LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska - I dribbled a few drops of olive oil into the big black iron pot, shoving it onto the medium-hot part of the wood stove. Heat radiated pleasantly into the room as I chopped and added an onion from the box we’d harvested and stored in the root cellar.
A 5-pound hunk of moose meat stood by. The day before, my sister, Julie, and I had used a bow saw to cut it from the lower part of the frozen hind leg hanging in the screened meat shed.
Now thawed, I had just finished trimming off the moldy, scab-like crust that formed over the outside of the quarter during the three weeks it had hung before freezing.
Unlike the tender roasts and steaks we’d get higher on the leg, this meat was shot through with tendons, ligaments and connective tissue. It was good canned, or for ground meat, and it was really good as a pot roast.
After the onions had turned a translucent tan I dropped the meat on top.
The big section of leg bone clunked heavily into the pot, meat and juices hissing softly as I let it brown before flipping it to sear both sides.
Julie and I had found the bull on a late-September morning, standing sadly on the river bank. At least I thought he looked melancholy, even before we shot him.
Some moose come easily.
We don’t often find them right next to the boat, not far from home, not too big but not too tiny either. After missing out altogether last year, this time we got lucky.
Four big legs, the neck, hump, loin and pelvis and two racks of ribs meant we’d be eating well this year. Buckets of scraps kept the sled dogs happy for a few days and more buckets held the innards for trapline bait. Half the hide we sent out for tanning while the rest hung over an elevated pole until trapping season.
I cut a few hairy strips to dry for Quigley and Ellie to keep the two house dogs happy on days when we left them at home.
Refrigerator-range temperatures hung around for a week, seasoning the meat to perfection as we cut and packaged steaks and roasts, hamburger and stew, sausage and the adaptable pieces we labeled “Tender Bits.” That catch-all term covered all choice pieces too small for steak but useable the same way, as well as being handy for stews and other dishes.
Finally all that remained were the hindquarters that we wanted to freeze intact.
Two more weeks of aging thickened the crust but only tenderized the meat inside before it finally froze in mid-October.
I covered the browned meat with water and added a pint-sized package of chopped celery. I remembered slaving over cutting and blanching the stalks on a September day frantic with chores.
In the cupboard I found the small jar labeled “Sweet Marjoram ’08.” I’d grown more since, but none with such intense fragrance, so I kept using the old stuff — just half a pinch, because experience had told me any more would be overpowering. A frugal amount of store-bought dried minced garlic and a couple tablespoons of dried parsley from the garden added even more flavor and nutrition.
I put another log in the fire, turned it down and pushed the pot toward the cooler end of the stove top.
I didn’t want it to boil but only to barely simmer.
Two hours later I came in from doing chores, fed the fire again, and checked the meat, brown and juicy as it slowly cooked. Twenty minutes of chopping and slicing later, I slid the rest of the meal into the pot: Four unpeeled potatoes and three carrots, cut into large hunks and still cold from the root cellar, and two or three cups of the squishiest of the tomatoes ripening in a cardboard box near the window.
Our carrots enjoy garden soil that has been worked for over half a century, and goodly amount of compost and manure keep the crops reliable. The fat Royal Chantenays and slender, rich orange Gold Kings had been joined this year by Red Dragons, grown from seed sent to me by a friend in Eagle. The deep red carrot had a milder flavor than some other red carrots I’d grown and added color halfway between the orange of the other carrots and the deep red of the tomatoes.
Usually we don’t have the luxury of fresh (if squishy) tomatoes in November, but for reasons beyond me the cloudy, cool summer had produced a bumper crop, both in the greenhouse and outside in a raised bed. Tomatoes ranging in size from a small marble up to an apple had been cluttering the house, begging to be used fresh in salads and on tacos or cooked in chili and soups and stews. The few that melted away before we could eat them kept the chickens happy.
The rich fragrance of my simmering pot filled the house, adding to a deep smoky scent of tanned moosehide as I worked on a pair of mukluks. After two more hours, even the carrots mushed softly under a fork. At last, time to eat!
Not a fancy meal perhaps, but a darn good one. It wasn’t Thanksgiving, but this was a meal to be thankful for.
And all it cost us was a tablespoon of olive oil, a couple pinches of dried garlic and a whole lot of work.
Miki Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.