I stand at the door of the meat shed and take a deep breath. The enormity of a moose never fails to humble me. With gratitude and a sharp knife, I begin my work, which takes about a week. I’ve been the master butcher in our home for a quarter-century. But it was only last year that I felt I had truly achieved mastery.
I remember the first year my (now) husband brought home a moose and hung it in the shed at the apartment where we were living. We weren’t yet married. I was young and ignorant. He was young with a wild streak, and took off for his next adventure with lightning speed, leaving the meat to me. I had never taken care of a whole moose by myself, and let it hang until the last minute. People around me started whispering until someone finally came and told me that I’d better get busy. No one likes to be told what to do! But I now understand the concern.
Last year, while I was taking care of the meat, I heard about some others who had gotten a moose and didn’t seem to be taking care of it properly. I was sad about the meat that might be wasted. It seems the ultimate disrespect to not take care of everything, nose to tail. We are blessed to live in a place where we can harvest healthy food from the land. It’s no small thing — literally. And it deserves the utmost humility. It takes time and experience to understand these things, and it helps if the culture we live in supports those ways of knowing.
I was able to go out to hunting camp this year and participate in the harvest, not just the end result. A group of hunters from Soldotna were out there too. We heard shots. One, then another. Well, there goes the moose we had scoped out the day before, we thought. But after meeting the group on a trail later in the day, they told us they were shooting at birds. Then, while driving back to our lookout later that evening, we saw a dead porcupine alongside the trail. A casualty of the overly excited crew, we surmised. Though we understood the actions stemmed from ignorance, it was hard to not feel disgust about it. Don’t shoot if you’re not gonna eat it.
I was raised in a hunting family, so already had a solid foundation and knowledge of how to respect the harvest. But I learned another level of care from my husband’s Alaska Native family, that I have now integrated fully. The one part of the moose that my husband took ownership of, even as a young man, was the head. I watched him carve the scant meat from the skull and place it in a bag, along with the tongue, to give to his grandma. He burns the nose and saves that too, for moose head soup. This used to seem like a waste of time to me, because it yields so little meat. But after so many years of seeing this, and immersing myself in the butchering process, I get it.
I can’t imagine not taking all of the extra steps to celebrate the harvest. I cringe when I think of people throwing out the bones, instead of sawing them up and making hearty broth. Why on Earth would someone not save the kidneys, with all that good fat and dense nutrition? I’m not a big fan of eating tripe, because I haven’t given it more than one chance. But I wouldn’t think of leaving it in the field if it’s salvageable. All of us can go back just a few generations and find that our grandmothers, or great-grandmothers, had a recipe for every part of the animal.
It seems there is a growing awareness about the value of traditional food. Like many things, westerners feel proud of “new discoveries.” There is a pride amongst some foodies for the “exotic food” they eat. As my friend, an anthropologist and Bristol Bay native, says: “What’s old is new again.” The American diet went into descent in recent decades, and it has caused many heath problems. The rise of seed oils, which supplaced animal fat, has been a detriment. But more and more, there is a trend toward nose-to-tail eating. Beyond the nutritional aspect, whole food eating creates a sense of relationship with the animal, which is a component of sustainability. When you genuinely respect every aspect of something, you tend to take better care of it.
There is not enough wild game for everyone in Alaska to partake. But if everyone who hunts does so with a sense of respect and full responsibility for their actions, it will go a little further. There are spiritual laws in place too, that I can’t prove but are worth considering. What kind of luck is made by shooting something and leaving it lay? Or throwing out the pieces that are considered unsavory? Or getting the thrill of the kill but then rushing back to the city, taking only what is easy to process? Alaska’s wild game is not just a great resource, to pluck off. The animals are deeply connected to our way of life in this beautiful state. Who would we be without them? They are our relation.
Chantelle Pence is the author of “Homestead Girl: The View from Here.” She lives in Chistochina.
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