Flash in the Pan 

Mountain coconuts at the Bare Buffet

Chef Boy Ari cruising the Bare Buffet, looking for something to write home about. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes you have to eat shit and like it.

It looked like a crusted, solidified puddle, with dark, brownish material holding together an amalgam of bright berries, crushed seeds and other unidentified material. Hair, maybe? Bones? Being an omnivore, I reserve the right to eat anything. And since I do my best thinking with my mouth, I took a bite.

It tasted better than it looked. It tasted like chocolate, almonds and cranberries. That’s the way it was that day at the Bare Buffet. Things were not always what they seemed.

Such as the name: Bare Buffet. Truth is, it was the Bear Buffet. No flesh-tone tummies or all-you-can eat fish tacos…the theme of the Bear Buffet was all things bear—as in Yogi, not bottoms. Yogi as in pic-a-nic basket, not Tantra.

Part of the Great Bear Foundation’s weekend-long 4th annual Bear Honoring, the Bear Buffet was an opportunity for the public to eat like a bear. While the aforementioned “Bear Pie” was an artistic rendition of what comes out the tail end, the majority of the items on the table represented the pre-digested phase of the bear diet. Through presentations, field trips, and interactive learning experiences like the Bear Buffet, the Bear Honoring seeks to celebrate and inform the public of all things bear. It happens in mid-spring, as the mighty omnivores emerge from their dens.

Evidently, an omnivorous diet is not the only thing da bears and Chef Boy Ari have in common. “It takes the average bear a week or two to wake up,” says the Great Bear Foundation’s Greg Price. “They walk around in a semi-daze, getting the blood flowing. It’s a shame they allow bear hunting in the spring.”

Each item on the Bear Buffet table had a little note explaining the context in which it would be eaten by the bear in its natural environment. Next to the deer sausages, for example, it said “Bears love meat, from fresh to pretty ripe. And they don’t like to share. Taking an ungulate off the hoof doesn’t come natural to bears, but they are clever enough to figure it out. Once they do, they become very good at the job.” Despite this ability, bears are about 90 percent vegetarian.

Then came a platter of Rocky Mountain Coconuts. I might be the only person in the world who calls Glacier Lilies Rocky Mountain Coconuts, but that’s what they taste like to me. To taste for yourself, dig down beneath the plant, following the ultra-fragile stalk with your gentle fingers, until you eventually arrive at a corm (a corm is the thickened, underground portion of the stem). Pop that corm into your mouth, and you will experience a watery, somewhat bamboo-like flavor that is not unlike a coconut—and not too much of a problem either. But don’t dig too many from one place, and don’t leave a mess.

The alohas were flying that day around the Glacier Lily corms, which were once an important food source for Native Americans. So too are the Glacier Lily corms prized by grizzly bears, whose long and dexterous claws are designed for precision digging. But the black bear, alas, must be content with only the spicy above-ground portion, as black bear claws are designed for climbing, not digging. And the hump on a grizzly’s back? Digging muscle. So remember this, dear reader: if you are ever chased by a grizzly, don’t bury yourself. Climb a tree.

I’ve heard a rumor that eating too many Glacier Lilies can cause your mouth to go numb. When I presented this possibility to the Bear Buffet crowd, none felt qualified to comment. I offered a theory that perhaps this alleged numbing action is what allows bears to eat so many mouthfuls of raw stinging nettles. Vocal support for my theory was underwhelming at best.

Finally Charles Jonkel, a legendary and grizzled lifetime student of the bear, broke the silence. “If you really want to make your mouth numb” he said, “get you some Devil’s Club. Peel off the outer, thorny layer. Put a chew of that inner stuff in your cheek. You’ll be ready to pull teeth in about an hour.”

Note to self. Still, it didn’t answer the question: How do bears eat stinging nettles? I doubt if they eat them stir-fried like we ate them at the Bear Buffet, which is too bad for them. Still, it’s hard to go wrong with the gourmet spinach. You gingerly pick the young shoot (just above a double leaf node, so it can re-grow), and steam the greens just enough to wilt the stingers. Nettles are about as good for you as any food can get, full of calcium and vitamins, including the elusive vitamin B and iron.

Maybe that’s why bears kick ass.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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