ice Age. Bear hunting has been part of American life since we arrived in the 17th century, and roast bear was on the menu for more than a few state dinners during our nation's youth.
My first impression is that bear looks like lamb. Very red, but far lighter than venison and darker than pork.
Bear regularly made its way to market before the sale of wild game was outlawed in the early 1900s, and it retained a place in the American palate right through the late 1950s. One of the best-selling cookbooks of all time, Meta Given's Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking (first written in 1947) includes a section on bear with helpful butchering tips, such as how to remove the scent glands behind the animal's hind legs.
Even more telling is that the 1957 edition of the Gourmet Cookbook includes three recipes for bear. Gourmet magazine never catered to the redneck hunter crowd: Putting bear in their cookbook means it was a legitimate facet of haute cuisine.
So why have I (and, I daresay, many of you) always felt ambivalent about eating bears? Was it watching Grizzly Adams as a kid? Winnie the Pooh? Maybe it was because I clutched a teddy bear every night when I was tucked into bed as a toddler. Hard to say.
My personal experiences with black bears have been fleeting, and mostly annoying; They routinely pillaged my father's garbage when he lived in the Watchung Hills of New Jersey. When I've seen them, which is rare, bear have been an ink spot looking at me from a distant meadow, or a fading crash through the underbrush as the beast ran from my approach. I have never seen a grizzly bear.
Steve Hillebrand/US Fish & Wildlife Service
But something else is at work here, a cloudy notion that bears are somehow different from deer or ducks or upland birds. Bears manage to be cute and cruel all at once—most of us balance, uneasily, the mental image of the fuzzy, huggy bear of childhood with the knowledge that at least some bears will happily tear you apart and eat you alive if given the chance. It's worth noting that the only land animal that routinely hunts and eats humans isn't the lion, or the alligator, or the tiger: It's the polar bear.
Then there is the biological fact that bears a) are omnivores like us, and b) look disturbingly like people when skinned. The American Indians put bears in a different spiritual place in part for this reason. Of all the things humans eat with any regularity, bears come closest to being us.
Finally, there is the practical consideration reported by most modern bear hunters that bear meat is insanely variable. Eat a bear that had been dining on berries and manzanita and you are in for a feast. Eat a bear that had gorged on salmon and it'll taste like low tide on a hot day. Ew. This fact alone has thus far stopped me from buying a bear tag.
All of this stuff swirled through my head earlier this year when California went through a round-and-round over whether to expand the number of counties where we can hunt bear. All I heard during the debate was "trophy bear" this and "trophy bear" that. Holly, who is more active in hunting politics than I am, started asking every bear hunter she could find if they did in fact eat the bears they shot. "Of course," was the answer. No one shoots a 150-pound bear (normal for California) for the rug; it's too small. Most of our bears are "eaters."
I decided then to buy a bear tag and hunt one for the first time. Sadly, life intervened and I never did get around to it. But my colleague Cork Graham did shoot a bear last week, and was kind enough to offer me some bear stew meat and a half-pound bear flat roast; the roast has a meat grain like a brisket, only much smaller.
Holly A. Heyser
My first impression is that bear looks like lamb. Very red, but far lighter than venison and darker than most pork. Closest match would be the darkest part of a high-quality pork shoulder. I put my nose up to the meat and inhaled. Surprisingly, there was no smell. Everything I'd heard about bear was that it was smelly. Cork must have dressed and cared for the meat very well.
What to do with this meat? In the kitchen, the most important thing you need to know about bear is that it is the single biggest vector for trichinosis in North America. No one gets trichinosis from domestic hogs anymore, but they sure do from wild boar, bear and, oddly, walrus.
To kill trichinae parasites you need to hit at least 135 degrees and hold it there for a long time, at least an hour. Safer to get the meat up to 145 to 150 degrees, which is medium—still pink, by the way. Ignore the old warnings about 180 degrees and such. I do plan a bear dish cooked medium, but that's another post. I thought I'd start with something traditional.
Behold Siberian pelmeni, pretty dumplings widely eaten all over Russia. To me, no culture screams "bear" more than Russia. A look through the 1935 edition of The Derrydale Game Cookbook turns up Bear Steak Czar Alexandre, Breast of Bear in Sour Cream, Russian Braised Bear Liver, and the memorably named Fillet of Bear a la Zinoff. Unfortunately, none of these dishes would work with what Cork gave me. But then I started reading about pelmeni, sourdough dumplings filled with all sorts of things.
Like bear meat. Apparently the oldest pelmeni were made with onions and bear meat (or venison) and frozen outside in the snow to be eaten on the trail by, you guessed it, bear hunters. Perfect!
I used this recipe as a guide, although lacking whey I used buttermilk instead to make the dough. I also used a mixture of King Arthur white-wheat flour and spelt flour because I wanted a rustic, rough-hewn look to the dumplings. I mixed the flour and buttermilk, covered it and let it sit on the counter for 48 hours. It could have probably sat for another day, but it was reasonably sour nonetheless.
Holly A. Heyser
As for my pelmeni filling, I ground two pounds of the bear meat, mixed it with a pound of my basic bacon, added pepper, a little salt, a little garlic, and lots of onion. Onion seems to be a constant in pelmeni filling.
The dumplings are traditionally made by rolling the dough into a snake, then cutting off a walnut-sized piece and rolling it flat with a pin. Uh, no? I used my pasta maker instead, rolling the dough just midway—it's supposed to be about 1/16 of an inch thick. Way easier.
I cut two-inch circles from the dough with a cutter and in went a scant tablespoon of the filling. You fold the circle over into a fat half-moon, then pinch the edges to make a gigantic tortelloni.
Since the bear was raw I boiled the dumplings for a good six to seven minutes, which was plenty. Sometimes they are served in broth, but apparently the Siberians think this is in poor taste. Sometimes they are fried after boiling, but most often pelmeni are simply served boiled with sour cream; I added lots of dill to mine.
First bite? Juicy, rich, earthy, and savory, with a twang of something that said, "I am not beef." Holly and I thought it reminded us of the wonderful yak meat momos we'd eaten at a Tibetan restaurant in Minnesota years ago. No strong odor, no off taste. This was some damn good bear.
A few dumplings cannot wash away a lifetime of ambivalence, but I feel differently about bear now. We all hold food prejudices—I won't be eating dogs or cats anytime soon—and most are based on culture, not flavor. Some people lump bears into the dog-and-cat category, but growing up I'd read so many stories about early Americans eating bear that it seemed more antiquated than obscene; in my mind, bear had always teetered on the edge of acceptability.
These dumplings pushed it over the edge for me. Eating the last dumpling, I thought of one of my favorite Swahili sayings: Wanyama ni nyama tu. All meat is meat. Even bears.