Welcome friends. The geese have honked-off in search of green shoots and the cottonwoods and maples are stripped. The landscape assumes a hooded grandeur. It's time to pull the carrots and bin up the potatoes- ah, the mighty kennebecs! A great rumbling rises from the belly. These are days for braises, for plump birds roasted golden and glistening, for roots, custards, cassoulet!
Here in the Clark Fork basin, and out in the coulees of the east Montana prairie, it is the time of the hunt. Yes, the stalwarts are waking in cold canvas tents at four, donning their insulated camo overhauls and heading into the drifts in search of their musky beasts. If there be tradition in this corner of North America, you will find it among those who teach their children to follow the bloody spoor, to blow an echoing bugle in the upland forests.
This is not my personal tradition though each year I promise I'll find myself a gun and head out with friends who know what they are doing. Despite my childhood love of ninja weapons, I can't seem to visit the sporting goods store in order to put a deer rifle in my closet. Save for a few grouse I have killed with rocks and sticks, I've never hunted. Each November passes and I spend my weekends at home cooking and reading while the rest of the state laces up their calf-high Sorrels and steps into the wind.
I am not opposed to hunting. I view it as a rather noble means of putting protein on the table, and it is hard work that often involves long hours in less than ideal weather. Not to mention that hunting necessitates a willingness to confront some rather disagreeable life realities: watching a sleek creature die and then pulling out its guts.
But I think there is something suspect about a meat-eater who can't bring himself to slice into a warm body cavity and look his prey in its dying, unclouded eye. So I vow to buy that gun someday. Not this year, though.
That's why it is fortunate to have friends who are not squeamish. Last week, a friend set two coolers on the desk at work. Both were full of elk. One was full of steaks, the other was stuffed with burger.
One of the attractive things about the chase for the uninitiated is that it seems to arm hunters with an inexhaustible arsenal of stories. I can't count the number of times I have sat silent around a campfire while my company flooded the night with whiskey-soaked tales about tracking wounded critters up 3000-foot snowslopes. Montanans of all stripes love to weave tales of the hunt.
So here's the story of this elk: Driving in the Pintler Range, my friend came across a young bull. He got out of the truck, steadied his gun over the hood and fired. Damn, he thought. I missed. The bull had not flinched but broke into a run and disappeared in the timber. But the animal had not run far. When they opened him up, his body cavity was full of blood. The bull took the shot directly in the heart. (Quick death for the elk, but too bad for those who might like to devour seared slices of heart.)
"I saw that happen once with a bull my dad shot," he told me. "Sucker charged 2000 feet and dropped dead. Ran that far with a blown-up heart."
"How do you think that works," I asked
"I don't know, man. But it would probably be the same with us. I don't want to find out."
So, in honor of this powerful creature and the guy who brought him down and shared with me, we're making bull elk burgers. I'm adding some ground pork fatback and some ground beef to moisten the lean grind. Topped with thick slices of home-cured bacon and a rich ketchup we boiled down off 20 pounds of garden romas this summer.