The growl of my truck engine dropped an octave as I shifted gears to climb a hill and then began making my way around a bend. The twisty road in the woods of Central Virginia was dappled with late-afternoon sunlight. My mind was on what I would make for dinner—I wondered whether I had any sour cream—until I came around the bend and saw an SUV stopped in the middle of the road. I slammed on my brakes and squealed to a stop.
Moments before I arrived on the scene, the SUV's driver's plans for the day had been interrupted by a black bear trotting out in front of her vehicle. She'd hit the bear, wrecking the front end of her SUV in the process. Another vehicle had immediately also clipped the bear, and now all three of us were out of our cars, trying to sort the situation out. The bear and the SUV were the only casualties.
I'm a professional hunting guide, so my first concern was for the bear, which lay dying on its side in the middle of the road. It was struggling to get up with its front paws, but its back legs were clearly paralyzed, and there was no hope for the animal. I put down several wounded deer by the side of the road each year, but I had neglected to stash a spare rifle in my truck that morning. I did, however, have a very large hunting knife. A quick jab in the heart ended the animal's suffering.
I dragged the bear out of the road so traffic could start moving again, and then I waited for the police to arrive in order to obtain permission to keep the bear. (Being in possession of a dead bear outside of bear-hunting season can get you charged with poaching unless you get special approval.) I had realized that this was as perfect an opportunity as I would ever have to find out what bear meat tastes like. Disassembling a 150-pound dead bear wasn't what I'd had planned for the evening (I'd intended to catch up on The Walking Dead), but I'm a carpe diem kind of guy. An hour later I found myself the proud, legal owner of one dead black bear.
Black bears look like a cross between humans and big, silly dogs. The idea of eating one had always seemed just shy of cannibalism to me. I hunt deer regularly for food, but I had never eaten-let alone butchered-a bear. But is there any good reason the bear should be a sacred cow? Especially a bear that was already dead? There was nothing unethical about eating an animal in this situation, except maybe by the very strictest vegan standards. It wasn't moral revulsion that I had to get over, exactly—it was more like neophobia. However, as a hunter and writer specializing in killing and eating invasive species (a great way to eat sustainably and help the ecosystem at the same time), I've had to force myself to get over hang-ups about food on many occasions.
The butchering was easier than I had expected. With the exception of removing the paws, it wasn't much different from working on a deer. The fur was longer and thicker, but the hide wasn't much tougher. The bone structure of the lower limbs was radically different, though: The bones were much thicker, and they were surrounded by numerous broad sinews. Everything in those limbs communicated power-while also reminding me a bit of human anatomy. Within a few hours I had a fridge full of around 60 pounds of bear meat.
Now I had heard all sorts of stories from hunters about what bear meat is like: that it's tough, gamey, and unpleasantly greasy. But in my experience eating a fairly wide array of unusual species, I had found that meat that tastes "tough and gamey" is more often a case of bad butchering and sloppy handling than an intrinsic quality of a species.
To maximize the potential flavor of my bear, I dry-aged it for a week before I started experimenting. Dry-aging meat, for the uninitiated, is the process of letting meat hang out for a while at cool temperatures while allowing moisture to evaporate from it. Dry-aging accomplishes two things. First, natural enzymes in the meat begin to tenderize it by breaking down the collagen in the muscles. (Collagen is what makes tough meat feel tough, and more of it builds up in muscle tissue as an animal gets older.) Second, dry-aging allows water to evaporate out of a piece of meat, concentrating the flavor. High-end steakhouses all do this with their beef, and I have been dry-aging most of my venison in my fridge at home for years.
Once my bear was sufficiently dry-aged, the very first thing I tried was cutting some simple steaks out of a forequarter (the upper portions of the front legs) and from the backstraps (the cuts from alongside the spine that are referred to as "pork loin" in pigs). I wanted to keep the recipe simple so as not to hide the true flavor of the meat, but I also wanted to have some fun. So I just ran with the bear theme. I pan-seared the steaks in olive oil and drizzled just a bit of honey on them. A handful of blueberries went into the pan with them (bears love blueberries almost as much as they love honey). Then I transferred the meat to a covered dish to finish cooking in the oven and deglazed the pan with a splash of Toasted Head cabernet sauvignon, which I had chosen on account of the wine's label having a black bear on it. I made sure to cook the meat to 140 degrees and hold it there for a while, since bears, like pigs, can carry trichinosis.
My girlfriend and I sat down to eat our first bites of bear meat, drizzled with that red-wine pan sauce. The texture was good, and the backstrap cuts were a bit more tender than the forequarter cuts. The flavor was mild; it tasted more or less identical to venison—which is to say a lot like beef, only with less fat and a blander flavor. There was nothing greasy or tough about it. It looked like a thick piece of filet mignon. Between sips of the bear-bearing Toasted Head wine (which paired very nicely with the bear meat, I should add), we soon forgot that it was bear meat that we were eating. By the end of the meal, it was just dinner, no more exotic than the artichokes we served along with it.
Heartened, I started putting bear meat in everything. And once I began running it through the meat grinder, the stuff became a household staple. Think bear tacos, spaghetti with bear sauce, lime-marinated bear stir-fry served over ramen noodles.
Bear burgers in particular were a big hit. I mixed one egg with 1 pound of ground bear meat and just a touch of onion powder and pepper and broiled them under high heat. Three minutes per side seemed to get me up over 140 degrees every time, without taking the burgers beyond medium-rare. I invited some friends over to eat them, and the unanimous agreement was that they simply tasted like very good beef burgers and that nobody would ever guess they were bear.
I began to take the ground bear meat so much for granted that I confess to feeding it to a dinner guest in a ragout over angel hair pasta without thinking to tell her that she was eating bear as opposed to beef. She ate every bite. I'm still not sure whether I should tell her what she ate.
Lately I've found myself worrying about the dwindling supply of bear meat in my fridge and freezer. I have one whole hindquarter in my chest freezer awaiting a special bear dinner with a group of friends, but other than that and a pound or so of medallions, all I've got left is an array of very unusual bones that my dogs have been chewing on in the front yard. What will I do when I run out?
I've hesitated to take up bear-hunting in spite of the high numbers of black bears here in my home state of Virginia. As a dog owner, I'm disinclined to shoot them on account of their canine resemblance. But I realize that this is more about me than it is about the animal. Either I'll have to get over my reluctance to actually hunt bears, or I should spend less time with my rifle in the woods and more time cruising for roadkill.