After over two decades of working as a hunting guide, Roger Morris knows a thing or two about cooking moose meat.
He got most of that experience cooking for hunters on guided trips in the Wrangell Mountains and Alaska Peninsula. But last week he prepared his "Bullwinkle's chili" for hundreds of needy Anchorage residents when a donation of road-killed moose meant an afternoon lunch at Anchorage's Downtown Soup Kitchen, where he volunteers.
Vicki Martin, Downtown Soup Kitchen program manager, said Morris is the man she brings in whenever they get a donation of wild game. Such donations are rare and not all the kitchen's volunteer chefs know how to use the meat.
"He's awesome," Martin said. "That's what he likes working with. Don't give him any tofu stuff."
Martin has worked at the soup kitchen for almost 11 years. The soup kitchen has a crew ready for a moose pickup, but it's been three years since they last got one.
In Alaska, road-killed moose can be salvaged by local charity groups. But getting the moose isn't easy. According to Maj. Bernard Chastain of the Alaska State Troopers, there are about 400 entries on the list to receive a moose in the Anchorage area (which includes everyone from individuals to small groups and nonprofits). All must be ready to salvage a moose on short notice at any time of the day or night and aren't allowed to check where they are on the list.
Anchorage resident Dave Skidmore and his group of four families got a road-kill moose in December. The families -- who operate under the name "Malamute Muscle" -- have received several moose over the years. Their policy is to split the meat among themselves and donate a portion.
The soup kitchen can accept wild game donations as long as the meat has been processed -- either by a butcher or in a home -- and is in good condition, Martin said. The kitchen works directly with Alaska Sausage and Seafood, which processes the meat at no cost to those who donate. The company charges the soup kitchen 25 cents a pound.
Still, Martin said, they don't get many donations. It's been about four years since they last had a wild game donation of over 75 pounds, though they get smaller ones throughout the year. They've received musk ox, bear and caribou sporadically, she said, often as people clear out their freezers or move out of state.
"It goes in spurts," she said.
So 72 pounds of moose meat from Skidmore's group is a big help for the charity, which gives such donations extra care. Protein, in general, is hard to acquire, she said. Plus, the kitchen serves a large population of Natives, many of whom grew up eating wild game and appreciate the familiar taste.
So on Thursday, Morris was in the kitchen, cutting onions and adding 20 pounds of moose hamburger into three 20-gallon soup pots. He was pleased to see a batch of purple onions he could add to the soup. He's often at the mercy of whatever donations the soup kitchen gets. Sometimes necessary ingredients like onions or bell peppers are hard to come by. It's no problem, he said. He just improvises as necessary.
Morris used a giant paddle to break up the meat as it cooked with the onions and big dashes of cumin, chili powder, oregano, salt and pepper, eyeballing the ingredients.
"The first thing I tell new cooks is you need to have enough spice in it," he said, between stirring the three pots. "Most people who come in here, their taste buds are gone."
Client Roger Williams said he carries a bottle of Tabasco to add the food, since it can often be a bit bland. He and his wife, Lucy Tall, come to the soup kitchen about three times a week. They live in a tent off Mountain View Drive and rotate between meals at the Downtown Soup Kitchen and Bean's Cafe.
Williams, 56, said he didn't need his hot sauce Thursday.
"Perfectly spicy," he said as he took his Styrofoam cup back through the line for seconds. "That guy knows what he's doing."
Tall, 54, is from the Western Alaska village of Chevak. She grew up eating moose and said her favorite way to prepare it is to roast it with onions and potatoes. She's often cooked it in a simple broth with macaroni and vegetables.
"This is the first time I've had moose chili," she said, taking a marble-sized chunk of meat and biting into it. "It's very good."
Martha Fletcher of Dillingham agreed. Fletcher was celebrating Slaviq, Russian Orthodox Christmas, on Jan. 7 and was grateful for a taste of home. She said having the moose on Christmas was akin to having her favorite traditional food, whitefish with seal oil.
"It's the bomb!" she said of the chili. "The bomb!"
Morris appreciated the feedback and was happy to feed people. On Thursday, the soup kitchen served 386 people in an hour and a half. There were no leftovers.
"Compliments aren't really the point of it," he said. "It's when we run out of soup that counts."