Except that for the past several years, the trains have increasingly been long strings of black tanker cars, bearing oil from the North Dakota fields to the ports on the Pacific coast. It’s the same oil that so many of my neighbours drove out to Standing Rock to protest, caravans of folks bearing all the blankets and knitted hats and 50 pound bags of rice that we could send. And yet, here we still are, train cars of oil rumbling through town, at the tail end of summer, skies hazy with the smoke of forests on fire from California all through the mountain west, our roads clogged with the huge RVs that have come out to visit Yellowstone park.
All of which makes killing my hens feel especially apocalyptic. I’ve kept chickens for nine years now, and this is the third batch I’ve had to kill. I dread it every time, but my yard isn’t big enough to keep chickens who have stopped laying. I raised these hens from tiny chicks. I know them intimately. I’ve fed and watered them for three years, kept them dry and warm in the winter, dosed them when they got mites, have washed off their poopy butts when they’ve been poorly. In return they’ve made eggs and fertiliser for me, kept me company as I’ve gardened, and as the compost heap is in their coop, they’ve turned and turned and turned the compost. But a small town yard can’t handle nine birds, and so, these older ladies have to go. I’ve gotten good at it, and can dispatch a hen humanely and quickly, and although I’m not religious anymore, I do thank them and say a little prayer as I send them off to their next incarnation.
And then I get to work at enacting the ancient solution to hens who no longer lay. I pluck and gut and clean my four hens, saving the golden yellow fat pads for schmaltz, packing the carcasses in ziplock bags for the freezer. They’ll make delicious stock, my girls. After three years of organic feed and backyard grass, kitchen scraps and bugs, they’re nice solid birds, although I usually need to leave them in the freezer for a bit until I get past having known them.
The decision to eat animals or not eat animals is a fraught one. I live in the middle of one of the most productive swathes of forest and pasture ecology in the world. This is still largely an agricultural area, and while these soils are not well suited for growing anything but grass, it is because they grow such terrific grass that we are surrounded by enormous herds of deer, elk and antelope (we’d have herds of bison as well, but for a hundred years of bitter political opposition from cattle ranchers). We can grow a few crops here, but primarily what our area produces is meat.
I choose to eat meat because meat is what we produce here. Modern diets, including plant-based ones, are deeply embedded in an industrial food system I’ve spent my adult life working to avoid. I grew up in part on a corn and soybean farm in Illinois, and I’ve seen how dependent those crops are on heavy equipment and chemical inputs. I also know intimately the human cost in rising cancer rates, and the effects of soil erosion and depletion that industrial agriculture leaves behind. However, just as I don’t eat industrial food, I also don’t eat industrial meat. My decision to eat meat is deeply embedded in prioritising eating locally, which means that while I eat local game and meat, I also eat local veg from my garden and my fellow market farmers, bake bread with Montana wheat, and eat my fair share of organic lentils and peas grown a couple hundred miles north of me on in the grain and pulse fields of the northern part of the state.
What works for our local and robust food system is not something that’s going to work everywhere. But that’s my point. There is no simple solution to this complex problem.We’re lucky here to have a degree of food independence that is increasingly rare. Earlier this spring, the Washington Post had to add a correction to a story naming Montana’s Mussellshell County the worst ‘food desert’ in the US. Mussellshell county comprises about 1800 square miles and only has 4500 residents. There are two grocery stores that serve the whole county, and it was grocery sales figures upon which the study was based. Since most folks in rural parts of the state don’t buy their food in the store, the study was skewed and the Post had to run a correction to that effect. Mussellshell County is ranch country, where people grow big gardens and put food up for the winter. They home butcher ranch-raised cattle, pork or sheep and they hunt in the fall. Our Democratic Senator Jon Tester, an organic pea and lentil farmer, shakes hands with his left hand after losing three fingers in a childhood accident while butchering cattle on his family ranch. And in a follow up story in the Billings Gazette, 69 year old retired rancher Harvey Turner said told a reporter who’d driven up to the county’s lone grocery store, ‘What I don’t raise myself, I generally don’t buy,’ Turner said. ‘I just come here to get off the place,
walk around, kill some time.’
I choose to eat meat because meat is what we produce here. Modern diets, including plant-based ones, are deeply embedded in an industrial food system I’ve spent my adult life working to avoid.
My choice has been to eat where I live, and here we’re surrounded by small cattle ranches, and enormous herds of wild ungulates. My partner Chuck has a cabin south of town, and all winter we watch as the great Yellowstone elk herd streams through our yard and down the hill. They glean our neighbour Alvin’s alfalfa field, where for much of the winter, they graze right alongside his cattle. On a normal winter morning we might have 25 to 50 elk bedded in the yard, with another several hundred spread up and down the valley. As the day warms up, they stream up our driveway to move back onto the mountain where they bed down in the forest, then as evening falls, they come back down again, spend their nights in the hayfields below us.
Tonight I’m cooking elk for dinner, a rectangular piece of elk shoulder that’s so dark red it’s nearly purple. Dan, a former sweetheart, sometimes brings me meat in the fall, as neither Chuck nor I hunt. I would hunt but I have terrible eyesight, and I’m a bad shot, while Chuck, doesn’t hunt because he didn’t grow up around it, and we have plenty of friends who hunt to provide us with meat. As non hunters, we still play a role in our local food economy. We’re the ones gifted in the fall with whatever is left in the freezers, as our hunter friends make room for their current harvest.
Dan usually shows up on my porch sometime in December, with a couple of grocery bags heavy with packages wrapped in white butcher paper. Elk and venison and local domestic meat — oxtails last fall, and a lovely leg of lamb. It varies from year to year. The last year we were together, Dan put in for an antelope tag for me, and although by the time hunting season rolled around we’d broken up, he still took me out to shoot an antelope. They’re my favorite of our game animals, lean like lamb, or goat. We took one in an alfalfa field near town where he had permission to hunt. It was not romantic, we didn’t stalk an animal all day, we drove out and Dan sighted the gun across the hood of the pickup truck. Then I ducked up between his arms, looked through the scope and pulled the trigger (and managed not to give myself a black eye from the recoil). It was neither easy, nor traumatic, and I was mostly grateful the antelope went down right away. With my bad eyesight, I’d been afraid I’d just wound it. An antelope is small, so Dan and I together could field dress it, which we did in something of a hurry. There wasn’t a lot of ceremony, as a dead animal that you intend to eat in a warm autumn field is not something you want to tarry over. I thanked the animal in my own pagan way as we loaded it into the truck and we drove back to town, eager to hang the carcass and strip the hide to cool the meat so it wouldn’t spoil. Dan hung the carcass in his garage for a week or so, then I went over to help him butcher it. Everything got used. Meat in long muscles he stripped from the skeleton, carefully removing the silverskin before handing one and two pound hunks to me to wrap in plastic wrap, then freezer paper. Scraps went into a big bag, and later, our local butcher ground them for me, and those too got packaged up for winter.
Unlike in the UK where hunting seems restricted mostly to the upper classes here in Montana and in many other parts of the rural US, it hunting for meat is for rural and poor people. The wealthy hunt for trophies. The men and women I know who hunt do so because they love getting out in the mountains during those six weeks every fall, because they love handing down the tradition to their kids and grandkids, but also because they can provide for their families through the fruits of their own hard work. A bull elk averages about 500 pounds on the hoof, while cows come in at about 350 or 400 pounds. Butchered and boned, that’s 150 to 200 pounds of meat, enough to feed a family for a year. Hunting is regulated by licensing here, and the difference between in-state and out-of-state tags reflects this cultural gulf. In state hunters tend to be hunting for the freezer, while out of state hunters are generally looking for trophies. My antelope tag cost me $19, but for a hunter coming from out of state, it would be $205. An elk tag is also $19 in state, but $530 for out-of-state hunters.
After the last presidential election, many of us went into a panic, and started tallying whether we could survive up here on our own if we had to. We still have a functioning local food economy. Local ranchers provide much of the meat for our schools, senior center, and hospital. One night, when I was in a panic, thinking about selling up and moving back to the expensive but politically progressive West Coast, Chuck talked me off the ledge. If it got really bad, he said, he’d learn to hunt. We’d have meat. I have a huge vegetable garden. My friend Seabring, who with her husband owns the local hot springs resort said, ‘We’ve got the geothermal greenhouse. If we need to, we’ll just build some more of them.’ We tend to be a self-sufficient lot up here, and practices like canning and putting food up are less the purview of hipsters than they are of grandmothers and Hutterite colonies.
Hunting wild game is not a solution to the global crises facing us. But if we’re looking at a world that where local communities are going to have to rely once again on one another and on local resources, then I think we’re in better shape than a lot of bigger or more trendy communities. We live among people who have not lost their connection to raising crops and livestock, nor to handling and processing meat both wild and domestic. And all through town are backyard chicken coops, beehives, vegetable gardens and lots of fruit trees.
And yet, three blocks from my house the tankers full of oil continue to roll past. Climate change is increasingly visible. Every year, we watch the mountainsides stained rust-brown as more and more trees fall to beetle kill. Our sparse rainfall, about 16 inches per year, grows ever more sparse. Summer temperatures routinely spike into the 100s and the hot weather stretches into late October. And every year, the forest fires grow more catastrophic, the water temperatures in the Yellowstone rise, killing the trout fishery upon which we depend.
I can’t change those things, and my individual choices don’t have much impact on the global issues. But what I can do is participate fully in the food economy we’ve built here, and be grateful, as we were last Christmas, for the venison loin we all shared from the first deer that sixteen-year-old Isabelle killed with her dad. We were grateful to that deer, and to Isabelle, who not only killed and field dressed that animal, but who cooked a perfectly-done loin, a lovely piece of meat we sliced thin, and handed around that room in which we have gathered, year after year now, to celebrate our friendship and love, and our gratitude that we are lucky enough to live in such a beautiful and fruitful place.
Dan’s Antelope Carpaccio
1 wild antelope loin
Slice the raw antelope loin as thin as you possibly can. This is best achieved when the meat is in a near-frozen state. Arrange the thin slices of antelope on a platter.
Mince one to two shallots very finely, and strew across the antelope. Sprinkle it with capers, and coarse salt. Drizzle with the best olive oil you have, and serve with lemon wedges.
1 to 1.5 pounds of elk (or venison)
Flour for dredging
8 oz mushrooms, sliced or cut into chunks — I use morels in spring but any mushroom will do
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 or 2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp Allepo (or similar) red pepper flakes
1 tsp tomato paste concentrate
1 tbsp Worcestershire or fish sauce
1 cup stock
1/4 cup sherry
1/2 cup sour cream
Flat leaf parsley
Slice the elk into thin strips, as you would for a stir fry. Salt and pepper the meat, and toss it in flour to coat. I use a cast iron pan, but any heavy sauté pan will do. On medium-high heat, using the oil of your choice (or butter), sauté the meat until golden. Put the meat aside and add the chopped onion and mushrooms to the pan, with more butter or oil if needed. What you want to do is both deglaze the pan using the moisture from the vegetables, and begin making a light roux from the leftover meat and flour residue.
When your onions turn translucent, add the garlic and tomato paste. Fry the tomato paste for a few moments until it loses its bright red colour, then add the meat back into the pan. Add a nice slug of sherry to deglaze the pan, then add the broth along with the Worcestershire or fish sauce. Scrape up all the lovely caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan and simmer for about 20 minutes. Timing is variable depending on the age and tenderness of your elk. When the meat seems cooked through to your liking, add the sour cream and stir to make a creamy sauce. Do not let the sauce boil after adding the sour cream, or it will break.
Serve over buttered egg noodles or potatoes, garnished with the chopped parsley.
The author of the novel Place Last Seen, Charlotte Freeman makes her home in Livingston, Montana. A graduate of the University of Utah creative writing PhD program, she teaches at Montana State University. During the short Montana summers, she gardens and raises hens and is learning to put up as much of her own food as possible.