Admitting you like antelope is a bit like saying your favorite college football team is the Miami Hurricanes or that Jeffrey Dahmer was just misunderstood. –David Draper
No self-respecting, true North Woods fisherman would be caught participating in such fishing debauchery as a festival celebrating lawyer [burbot] fishing. -Randy Newberg
Cultures orbit food. What sustenance we choose and refuse shapes our consciousness. Every culture deems certain food sources delicacies and others taboo. America’s staple domestic meats, beef and pork, are forbidden to Hindus and Muslims, respectively. Primates and canines may be off limits by American morality, but plenty of cultures relish monkey and dog flesh.
Like any other aspect of culture, tastes and mores around food are fluid. BBQ and lobster were both considered peasant food a century or so ago. If you’ve ordered lobster rolls or good brisket recently, you know they can’t be bought on a peasant’s wages anymore.
Attitudes and opinions about the acceptability of wild consumables are just as deeply entrenched as domestic, perhaps more so. I grew up eating all manner of oceanic critters raw—even opihi—long before the mid-’90s sushi craze made uncooked fish cool. Upon moving to the Mountain West a couple decades ago, I was keen to learn about the different profiles of the meats newly available to me.
The office manager at one of my first jobs was a fourth generation Montanan who lived on a ranch outside of town. Her husband and sons were all hunters, and her opinions about game quality were clear as a prairie morning: Elk were best, deer were good, and antelope were utterly unpalatable.
“My sister-in-law cooked a speed goat roast last night,” she told me as I shed my coat one winter morning. “Stank up the house so bad, I faked sick and went to bed to get away from the damn thing.”
Being a novice hunter, I heeded her warnings, since they corresponded with similar attitudes I’d heard. I pursued deer and elk, never bothering to put in for pronghorn tags. Years passed before I realized how much delicious meat and damn fun hunting slipped by. I wish I could say this was the only time popular opinion steered me away from a game species, but it wasn’t.
Burbot, also known as freshwater ling, eelpout, cusk and lawyer fish, carry an air of malignancy similar to antelope. Randy Newberg, host of the popular hunting show Fresh Tracks told me, “If you grew up in the pristine water walleye country of Northern Minnesota, as I did, you were taught from an early age to just cut the line when you hooked a ‘lawyer.’ Culturally, they were the most repulsive of fish, even considered below a catfish, and thus they were tagged with the worst name the loggers and miners of the North Country could think of—lawyer.”
For those who are unfamiliar, burbot come by their lowly status for reasons that become obvious as soon as you catch one. They have wide, flat heads—eyes crowded on top—and one single barbel dangling from their lower jaw. Their back halves are slightly serpentine, like a bowfin or snakehead, and they sport a thick layer of rank slime over thinly scaled skin. When caught, burbot will wrap their muscled, gymnastic bodies around arms or fishing lines like constrictors, while emitting a belching or grunting noise. They lack the elegance and grace of more popular sport fish.
Rick Matney, a long-time fishing and hunting guide in Montana, hates to ice fish past late afternoon, because burbot feed in the twilight and darkness. “Nasty, stinky, slimy bastards. Who wants to catch those things? I’m out here for perch.”
Were it not for a man named Andrew Puls, I might still be trapped under the ill-gotten impression that pronghorn and eelpout aren’t worth eating. Andrew fed me my first antelope steak and burbot loin, both prepared simply—medium rare with salt and pepper for the steak, blanched in boiling water and vinegar then dipped in melted butter for the fish. Both were revelatory. While taste is inherently subjective, I’ll choose antelope over elk, and think ling rivals walleye.
These two creatures deserve our awe and appreciation for reasons beyond how their juices settle on our tongues. Antelope are the iconic plains animal of North America and the second fastest runner on the planet, trailing only the cheetah. They’re perfectly adapted to the vast landscapes that they inhabit, with massive eyes capable of spotting predators at great distances; massive tracheae to draw the copious oxygen needed to fuel their explosive and sustained speed; massive hearts to efficiently deliver all that oxygen to their extremities; and thick, hollow hair to insulate them through harsh, extended winters.
The writer Andrew McKean describes them this way: “Any time I’m out on our prairies, my day is made if I get to interact with an antelope, even from drive-by distance. They’re the essential natives of this place, capable of enduring endless drought, empty miles of desolate country, and most amounts of hunting pressure.”
Burbot are similarly impressive in their essential and tenacious relationship to the North American landscape. The immense ice sheet that once covered much of our planet allowed many species to cross oceans, including freshwater fish. Like pike, char, whitefish and grayling, burbot traveled from central Europe to Siberia and then across the Bering Strait to North America. 10,000 years ago, they sulked in lakes in what is now the American South, but today Montana and Minnesota are the warmest places they can tolerate.
The second-class status of ling and pronghorn isn’t born of any objective truth but, as Newberg put it, a “learned offensiveness and snobbery. Being rightfully snobbish about pro-walleye/anti-lawyer issues, I see the great parallels with pronghorn, my most favorite of all big game meals. I sense there is a bit of rural Western culturalism that causes this misconception about the superb palatability of the fine American pronghorn, something inherited from grandparents, crusty ranch hands, and old wive’s tales spun down at the local coffee shop.”
Over the past decade, our collective wild foods palate has shifted. Squirrels and rabbits are suddenly sought after. Pronghorn and pout are following a similar trajectory. Try a Google search of antelope meat, and watch your screen light up with glowing recommendations. My favorite local burbot lake, once quiet and empty most winter nights, now consistently supports a handful of ice shanties. While I don’t appreciate the competition, I can’t blame them for wanting to be there.
The next time someone tells you that a particular critter is foul and unworthy of your attention, practice due diligence as a thoughtful hunter and angler. Harvest one legally, treat the meat well, and prepare it with care. You might find a new favorite food.