While the Arizona lion episode was missing a dead lion in the end, the show still inspired some spirited online discussions about the merits of lion meat. As it happens, I include several pages on that subject in my forthcoming book, Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter. It seems appropriate to paraphrase a few of those passages here, in order to weigh in on things.
My experience with lion meat is relegated to animals from the northern Rockies, though I doubt it matters much, because lions eat what lions eat no matter where they live: red meat, primarily from deer. The loins are like wild boar, in both texture and flavor. In fact, I’m pretty sure you could do a double-blind taste test between the loins of a mountain lion and a wild boar and you’d stump ninety percent of the participants.
The legs are a slightly different story. I came into four of them once, off a Wyoming tom that was given to an ex-girlfriend of mine. (It’s a funny story how this happened.) I took one of the back legs and removed the femur and shin bone, then rubbed it inside and out with seasoning and baked it in the oven like a fresh pork ham. It came out so tough that I was inspired to think of ways in which it might be put to use in industrial or automotive applications. The other three legs stayed in my freezer, and might have lived there forever, if I hadn’t turned up one particular night at Rock Creek Lodge. This bar sits at the confluence of Rock Creek and the Clark Fork River, about twenty miles from my home in Missoula, Montana. It’s regionally famous for its annual Testicle Festival, a liquor-fueled carnival where ranchers, hippies, loggers, bikers, and college kids get together in September in order to get drunk, shed clothes, dance, and occasionally fight, all in the name of eating deep-fried Rocky Mountain oysters (a.k.a. nuts removed from young bulls in order to make them steers.) But on this day, the Testicle Festival was still a half-year away, and the bar was mostly empty except for a plastic bag of hamburger buns and an electric roasting pan that was filled with chipped meat and a tangy barbecue sauce. I was well into my third sandwich—it was free, after all—when the owner of the place came out and asked how I liked the cougar meat. “I like it a lot,” I told him.
“Bet you didn’t know what it was,” he said.
He explained that his buddy down the road was a professional mountain lion hunting guide, but that the man’s clients never wanted to bring any of the meat home except for the backstraps. “I take as much as I can get,” he said. “Simmer the quarters in water until the meat’s falling off the bone, and then chunk it all up and make some sauce. It’s better than pork once you get it tender, if you ask me.” When I left the bar, the man called after me to announce a slogan that he’d just thought of: “Rock Creek Lodge: Balls in the fall, p**** in the spring!”
I’m not sure how far he made it with his advertising plan, but I got a lot of mileage out of his recipe. I spent the next couple of months making batch after batch of barbecued cougar, and even hosted a large mountain lion party where a couple of dozen friends feasted on the sandwiches. They were all delighted by the experience. And to this day, I can tell my fellow MeatEaters that lion meat passes the flavor test.