Think globally, gorge locally 

Ruminations on Montana’s festive and fat-intensive food season

The frost is on the pumpkin, folks—time to dig in for winter. It’s time to brace against the cold and dark, rub our hands together, light candles, and generate warmth and light. Time to gather indoors, extend our glasses, and eat fat. It’s harvest season. It’s hunting season. Anyway you look at it, it’s Food Season. The poets have their mating season, the Catholics have their Mardi Gras, the bums have their ski season. We can only hope that farmers had a prosperous growing season, because the cold, dark days are about to swallow us up again, and it’s time for Montanans to swallow back. Little wonder that Thanksgiving falls in November. And with only days left with which to prepare, it is time to begin our exercises.

First, uncapitalize the “T” in “Thanksgiving,” remove it from the once-a-year mass-marketing lingo, and celebrate thanksgiving a minimum of five times every day. It is, after all, an acknowledgment of the community and the land that sustain us, an expanded version of Mother’s Day, if you will, and it’s absurd to limit this acknowledgment to one day a year. Thank your housemate for doing the dishes. Send a good vibe-mail to the cow that provided you with the milk you pour over your cereal, and to the dairy queen who milked her. By exercising your mind-belly connection, you are creating more thanksgiving in the universe, which is never a bad thing. Together, we suckle the fat of the land.

During warmer seasons, we don’t need as much antifreeze in our pipes, and we can survive by grazing on leafy greens. But nowadays, salad alone just won’t cut it (unless it’s smothered in cheese, bacon bits, ranch dressing, olives, with a steaming cup of broth and warm, buttered bread). We need to be thinking in terms of R-value, the construction industry’s measure of insulating capability. In short, it all comes down to fat: Fat for insulation and fat for fun. What’s your favorite fat? My friend Stewart, who went to cooking school, told me once that fat is flavor. More accurately, flavor comes down to the proper presentation of fat. I may not have gone to cooking school, but I hold this truth to be self-evident.

Flavor is also a function of what you know about your food, whether local or exotic in flavor: Where is your food from? Fast food or slow simmer: How was the food prepared? Who did you eat the food with, and where? How did you feel afterward: Afterglow or afterburner? Learning the food rhythms of the place where you live earns you the right to truly call it your home.

Gathering the troops

For those of us who find ourselves without community, food season can be a nasty, double-edged sword. Seen through a window from the cold street, the glow of lamplight on the faces of happy feasters makes the hunger and loneliness bite even harder. If you have an extra seat at your table, offer it. If you need one, accept an invitation.

Even when dining alone, eating is still a social act. Who are the people in your foodshed? How many sets of hands have handled your food? Did they handle your food by choice, or out of desperation? There are those who believe there is a direct correlation between the love your food receives from those who raise it and how it tastes, feels, and nourishes. Conversely, there is a direct correlation between the thought and attention you give to where your food comes from, and the quality of life of those who produce it.

Eating is an agricultural act, the final act in a drama that began with planting. Ask yourself: Besides paying money, what have you done to put your food on the table? Did you cook it? Did you grow any of it? Did you hunt it? Did you snip a few leaves off an herb plant to season it? Did you freeze, can, dry, pickle or otherwise preserve it for later use? Very rarely do such efforts not bring rich rewards.

Consider this: The average food product changes hands six times and travels 1,400 miles before it is consumed. For each mile it travels, a percentage of the gas money goes to an overseas oil producing nation, where it also feed terrorists’ coffers. President Bush has said he wants genetically modified foods served at all White House functions because, for those who care to notice, eating is also a political act.

For others, eating is a spiritual act. Consider the Eucharist, where the wine and wafer are transformed into the blood and body of Jesus. Consider the Pacific coast Native American ceremonies honoring the return of the salmon, their own body and blood. For me, any food with mayonnaise on it is sacred.

To Yang, or not to Yang

In Montana, even some vegetarians eat meat, and lots of Montana hippies go hunting. Montana is a culture of meat, be it livestock, fish, and game. There are plenty of opportunities to sample meat grown on farms, hunted from the woods, or fished from local lakes and rivers. Spend enough time here and you’ll become curious. Next thing you know, chewing the fat. There are many levels of meat eaters: omnivores who distinguish between mystery meat or known-history meat. I’m one of those. I won’t eat meat unless I know where it’s been.

Most Montana cattle are shipped to midwestern feedlots, where they spend the last few months of life packed shoulder-to-shoulder in pens, knee-deep in mud and their own excrement, eating a fattening formula that sometimes includes concrete mix. These cattle are sold at auction to supermarket chains that send the meat all over the country. Pigs are worse. Have you ever driven past a factory hog farm? (You would know if you have.) Or consider that 80 percent of poultry inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture don’t eat poultry themselves. What do they know that we don’t?

Still, if you hanker for a hunk of real Montana beef, or any other local meat, there are alternatives. Several markets around town, including the Good Food Store and the Orange Street Food Farm, carry locally raised and slaughtered meats. Better yet, get to know a farmer.

The yin/yang system of harmony-between-opposites links the yin representation of female energy to a low-to-non-meat diet, while yang, the aggressive and masculine side of the equation, tends toward meat. Of course, every individual must decide his or her own intestinal balance of yin and yang. But seasonal developments dictate that now is the time to pump up the yang and grease that marrow with enough R-value to make it until the sun returns to shine on the Northern Rockies.

If you don’t eat meat, you can still get your grease and protein in other ways. Here is my offering to your culinary arsenal: Put a mixture of olive and grapeseed oil in a pan (two great fats that fry great together: grapeseed oil lets the olive oil cook hotter), and slowly fry some cubed tofu. Put a lid on the pan. Let it cook at low to medium heat for a while, until the tofu chunks start shrinking as they lose water. They should be getting brown too. Maybe add more oil. Add soy sauce, chopped garlic, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. Keep cooking until it tastes like bacon.

Please, vegetarian, don’t take the sorry path of the Tofurky, that pitiful block of tofu molded into the shape of a turkey. The Tofurky represents the extreme of peer pressure-induced split personality—trying to buy into the larger culture in appearance, while remaining veggie on the inside. If you want to go veggie, then veggie big. Don’t cave in to Montana meat culture, because a Tofurky simply won’t cut it. Stuff a squash. Or seek therapy.

A Montana Thanksgiving

Because the spirit of Thanksgiving is more important than the details, if you, as Basho advised, “Seek not what the ancients had, but what they sought,” then your meal should come together nicely. Turkey for Thanksgiving was a 20th century marketing ploy by a national turkey growers association. In fact, the original Thanksgiving involved no turkeys whatsoever.

One part of Thanksgiving that is worth remembering is the group effort between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians. Here in the Northern Rockies, the land provides differently than it does in Massachusetts, and we like to rock it in our own special way. Which leads me to wonder: What would the original Thanksgiving have been like if the Pilgrims landed in Montana?

The Blackfeet analogue to Thanksgiving happened every August on the shores of Upper Two Medicine Lake in what is now Glacier National Park. Before the bands dispersed for their fall lodges, they had a Sundance ceremony. Bundles and war stories were traded, and buffalo were carved and thrown into pits of fire-heated rocks. Serviceberries, huckleberries and chokecherries were cooked into soup inside the bellies of deer, as were venison and wild rice soup, with bitterroot, wild turnips and wild onions. Camas was baked, and pemmican was made from deer fat and berries. Most importantly, the sacred buffalo tongue was roasted.

If the original Thanksgiving was as much a celebration of the relationship between the Pilgrims and the Indians as it was a celebration of the harvest, why is this not still the case? On that note, do what you can to bring order to the universe. Wherever you are in the United States, think about how to make Thanksgiving an opportunity for bundle sharing between Indians and non-Indians, a chance for us local pilgrims to learn about the food season habits of those whose arrival far preceded our own.

Food theory and speculation

As mentioned earlier, now is the time to eat fat. Just because our society has gone the path of the cellulose witch hunt doesn’t mean that fat must be the anti-Christ. This is not to suggest that all fat is without problem, and I’m certainly not advocating a trip to the drive-thru window because ultimately, the question of fat, like meat, comes down to quality and history.

As mentioned earlier, the presentation of the fat is crucial. Fat is best when it’s balanced with acid. Consider oil and vinegar dressing, wine and cheese, salsa and avocado. Fat coats the tongue, giving the body a warm and fuzzy and nourished feeling inside, while acid cuts through the fat and stimulates the taste buds. Other flavor groups to factor into the acid/fat equation are sweet, hot, garlic, spice, and salt.

One type of fat that’s on everyone’s mind these days is bovine milk. As with meat, people are worried about antibiotics and hormones in milk products, especially bovine growth hormone. Like me, if you’re worried about that stuff, then look at the food labels and learn as much as you can about the history of the product. Pay a little more, and get what you pay for.

An interesting side note to the bovine mammary secretion debate is the question: What constitutes dairy? Although we generally think of dairy products as those containing milk products, many of us remember the dairy square of the Four Food Group paradigm that many Americans were force-fed as youngsters, a definition that includes eggs. What do eggs and milk have in common? They are both animal products that don’t cost the animal’s life, i.e., death-free animal products. Under this definition, honey would qualify as well. Hmm, the land of milk and honey ... and mayonnaise! The human lies down with cow, the chicken and the bumblebee.

The main course

Now it’s time for an offering of palate-stimulating ideas. Consider these recipes fair game for modification and fine tuning. Think of them as musical scores and you are the conductor, creating your own interpretation. All ingredients should be as local as possible, with the backyard garden as the most local option of all.

The first two recipes involve the Bitterroot Buttercup squash. There are many varieties of buttercup squash, all descended from a single mother of all buttercups, which began as a mutated squash in a field in North Dakota. The high starch, low moisture, and sweet taste of the original buttercups made the line a winner, and it soon became known as the “Northern Sweet Potato.” From this lineage, a whole spectrum of buttercup squash originated, sending buttercup spawn to the ends of the squash-growing earth.

A few years back, John Schneyberger of Garden City Seeds in Victor imported an Australian buttercup variety into the states, changed the name from Buttercup Prism to Bitterroot Buttercup, and began cultivating it at his farm and selling the seeds. Now the Bitterroot Buttercup is a Western Montana staple. Its skin is dark green with squarish sides and a baby blue dimple on the bottom. What follows are two recipes that bring out the best in Bitterroot Buttercup. (If you can’t find Bitterroot Buttercup, substitute Red Curry, Kombucha, Delicata, or your favorite winter squash. But don’t use spaghetti squash. It won’t work.)

Bacon Bitterroot Buttercup

• One diced and peeled Bitterroot Buttercup squash
• Two pieces of chopped bacon (Lifeline Farms in Victor is very good.)
• One chopped onion
• As much chopped garlic as you want
• Two chopped smoked chipotle peppers
• Two tablespoons apple cider vinegar (preferably from a jar of pickled hot peppers)
• One tablespoon of mustard seeds (they make any non-desert item taste better)

Bring two inches of water to a boil in a pot. Add Bitterroot Buttercup. Add chopped bacon. Cook over medium/high heat until water starts to disappear. Add chopped onion and garlic, vinegar, chipotles, and mustard seeds. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the water has evaporated and the stuff is thick. Spoon it over rice. Apply mayonnaise as needed (I prefer the Mystic Lakes Creamery brand).

Bitteroot Buttercup Pie

• For this recipe, proportions are key!
• Two cups of Bitterroot Buttercup, scraped of seeds and baked at 350 degrees for one hour, or until tender.
• Two eggs
• Your favorite sweetener, though brown sugar or maple syrup are recommended.
• One and one half cups of your favorite form of milk: evaporated, cream, soy cream, etc.
• Vanilla extract, to taste
• Optional: Cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, ginger, chocolate

Scrape squash from shell and mash to a smooth consistency. Mix in cream. Add sweetener, vanilla, and spices to taste. Beat the eggs in a bowl, and mix them in. Pour into a pie crust. Crush chocolate and sprinkle on top. Bake at 350 degrees until the top of the pie starts to get brown and a poked knife comes out clean.

Simon Ortiz Chile

In honor of the Native-American contribution to Thanksgiving, here is a recipe I interpolated from a poem by Simon Ortiz, the great Pueblo poet:
• Four soup bones
• Deer meat
• One or two chopped onions
• One head of chopped garlic
• Crushed selection of dried peppers: Pasilla, Indian chilis, New Mexicos, chipotles (the Good Food Store has a great selection of dried peppers.)
• One cup of corn
• Red wine
• Two tablespoons apple cider vinegar (preferably from a jar of pickled hot peppers)
• One tablespoon of mustard seeds
• Salt and pepper to taste

Five hours before mealtime, put the bones in a pot of water, preferably a cast iron skillet. Boil the bones for three hours. Remove bones, put them on a plate to cool. Add peppers and onions and vinegar. When the soup bones have cooled, cut the meat off of them, cut it into chunks, and put them back in the pot. Cut up venison and put it in the pot. Add mustard seeds. Simmer for one hour. Add garlic and wine. Simmer another hour, or until it smells so good you have to eat it. Serve with tortillas, rice, salsa, avocado, mayonnaise.

Red Fish

When I moved to Missoula from Portland, Ore., I regretted that I would no longer have easy access to the fresh red salmonids (i.e., trout and salmon) of the Northwest coast. I hadn’t been here long before my neighbor, Bill, started bringing me these red salmonids that he catches in the lakes. Kokanee salmon are small, landlocked salmon that live in lakes, spawn in rivers, and never find the sea. Bill catches them ice fishing in winter. Mackinaw are a big and delicious red-fleshed lake trout. Sometimes he drives across Lolo Pass into Idaho and catches bonafide, ocean-bound steelhead and Chinook salmon in the rivers. If you or your neighbors have access to any of these local delectables, marinade them in a mixture of soy sauce, grated ginger, chopped garlic, and chili powder. Marinade for a couple hours, then broil, bake, or grill.

All purpose, all-star marinade

Everything I know about cooking can be distilled into one unified theory of marinade: It’s all about the interaction with hot, acid, fat, sweet, salt, garlic, spices. If what you are making already has fat in it, such as meat, then the marinade doesn’t need any extra. The longer the food sits in the marinade, the better. Extra-long marinades should be refrigerated. Consult the following table for options in mixing a custom marinade with representatives from all the flavor groups. Keep adding and mixing and tasting until you get it right.
• Flavor Group Examples
• Hot: Hot sauce; Fresh, dried, or pickled pepper
• Acid: Vinegar, lemon, wine
• Sweet: Sugar, honey, maple syrup
• Salt: Salt, soy sauce, liquid aminos
• Garlic: Garlic
• Spices: Mustard seeds plus spices specific to what is marinating
• Fat: Olive oil, grapeseed oil, mayo

Your final exercise: Repeat after me: “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub.”

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