Don’t eat anything with a face a mother could love. You’d think this phrase was only the slogan of the vegetarian, but I can almost hear the bane to sound wildlife conservation rear its ugly head even in hunting circles.
That’s where in lies the apprehension of even the hungriest hunter when the topic of culinary conversation falls on the bear. Everyone’s willing to go out and blast a buck, or drop a duck. They might even do the proper work of thinning out coyotes. But will they drop the same hammer on a large Teddy bear?
“Oh it just looks too much like a human when it’s skinned,” is the other retort frequently used. Now, if Fish and Game used these emotionally driven ideas to run their wildlife management programs we’d be in real trouble…wait a minute: they do run their programs based on emotional responses by the public!
Not that the research isn’t there provided by biologists. It’s just that in California, the DFG doesn’t want to ruffle too many feathers: they do have to get paid…but should their pay be based on how they make people in San Francisco and Los Angeles feel all warm and cuddly? Or, should they be taking care of a predator population gone rampant, while the major prey dwindles due to too many deer tags sold for deer zones, Mexican cartel growers setting snares and booby-traps, lack of burning for fawn protection and increased food potential (USFS/BLM is terrified of getting sued by homeowners if their home accidentally burns down), and major mountain lion populations left unchecked?
We have a really big problem in California, as do most of the states along the Pacific Coast, where we’ve let city votes control country wildlife: does a person who’s never set foot in the country except for perhaps an annual picnic local park have better knowledge about wildlife behavior and habitat than a biologist who spends 200 days a year tracking populations? According to the continued moratorium on hunting mountain lions, that only helps the ignorant sleep at night, but has actually led to more lions killed under depredation tags and the rancher’s Tripe S (Shoot, Shovel and Shut-up) than would have ever fallen to a hunter population carrying a mountain lion tag during a set hunting season.
Until California gets its wildlife management practices under actual control of those who are paid to know what to do, i.e. the DFG biologists, we can at least we can do our part to help the deer population by thinning out the next largest predator population, the black bear, in California…and if what I’ve heard rumored is true, there might within a few years be a California bear hunting season with no limit as I enjoyed in Alaska—YES! THERE ARE THAT MANY BLACK BEARS IN CALIFORNIA…when you have bears, coyotes, and mountain lions coming down into heavily populated areas in search of food, it’s because their bigger brother kicked them out of their home area.
And with something as tasty as black bear meat, I’m still perplexed as to why people continue to avoid putting them in the meat locker and cooking them for a fine meal. After all, up until the early part of the last century (the selling of wild game became illegal in 1918), black bear had an honored place on menus in the most respected restaurants of New York.
For me, as I’ve been under the gun with the release of two new novels this year, the re-release of my 2004 bestselling Vietnam Prison memoir, The Bamboo Chest, in Kindle, and a new memoir (I call it the Marley & Me for combat veterans), bear meat has been a true source of comfort: it’s rich like an amazing beef steak, and yet sweet like pork. If you were to ask me my rating on meats, it goes this way from top to bottom: moose, black bear, antelope, wild boar, mule deer, blacktail deer…black bear, especially one that’s been feeding on manzanita berries or black berries, is that good!
In the last few months, I’ve been doing a bit of experimenting. This might be my best bear steak recipe of all. Yes, even better than my Scots Drambuie-Berry BBQ sauced black bear steak…It fits so well with what fellow hunter born under the sign of the archer Chef Marco Pierre White says, that food goes well served with what it eats. And what does a black bear enjoy most than honey?
Khmer honey-marinated black bear steaks grilling on a Big Green Egg.
Khmer Honey Marinade Black Bear Steak Recipe
· 1½ lbs black bear steaks
· 1 tbs garlic, minced
· 1 stalk of lemon Grass, chopped
· 1 tbs soy sauce
· 1 tbs oyster sauce
· ¼ tsp salt
· 1 tbs honey
· ¼ tsp black pepper
Nuoc Mam Cham (This is the sweet delicious dipping sauce you get served with Chai Gios [Imperial Rolls]) It’s a little sweeter than Khmer, but works fine:
· ½ cup Nuoc Mam (Fish Sauce)
· 1 cup cold water
· 2 tbs brown sugar
· 2-3 tbs white vinegar
· 1 tsp fresh lime juice
· 1 Thai bird chili finely chopped
1. Put the bear meat in a large container and set a side.
2. In a blender, put garlic, green onion, soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt, honey and black pepper, blended well.
3. Pour the prepared marinade on the bear meat, mix well, cover it and refrigerate it over night, or at least 4 hours.
4. To grill, lay the marinated bear on the grill at a medium temperature, cook until meat tender and singed on both sides and there’s no pink juice leaking when you pierce the meat to test. A great carmelization will occur that seals in the juices and adds to its moistness, though cooked through. Because of the possibility of parasites in bear, you need to cook to a central temperature of 155 degree Fahrenheit.
5. Slice the steaks and serve them hot as an appetizer with rice, or wraps meat with rice noodle, lettuce, herbs and dip in the nuoc mam cham.
I thought I had accidentally landed on one of the ever-increasing number of hook and bullet channels when I came across an ad for The Wild Within, hosted by Steven Rinella; not the Travel Channel. With the way Travel Channel programming has followed the New Yorker nepotism of the New York publishing world, it seemed as though you had to be either a New York whinning, potty-mouthed ex-junkie chef-turned writer, carrying a child-like fascination with Apocalypse Now; or a New York glutton with a penchant for traveling the country in search of restaurant-promoting food competitions, to get your own series. To see a Michigan-born-and-raised hunter and trapper hosting a show on that channel floored me.
With great anticipation I waited for the first airing: finally a hunting show that went further than an inundation of boring kill-a-minute, 30-minute sponsor advertisements, pushed on the new overabundance of outdoor channels—how I miss the educational hunting shows broadcast during the 1980s and early 1990s. More importantly, here was a show that would, hopefully at least, reveal to its viewers how to dismantle a deer.
Can you believe that the major outdoor channels actually don’t want any close ups of the processing of game? Many would think it’s because of the advertisers, but not the programming directors who pushed for this—because they’re afraid it’s too politically incorrect: Now you know why Cork’s Outdoors TVisn’t broadcast on satellite, though many requests from the different outdoor channels have come down the pike this year—they won’t allow me to show you how to even gut and skin a feral pig!
Rinella learning to make fish arrows in Guyana
THE WILD WITHIN
The first episode of The Wild Within was set in a place I know well, and remains as my hunting and fishing heaven: Alaska! There are very few states left where you can truly live off the land as a hunter/gatherer, and Alaska is at the top the list. On Prince of Wales (POW) Island, where Rinella and his brother own a hunting cabin, there’s a plethora of sustenance.
I must admit that I was hoping Rinella would’ve hunted near his home, in New York or New Jersey, for the first episode. Everyone flies to Alaska for an outdoors show, and yet there are so many poorly-represented, great hunting places right next to such a major center of anti-hunting: Ingrid Newkirk and Wayne Pacelles’ cash cows, PETA and Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) campaign from NYC. But, you can’t go wrong with Alaska, especially Southeast Alaska: bush planes, remote cabins, full crab and shrimp pots, and Sitka blacktails in good number…having lived and worked around the world, there’s a reason Alaska is the only place I ever truly get homesick for…
From Alaska, The Wild Within continued to Montana the next week, and that’s where I think the shake-down cruise for the show hadn’t yet found its legs. As Rinella mentioned to me over the phone, this is their first season, and they were just getting their steam and there was a question as to what to focus on: historical, environment and conservation, or the adventure of hunting, fishing and gathering.
This happens with all types of programming, whether scriptwriters on shows like Hawaii 5-0, or producers on TopShot. For most, it’s the first time the production team has met and are just learning each other’s quirks, along with not only clearly filling out the premise through field experience, but also editing and trying to coordinate programming with the broadcast company.
It especially gets interesting when parts, or all of the production team have never even participated in the main activity of the show…As is often the case, producers take the job no matter their own lack of knowledge or experience—perhaps you’ve heard of actors in Hollywood getting hired for a film, saying they’ve been riding horses since they were knee-high to a grasshopper, or that they hearken from a long line of motorcycle riders, yet the most they’ve straddled was a bar or diner stool while searching the jobs section of a newspaper? Same thing.
If you noticed that some episodes seemed to be off, like San Francisco (as one based in the City by the Bay, I know well the amazing opportunities for hunting, fishing, and gathering—I was aghast to see Rinella collect roadkill, totally illegal in California) which slapped me in the head with a big “Huh?”, or the Montana episode, that made me wonder whether this was a show best suited for the History Channel. When Rinella told me that The Wild Within was originally formulated for sale to the History Channel, it all made sense: the Molokai and Scotland definitely fit within the parameters of Travel Channel, while the Montana show appeared shot for either the History or Travel Channel.
So, like any crew on a new boat, a new production has a variety of learning curves related to the first shake-down cruise, of which this new season definitely has its highs and lows. Part of the problem can be that programming doesn’t actually coordinate to shooting and editing. What may have been shot first, ends up as an episode broadcast much later in sequnce. I can’t tell you how annoyed I was with the POW Island episode, when I heard Rinella repeat that oft repeated saying given non-hunters: You’d be paying $30 or $50 a plate for this in a restaurant!
Again, YOU CAN’T LEGALLY BUY TRUE WILD GAME IN THE US!
I was impressed that the introduction scene of the Scotland episode had Steven Gow, the Scots ghillie (hunting guide), working on meat that was to be shipped out that week. They really captured the hunting in Europe, and how much of a commodity it is. It also made me cringe, remembering how in the US we’re quickly following in their footsteps: $800 to $1,500 to shoot a wild boar in California?
We already have enough problems with a majority of the population growing up in urban areas, having lost their hunting, fishing and gathering traditions by generations—traditions that would have helped keep a clear public eye on such fabricated science pushed by PETA and HSUS. Charging horrendous fees on game that legally belongs the citizens of a state, does nothing but create an elitist attitude about something that was so free and drew many from their nations of origin.
In the Scotland episode, the hunter, angler, gatherer, theme of the show really came across, from field to table. And, this last weekend, the Guyana show carried it well again. This theme of field to table, and local bonds built, is the strength of the show, and even its honesty works, though it did make me recoil a few times, starting with the crippled blacktail that they finished off in the first episode in Alaska, and then a wounding arrow shot on a tapir.
During the Central America War, tapir found a fond spot in my heart. I was at a secret Contra base along the Honduran border, and because of the ridiculously low rations afforded our Cold War allies by US Congress budget cuts, we had to augment beans and rice with whatever animal protein got from the jungle.
Contra with three Sandinista rounds in his gut, leaving on my medevac in.
For the same reasons of the bigger bang for the buck Rinella mentioned on Sunday’s Guyana episode, the Miskito tribal members fighting in the Nicaraguan Defense Force (FDN) guerrilla unit I accompanied, targeted the tapir with dogs—much more meat than a hapless cuzuco (armadillo) or iguana. Imagine mountains, sides steep as cliffs, and during the rainy season, knee-deep mud, and thick brush and tall canopy—a shiver runs up my spine remembering firefights conducted under those conditions. We carried AK-47s to make the shot on the hungrily sought tapir table fare, but also to defend against surprise attacks by Cuban and Russian Spetsnaz-trained Sandinista Special Forces units.
Those harried days of the 1980s came rushing back as Rinella narrated on the tapir, and Jim Jones (I worked the Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco for NBC, along with longtime NBC cameraman and Jonestown survivor, Steve Sung—see enough bullet and fragment wounds and you recognize them easily, especially along the arms), but also the creepy crawlies and slithers that leave you not only very uncomfortable with a bite or sting, but even perhaps in the end, dead.
The Guyana episode also struck home the difference between sport and subsistence. In Alaska, those of us who actually survived on our caught or shot food, had no problem shooting a caribou in the water—in contrast, those who flew in from out of state for a hunt, or lived in Anchorage, would never think of doing so for the flak they’d get from their hunting party.
And this is where I’ve started enjoying the show, when in the beginning I had my misgivings with its clarity of purpose. The Wild Within really gets its legs when it focuses not on the historical qualities of hunting, or an area, something that can easily be touched on at the beginning, in short review, as with reference to Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana; but instead focuses on the present-day locals, the conditions, and work a subsistence lifestyle requires: shooting, trapping, catching and gathering everything you need from the environment, doing it day in and day out, no chance of calling in a sick day, especially when you have to provide for your family.
As Rinella mentions on the adjoining Cork’s Outdoors Radio episode, TV is definitely focused on entertainment (whether a travel show, or sadly of late, the news) first, and secondly, if you’re lucky, you educate as much as you can between those emotion-stirring moments, in the hopes that the viewer will pick up a book and go further in-depth. That’s where I laud the Travel Channel in even airing such a program—showing hunting and gathering for what it is: not necessarily pretty, sometimes amazingly gorgeous. The upcoming Texas episode promises to be quite the saddle-burning ride…
The Wild Within comes into its own as it remembers that premise by focusing on the local peoples, and their quest to keep sustained on what the wilds offer them. Most importantly, not as one of the other proliferations of survive in the wilds and get out alive shows, but instead looking forward to the trip outdoors, the resulting fine meals of game and fish, to that reconnection with oft-lost skills that kept us alive where we all originally came from—the wilds!
Other memories as the son of an American expat businessman, weren’t so traumatic and actually quite pleasant: skiing up and down the Saigon River to the Club Nautique (no, the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction wasn’t playing on the transistor radio) , trips to Dalat and Vung Tau, and my first taste of grilled venison noodle salad, otherwise known as Bun Thit Nuong Xa, thit nai being the venison (“meat deer” syntax) and xa the lemongrass that I think makes any wild game that much better.
The restaurant was in Saigon and I think we started going there in 1970 and continued as patrons until our leaving in 1972. Owned by a Frenchman and his Vietnamese wife, and dimly lit for romance it had a décor that would have made Graham Greene envious, but it was the food that made it one of the better-known restaurants in Saigon.
Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa was only one of what were several courses required of business dinners designed for schmoozing clients, and especially bringing the family as family is very important in Asia. Company wining and dining budgets sure helped keep a family of four fed in those days. All I cared about though, as a boy of seven and then eight, was that big bowl of rice noodles topped by a mound of venison darkened by fire and sweet to the taste.
Over the years since I started deer hunting, I’ve played with the idea of putting it together as I remembered. Often, though, I’d just make a venison chili, marinated steaks, or an oven roast. As I’ve matured in my tastes and trained myself to recognize the different spices that make up dishes, I finally asked myself, what was it about that dish, aside from great tasting venison (probably a muntjac deer hunted by some Degar hunter in the Central Highlands, or a market hunter on one of the rubber plantations)?
When I shot such an amazingly tender mule deer up near Alturas, CA with the great assistance of newfound friends this last deer season, I suddenly got a bug to expand more than the normal repertoire of venison meals. For a meal with such a variety of aromatics and flavor, Bun Thit Nai Nuoung Xa turns out to be a very easy dish to prepare.
In California, it’s pretty easy to keep a stand of lemongrass growing all year in the Bay Area and Southern California; in a mini greenhouse, everywhere else, all year long. Makes a great tea with or without sugar and shows up in a majority of Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai dishes, making it a worthwhile addition to anyone’s yard or window herb garden.
Finally, I said yesterday would be the day I made Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa…and when I was done, I wondered why it too me so long: like my ours bourguignon that tastes better than beef bourguignion, Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa tastes better than Bun Thit Nuong, i.e. the normal restaurant variety made with farmed pork…or the chicken and beef varieties for that matter.
…Yes, it’s that good!
Now you can purchase venison from ranches, but as far as I’m concerned farmed-raised deer is just a very lean beefsteak that used to have antlers instead of steer horns. Farm-raised means drugs, if even the lightest amount of antibiotics, and worst, fed a regulated diet of pellets and feed that comes in bags for improved muscle growth for weight at the market…all thanks to the USDA: we wonder why there’s obesity in the US?
If you want to get true organic venison, one that has been feeding on a variety of naturally occurring flora, living life in the wilds, absorbing all that made us that more connected to the healing qualities of the Earth, you’re going to have to get your venison with a gun or bow, or have a friend willing to share…
In just about every country outside the US, you can pay someone to shoot your venison…but why cut yourself out of the cycle of life equation that brings you that much closer to appreciating what you’re eating…or should be eating?
And while I’d never hunt muntjac in Asia as they’re definitely endangered there, I’d sure hunt them in Ireland and the UK where increasing numbers run the risk of a detrimental effect on native species of deer…as for New Zealand, with its low human population and major red deer populations hunting’s a given.
Now there are a lot of Vietnamese BBQ meat noodle salad recipes out there, but I’ve been enjoying reading the Vietnamese recipes published by the Ravenous Couple. Many of their recipes bring me back to the ones my mom learned from her Saigonese friends. Of course, as with all the recipes designed for meat from farm animals, I had to modify for wild game…
I wanted the venison to stand out, which means I had to remove some ingredients in the salad, and add to, and modify the marinade to deal with the dryness of venison—you’d be amazed at what good molasses can do!
Here is the recipe and please remember to comeback to make a comment below once you’ve finished enjoying your home cooked Bun Thit Nai Nuoung Xa–like traditional publications, it costs money to bring these articles FREE to YOU, paid for and supported by advertisers…part of which is attracted by rankings on Google, which is added to by the number of comments…You clicking on advertising links and making sure to make a comment on something you enjoyed means we’re able to keep bringing you useful information..and if you have a blog, too, the link to your blog through your comment brings your ranking up, too: win-win–Thank you and bon apetit!
If you’ve not got a local Asian foods market, you might find these ingredients and other things at Amazon worth ordering:
Bun Thit Nai Nuong Xa (BBQ Venison Noodle Salad) [Recipe]
Perfect Thit Nai cuts
1-2 lbs of moose, blacktail, whitetail, mule deer or elk sliced ¼-inch thick and large enough so they won’t fall through a fish BBQ grill
1 Cucumber cut in half, or quartered and then julienned
A bunch each of fresh mint, Thai basil, and cilantro some rolled and sliced, some leaves left whole for the chopped salad
One package of rice vermicelli
2 green scallion minced
1 tbs peanut oil
3 tbs fresh peanuts coarsely ground then roasted.
1/4 cup minced Lemongrass (Xa) stalk [Cut the stalk an inch from the ground and trim off the green leaves to boil in water for a great tea]
1/4 cup brown sugar—you can use refined sugar, but I think the added molasses adds something special.
2 tbs fish sauce (Nuoc Mam—“water fish”)
1 tsp ground pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced (use more according to taste)
2-3 shallots, minced, or a tbs of thinly sliced red onions
1 tbs sesame oil
2 tbs soy sauce
1-2 tbs of molasses
Nuoc Mam Cham (This is the sweet delicious dipping sauce you get served with Chai Gios [Imperial Rolls])
And even this recipe I just mess around with above for my own tastes everytime I cook…
Everyone…and I mean EVERYONE has his or her own family take on this sauce in Vietnam. I’ve had it salty. I have had it bitter…and I’ve had it so sickeningly sweet I should have poured it on a strawberry sundae—you have my permission to experiment! 😉
Mix the marinade to taste. Remember, everyone has different tastebuds and cultural tastes. Myself, I start with the recipe I’ve put together and add and subtract at each cooking session to make sure the marinade tastes exactly the way I like it.
Immerse and stir the venison in the marinade. Cover and set in the refrigerator for at least an hour. I like to let it set for 2-3 hours to really get that marinade to the core.
Start up the grill. I prefer to use a small Weber–and use charcoal…gas sucks. If you use a large one, you have to fill it up with a lot of charcoal. With a small Weber, I get high heat without wasting a bunch of charcoal—you want that meat right down there, almost touching the coals to really sear and get the molasses to crust over. Crusting helps keep the normally dry venison moist.
Place the meat in a fish and vegetable basket grill and place on the grill.
Cook the meat on one side for 2-3 minutes (we’re talking high heat here) until browning and slight blacking of tips…all that caramelizing for great taste!
Remove the venison from the fire. Might be sticking, so let it cool on the grill so that it’s not falling to pieces as you remove it from the basket grill.
While the meats resting, roast the ground peanuts in a dry frying pan to brown them slightly and bring out their flavor, then set aside.
Heat up the peanut oil, or cottonseed oil can work, and fry the minced scallions until slightly sweated and then place on a paper towel to remove some of the oil and set aside.
Boil the package of rice vermicelli, drain and set aside—if you want your noodles cold, then I suggest doing this first, or while the meat is marinating.
In a soup bowl (if you have an actual Pho bowl of china, so much the better), place some of the chopped salad, then a layer of the rice vermicelli.
Slice the cooked venison into large bite sizes easily picked up by chopsticks and place on top.
Top with a light sprinkling of the prepared scallions and peanuts
Serve with chopsticks and small bowl of the nuoc mam cham for your guests to dip the venison, or just pour over the whole dish and mix.