Here in the heartland (and all places for that matter), there are certain perspectives on what counts as food.
Meat from cows? Food.
Green Jell-O? Food.
Lumpy, corn-derived sticks coated in bright orange chemical salt dust? Food.
Mulberries from that tree over there? Maybe food, check twice and chew cautiously.
These mushrooms growing in my yard? Not a chance they’re food.
Meat from ‘pest’ beavers removed by the county governmental system?
Definitely not food.
It’s true, the last one is oddly specific. Read on, friends.
Last year, as we built our home, I reached out to lots of different resources on energy efficiency and sustainable design. One of my first calls was to our county electricity co-op’s energy efficiency expert, who offers free audits, advice, etc.
I asked a long list of questions, checking on the plans we had in place to see what tweaks we could make to require less electricity to run our systems. He had lots of great advice!
As the conversation wrapped up, he said he doesn’t usually get these kinds of questions. “People just want a free water heater.” So, I tell him about the sustainability work I’m involved in at Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center.
“No kidding? I’m there all the time, at Cub Lake. I’m the county ditch and drain commission’s trapper, and the beavers are always damming it up where the water runs into the ditch.”
He mentions farmers, by name, who call him when they see the water ‘encroaching’ on their muck corn fields. “When they call me, I have to trap them — it’s the law.”
The law. I pause. I’m familiar with the kind of trap that is used. The beaver dies by touching a scent-covered button of sorts, a leg is snared and the being becomes entangled in a cable and drowns.
“What do you do with the beavers after you kill them?” I had to ask.
“Well, I cut off the (certain) toe to check it in at the county. I used to sell the pelts, but they’re not worth anything anymore. Now I just throw them on the banks for the coyotes.”
I had recently read about the Miami tribe’s seasonal use of beavers, in this place, as food, so my curiosity was piqued.
“Welp, hmmm….this might seem odd, but would you be willing to keep one for me and throw it on ice? I’d like to try processing a beaver with my students and preparing it as a feast. If you’re up for it, you’d be invited.”
“I’ve always wanted to try the tail, it’s where they store their fat. I read about it in the journals of Lewis and Clark. They compared it to bacon. So, sure, I’ll let you know if I get one.”
It was almost a month later when I heard that he had trapped a beaver. She was between 40 and 50 pounds — a much larger animal than I was picturing. Myself and several students skinned the animal together and cut the meat off in quarters, leaving the skin on the tail. Each student each took meat to prepare for the feast where we would host the trapper the next night.
As I prepared a traditional roast with potatoes, carrots, onions and parsnips, I was intrigued by the characteristics of the hind leg that was much shorter, and barrel-round in comparison to other longer-legged mammals I have prepared as food. The color deep, beautiful burgundy. I worked mineral salt and crushed peppercorns into the meat.
One student made tikka masala, and another made a delicious salsa verde sauté. I had the charcoal grill going to roast the tail and grill the tenderloins. Overall, we were surprised by how delicious the food was. As interesting as the menu? The wide variety of people present at the table.
So, why did we eat the beaver? To experience a forgotten food? As a way to respect the lives claimed by the system? To connect with the headwaters in a unique way? These are some of the reasons, but I am confident that we all walked away thinking a bit differently about what food can be, and the ways it can bring people together.
Every once in a while I get a text from the trapper. “Got a beaver for you if you want it…”
I laugh out loud every time, and respond, “Of course!”