Below you’ll find an excerpt from my book Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, which explains the hows and whys of eating my favorite portion of a beaver, the tail. The meat of a beaver is also quite good, if you take care not to smear the castor all over the meat while you’re skinning the animal. The hams, the shoulders and the backstraps are all plenty big enough to bother with.
For the back hams, sprinkle them with salt and pepper and then dust in flour. Brown the hams on all sides in a large pan and then set them aside. Brown a bunch of cubed vegetables, including carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, celery, and a sprinkling of green herbs. Once the vegetables are slightly browned and the onion is translucent, place the hams on top of the vegetables and add game stock (or vegetable or beef stock) so that it halfway covers the meat. Put the lid on the pan and gently braise the meat until tender – about 2 or 3 hours.
Tasting Notes: Beaver
Any book about the old trappers and mountain men from the 1800s will include a passage about their favorite food, beaver tails. Historians just can’t help themselves from throwing this tidbit into any treatment on the subject, probably because it has a little shock value and also works to demonstrate the tenacity, resourcefulness, and hardscrabble appeal of that particular breed of men. And while it’s unclear whether eating beaver tail was pervasive enough back then to support the historical emphasis on beaver tail writing today, one thing is certain: Anyone who reads about old trappers will at some point find himself wondering what, exactly, beaver tail tastes like.
My two brothers, Matt and Danny, were the first two people I ever knew who tried it. Or, at least, they almost tried it. Matt was going to Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, and he lived outside of town on Chippewa Lake. This was an area with lots of public land, and I’d go up there in late December and early January and base myself out of his house while trapping beaver through the ice. At night I would skin the animals on newsprint laid out over the kitchen’s linoleum floor. I’d place the unfleshed hides in contactor bags and put them in the freezer, and then I’d suspend the castor sacs over a heater vent with cotton twine so they’d dry out. Having removed everything with good cash value from the beavers, I’d set the carcasses outside the front door to freeze. From there they’d get used as bait, or maybe I’d sell them for a few dollars to a musher who liked to feed them to his sled dogs on the day before a big race.
One night Matt and Danny were sitting around drinking beer when they got to wondering about the tails. They went out and removed one with a knife, and then took it inside to have a look. The tail resembled something you might find under a rock in a tide pool: black, scaly, and just about the thickness of a big man’s hand and the length of two hands put end to end. It was not immediately obvious what part to eat. Looking at it from the severed end, they could see a compressed, oblong circle of scaly skin surrounding a core of whitish material resembling the gristle on beefsteak. That gristly stuff must have been what those mountain men were after, reasoned Matt. Old accounts always mention trappers roasting the tails next to smoldering campfires, but Matt and Danny figured that an oven ought to work even better. They laid the tail on a sheet of aluminum foil and tossed it in at 350 degrees. A while later the oven was smoking and the tail was sizzling; they pulled it out to find that the scales had begun to peel off in a burned and grotesque way that reminded them of charred skin. They each ventured a nibble or two, and later notified me that it tasted like gristle though you couldn’t really chew it.
That experience got us to thinking that the historians had screwed up. Since there was no way that mountain men were eating the actual tails of beavers, we concluded that “tail” must refer to the tail end, or rear of a beaver. Soon Matt and I were in his kitchen in the early morning, stuffing the back third of a skinned-out beaver into a slow cooker before we headed out for a day’s trapping. We filled any cracks or crevices left in the pot with chopped onions, carrots, and potatoes, and then topped it off with water and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Eight hours later, we were greeted at his home by a dish with the texture of pot roast and the taste of beef that’s been perfumed with castor. It was splendid. And so ended the mystery, or so I thought.
Now I cringe at how many times I’ve corrected people who mentioned that mountain men ate beaver tails. “No they didn’t,” I’d say. “They were eating the back legs, like the tail end.” I kept this up for at least a couple of years. Then I happened to be reading yet another account about mountain men that included a litany of specific beaver tail references that could hardly be confused. “Their [beaver] meat is very palatable,” wrote a man who visited an encampment of mountain men in the Rockies in 1839. “The tails,” he continued, “which are fat all through, are especially regarded as delicacies.” Another man had this to say: “The beaver possesses great strength in his tail, which is twelve or fifteen inches long, four broad, and a half inch thick. This part of the animal is highly esteemed by trappers, and assimilates a fish in taste, though it is far superior to any of the finny tribe.”
By this time, however, I had quit trapping. As much as I wanted to reassess the beaver tail situation, I was woefully short on beaver. My chance didn’t arrive until a decade later, when I happened to be camped in a cave in Wyoming. According to local legend, the famous prospector and cannibal Alfred Packer had camped in this same cave in the late 1800s after allegedly murdering and eating some of his travel mates in Colorado. On this night I finally happened to have in my possession the tail of a freshly dead beaver that I’d caught in a snare earlier that morning. I built a fire and then cut a willow switch down along the creek and pierced the beaver’s tail onto a sharpened end. I wedged the other end of the switch into a crack in the rock near the fire so that the tail hung about twelve inches from the flame. I let it hang there for almost an hour, and reached over now and then to rotate the tail with a multi-tool. First, the scaly skin got kind of bubbly. Next, the skin started to get crispy and thin, almost like the skin of a baked potato. Finally, the skin started to pull away to reveal the shiniest and nicest block of fat that you’ve ever laid eyes on. It resembled what you might find on the edge of a fat beefsteak.
I sliced away a shaving, as thin as a slice of prosciutto. The fat melted in my mouth like butter, leaving a gristly bit of leftover that felt like a combination of beef jerky and Styrofoam. It was wonderful. I had another slice. And another. Perhaps my enthusiasm for the beaver tail was nourished by the fact that I was camped in a cannibal’s lair and I didn’t want to be upstaged, but I really did like it. After eating, I went out to the mouth of the cave with my flashlight and looked around for the weird bits of mysteriously human-like bone that had supposedly littered the entrance at some forgotten time. Looking back in, I surveyed the corner of the cave where I had sat to eat the beaver’s tail. It was pretty much the only comfy spot there, and it was easy to imagine the old cannibal Alferd reclining there during his own mealtimes. What a world, I thought. What a strange and oddly edible world.
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