Posted on April 19th, 2012
With a hammer – that’s how you pound a moose.
On the kitchen counter, on your bamboo cutting board that has heretofore never brushed its fine grains against red-blooded flank. A dead moose, to be precise, one that was butchered in your suburban cul-de-sac on a cool July afternoon on the back of your neighbor’s flatbed trailer. Sliced into thick steaks that went into another neighbor’s industrial freezer, packed in tight with two years’ worth of salmon and halibut. Then pulled out on a bitterly cold night six months later by the same neighbor as you sit in their driveway in front of a fire built in a sawed-off oil barrel, nursing a can of beer in your mittens, the moose steak pressed into your hands with urgency, because you have a visitor from out of town and it is imperative (so says the neighbor) that that visitor eat what true Alaskans eat.
But therein lies the problem: You are Alaskan (or, at least, you think you can finally call yourself that, with three winters under your belt and having seen the Bering Sea). And, yet, you don’t eat meat.
You are an anomaly in this land of delighted carnivores. You, shame-faced, pass on Dall sheep stew at dinner parties, the host proudly regaling the table with the story of how they took the game down themselves in some remote glacial cirque. Why the shame? Because you could eat it if you wanted to. You made the decision to stop eating meat long ago, in the haze of nascent, post-college freedom – a decision based not on ethics but on taste, a belated revolt against one too many grey steaks and flabby slabs of ham slapped down on cafeteria trays. But now, your vegetarian conviction declines in inverse proportion to the number of gray hairs you have, and you secretly sniff at plates of beef, yearning to taste it but too shy to re-enter the world of hooves, snouts, and offal lightly.
Enter the moose, king of the Alaskan tundra, handed reverently to you in a heavy package of butcher paper and plastic wrap one February night. How do you cook this? your baffled husband asks, knowing his spouse won’t handle food made of sinew, bone, or blood. In response, the neighbor produces a plastic bottle. Lemon pepper. To shake on the moose. That’s how you cook this.
Spices and moose in hand, you retreat to contemplate dinner. Your husband Googles “how to cook moose.” You heat a cast-iron pan. Your visitor babbles rapturously about the impending meal. You think about the moose that wandered into the backyard a few mornings ago and peered in your bedroom window at just the moment that you woke up. Can you eat this? You can eat this. Should you eat this? That’s debatable.
Your husband and visitor have their heads together, engaged in serious conversation. Apparently, the moose needs to be beaten into its full flavor, its flesh pummeled into tenderness, massaging out the miles it traveled through the tundra to your table. But what instrument to use? No mallets for flailing at cow steaks in this semi-vegetarian household. The husband has an idea, and vanishes to find his toolbox. He appears again with a hammer, one only used previously for nailing in the molding in the bathroom that you continually knock lose with the toe of your shoe, and starts pounding moose.
Moose is lean, all muscle and no fat. Your husband makes quick work of it, flattening out the connective tissues on this beautiful, thick, dark red slice of moose haunch. The crucial lemon pepper is sprinkled liberally on both sides, rubbed in with bare fingers. Your visitor crushes garlic, pours olive oil, and the moose, doctored and dressed, is slapped down onto the hot pan. You watch it cook, trying – and failing – to remember the taste of meat on your tongue.
When it is served, six minutes later, you ask only for a small slice. It seems fitting to approach the moose as something more than food. This moose was not meant to be devoured and consumed. This is moose that will transform and legitimize. You imagine that, when you eat it, the largeness of the land you live in – this rough, irrational, achingly beautiful state that throws you to your knees in the dark of every winter and moves you to tears during the endless summer days – will spread through you, your future expanding infinitely to hold steaks of caribou and mountain goat, maybe even black bear, braised in blueberries, Alaska-distilled gin, and spruce tips. You will, finally, taste what it really means to be Alaskan.
In reality, when you eat the moose, it tastes exactly how it should taste: gamey and a little bit sweet. Chewy. A bright iron tang of blood. It does not melt in your mouth, as your visitor claims, nor have the taste of wet willow your husband says it does. To you, it tastes just like the rangy beast it is, gnawer of birch trees, walker of Anchorage city streets and mountain valleys, moving slowly but with purpose on legs that seem impossibly thin to hold up such a large body. It tastes, simply, like meat, wild-caught and wild-raised. You neither swoon nor gag but chew slowly, thoughtfully, welcoming yourself back to the carnivores.