Posted on March 16th, 2012
About 12-years-ago my sister got married in a torrential downpour in a field in Maine. After a promising day of preparations under threatening skies, the heavens quit procrastinating and really let us have it. That did nothing to stop her from slogging down a torch-lined path through a cornfield in ankle-deep mud to get hitched on the banks of the Kennebec River. The guests, aside from my elderly grandparents, weren’t deterred either, washing along together down to the ceremony, then back to the rented tent for a country potluck like you read about.
Kegs of homebrew stood stacked to the tent flaps and tables bowed under the weight of produce from friends’ farms and gardens, with a spit roasted lamb from my brother’s flock down in Massachusetts keeping an unblinking watch over it all. Nearby a borrowed drum grill seared the fat off chunks of meat on kabobs — enough of them to build a small but sturdy meat cabin, complete with pepper, onion and mushroom trim.
Being from “away” — an interloper in these parts — I didn’t guess that in Maine people serve up game just as casually as my friends’ parents grilled pre-made burger patties from Stop & Shop. Still, something about those kabobs distinguished them from the usual barbecue mystery meat. It was red-hued, more like dark sandstone than raw, bloody bovine pink. The flavor wasn’t far from beef, with maybe a little bit of venison funk, and truth be told, it wasn’t all that remarkable. That’s why I wasn’t totally shocked when I found out after a couple of bites that I was eating the unofficial mascot of Maine: All that meat on the grill was a moose, minus the identifying features, namely antlers and fur.
The fact that Maine eats two of its three most recognized icons — moose, lobster and lighthouses — isn’t much of a surprise. Wild places have a way of rendering even the most unlikely creatures edible, and Maine teems with the stuff. Early settlers arrived to find conveniently packaged, easy to catch protein scurrying along the ocean floor and enough meat to feed a family for an entire winter lumbering around on four awkward legs in the forests beyond. When you’re hungry enough, little details like kinship to insects or the fact that your dinner is connected to a sour disposition and a huge rack of antlers tend to fade into the background.
Unfortunately, t-shirt and postcard designers don’t always look to reality for inspiration in their work. Lobster, which was once so cheap and plentiful that it was considered pauper fodder, grew into its icon status, becoming the ultimate in aspirational cuisine. That a red shell, a butter sidecar and a plastic bib are synonymous with “vacation” and “decadence” to most Americans seems weird to me, but maybe that’s just because I don’t enjoy the stuff. Moose, on the other hand, are kind of fuzzy, and caught in the right setting, majestic. Seen from afar, placidly chewing on pond weeds in the early morning mist, they’re hard not to love in all their graceless glory — sort of like Maine itself. I don’t think I’m alone in associating them with lakes and mountains and wilderness, nor do I think I’m a delicate or sensitive carnivore — I like all the beasts and all their bits. But there, in a candlelit tent next to a cornfield in the middle of the state, at a celebration unsuppressed by a wild storm, I felt a little bit like I was eating a bald eagle on Thanksgiving.
Of course what I didn’t understand was that in Maine, moose have always been known first and foremost as a half-ton of sustenance on four legs. Back in the day the drama of survival left little room for romantic notions of what certain animals might represent, beyond their caloric content. Today things are easier, with more of a safety net for the average family, but the bullets/pound of meat ratio remains unmatched for keeping moose squarely within the crosshairs. When it comes down to it, that’s partly because moose are just what they look like: giant, idiot deer. Emboldened by their own size, they go where they want, when they want, with none of the twitchy paranoia of their cousins. They’re dangerous, sure, and quite fast, but only once they get all four legs moving in the same direction (stepping behind a sizeable tree is a useful evasion technique when confronting a charging bull). Simply put, they’re easy to kill.
Unfortunately, they’re not so easy to eat. The sale of any wild game is illegal in Maine, and the species doesn’t exactly lend itself to domestication. In order to get a hold of the meat you either have to snuff the beast yourself, or ingratiate yourself to someone with a freezerful. The former can be accomplished in one of two ways: obtaining a license via the statewide lottery, or surviving a collision with a moose in your car. Considering the fact that some hunters wait over 10 years to win a permit, taking to the highways in spring might be more productive. Officially, you get to keep the meat if you kill the animal, or even if a state police officer or game warden has to be summoned to “dispatch” it. Remembering to ask for the right ticket to vouch for possession of the meat at the time of the accident might be a bit of a stretch, but then again so is butchering and storing an animal the size of your car.
According to hunters I’ve talked to, Maine’s stringent moose management policies result in a controlled statewide population, limited poaching and fewer highway accidents. The regulations also make moose a rare holdout — a legitimate protein that holds no place in commercial kitchens, with few associated recipes and minimal lore. For the time being, it’s a treat enjoyed only by people who can get it for themselves, assigning romance or meaning to the act as they see fit. Maybe one day the book will be written and we’ll all learn how to cook moose, but for now I’m staying on the lookout for inconspicuous old timers in un-ironic Maine moose tees manning the grill at parties outside of town.