“Looking After the Bones:” A Hunt And Bear Stew.

My friend Doug Arno went for a walk with a compound bow in Northern Ontario near Longlac during bear hunting season and brought down a black bear weighing nearly 300 pounds.  With one arrow.


Bear hunting in North America dates back to the beginning of the Holocene.  Bear Hunting at the Pleistocene/Holocene Transition on the Northern Northwest Coast of North America identifies three main types of prehistoric bear hunting from Scandinavia to North America.

  1. The animal was sought in its lair and, being forced out by the hunters, was as a rule dispatched with a spear or axe as it emerged, or shot with the bow and arrow.
  2. The bear was frequently attacked in the open (even after it came out from its den) in what often amounted to a kind of “hand to hand” combat in which the favorite weapon was the spear or lance. One or more hunters might par-ticipate.
  3. The bear was trapped by any one of a number of devices, most frequently of the deadfall variety.

Doug continues a hunting tradition dating back to the beginning of what it means to be human.  The Alutiiq of the Pacific Northwest would hunt with bow, arrow and spear, using the whole animal except the head which they left in the field as a sign of respect.  The Sami who ranged across Russia, Finland and Sweden herding reindeer, carried out specific rituals to venerate animal spirits.  The Dene of Northern Canada tell a story uniting humans and bears in the struggle for survival.

No part of this story about a man cared for by a bear is untrue. It really happened. In this story a man had gotten lost. He must have searched and searched for his way back home, but no matter how hard he tried he always saw the same misleading land marks. He was definitely lost. So after finding a bear’s den this man decided to rest for the night.  The bear who the den belonged to eventually returned from foraging. According to the way this story is told, bears and humans could talk and understand each another; although it was on a higher level than plain speech. So this bear took pity on the lost man and cared for him. The bear told him that he would need to live off the bear in the future and then proceeded to teach him all about bear nature. The bear also reasssured the man that he would never go hungry. This was the bear’s gift to the man.  (Dene/Cree Elderspeak)

Bear worship for many cultures was featured within the hunt, including in carvings from Northern Norway dating back to 1500 BCE where the bear may have been understood as creature able to cross between life and death.  Our bear skull boiled and cleaned serves as a reminder of what has been taken, a link between death and the meal.


Now the process of transforming an animal into food begins, another sacred ritual involving the cutting way of fat, splitting the rib cage, and deftly wielding a knife separating flesh from ribs and limbs.


All under the sign of Ursa Major as in this 17th century constellation map by Ignace Gaston Pardies.  Featuring the Big Dipper and Three Leaps of the Gazelle, Ursa Major connects to mythologies stretching thousands of years back and appearing as a cosmic hunt, and may read as a human pursuing a bear into the sky where hunters and prey transform into a constellation.  In the Odyssey, it is one of the constellations that guides Odysseus as he sails through the night.

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; [270] and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, [275] and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. (5.270-275)


The last step in our own ritual begins with Doug sending my sister two cuts of meat–backstop and shoulder roast glistening with rich fat.  My family is visiting for Thanksgiving, so I’m offered the meat to cook.  Done!


After looking through a number of recipes, I decide to rub the meat with coffee grounds from a morning cup of coffee (French Dark Roast), salt, pepper, paprika and oregano.


Oh yes, can’t forget a glass of Johnnie Walker Gold with its caramel and honey notes for myself, as a libation to the gods, and overall an excellent way to keep the cooking humming along.


Now, for one one my favorite moments with meat–putting on the sear.  The Maillard reaction occurs between 280 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit when sugars and amino acids react producing a range of colors from coffee-black to golden brown, and a nutty / smoky taste.  I rub olive oil all over the meat then sear, flip, sear.


Ah, the beauty of a sear–a vast ridged, sculpted, bubbling landscape.


After searing each piece of meat, I remove and set aside, then with all those wonderful drippings and juices, toss in Brussel sprouts, carrots, peppers and tomatoes.  Coffee grounds coat everything.  I pour in half a bottle of Pinot Noir and some water, then let all simmer for a few hours until the meat begins to break apart.


Time to remove the very giving meat, cut into slices, return to the pot, stir about, and then serve.  Water in a pot heated over a flame has been part of human civilization since before the Neolithic, and continues here in North Carolina.  Think of the witches in Macbeth.

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe (30)
Ditch-deliver’d by a drab,
Make the gruel thick and slab:
Add thereto a tiger’s chaudron,
For the ingredients of our cauldron.  (IV.1)


No dragon scale or gall of goat, only bear, coffee grounds, wine, drippings and vegetables creating a dark, smoky and sweet taste.  You may ask, where’s the onion? Happens none were lurking in my sister’s kitchen, so I approached the meal as using what is nearby other than rushing out to the store; however, onion will only approve what’s in the pot.  I’ll sign off with a live version of The Bear by My Morning Jacket, featuring the band and Andrew Bird.  Bon Appétit!



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