Monday, December 13, 2010

Bearing down in New Jersey

If someone asked me, ‘quick, name the most urban state in the U.S.’ I do believe that my first response would be ‘New Jersey.’

New Jersey, which was – and perhaps still is – known as the Garden State is, to me, associated more with oil tanks, smokestacks, warehouses, the PATH train, and Newark Airport than it is with anything to do with a garden or any other things-natural.  Sure, I know that there are beautiful, bucolic areas in the state, but when I close my eyes and picture New Jersey, I’m not seeing the rolling hills of horse country.  I’m seeing Newark, Bayonne, Jersey City, and Hoboken. Dense commuter burbs. The vamp leading up to each episode of The Sopranos

If I picture the Pine Barrens, it’s not a barren stand of pines. It’s Christopher Moltisanti and Paulie Walnuts trying to stave off hypothermia and starvation by sucking on the fast-food condiment packs they found in their car’s glove compartment when they were stranded there (in a classic episode of New Jersey’s own Sopranos.)

So for New Jersey, I’m thinking urban. I’m thinking ethnic. I’m thinking crowded. I’m thinking fast mouth. I’m thinking ‘counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.’

I’m not thinking bear hunting.

But this is bear hunting season in New Jersey, and, while the season is brief – six days only – it was long enough to produce about 500 bear kills.  (Source:  Wall Street Journal Online. You may need a subscription to see the full article.)

Growing up in the ethnic, urban, crowded, fast mouth non-New Jersey world of Worcester, Massachusetts, I didn’t know many hunters. The thought of my father in hunting gear is beyond imagination.

Curiously, however, my ethnic, urban, fast mouth non-New Jersey uncles, Jack and Bob, who were from Chicago, arguably even more ethnic, urban, and crowded, if not more fast mouth, than either Worcester or New Jersey, were hunters, and fisherman.

I think they were duck hunters, and I believe their fish of choice was the Coho salmon, but for all I know they hunted deer, bear, and whatever other prey they found in Wisconsin.

Somewhere around here, I have a picture of one of them, Bob, I believe, in a duck blind with his rifle.

Bob, for a while, sold fishing and hunting gear out of his basement in ethnic, urban, crowded, fast mouth Chicago.

So I know that there’s not necessarily a disconnect between urbanization and hunting.

Still, I was surprised to read about the New Jersey bear hunt, which has been a boon for game butchers, meat curers, taxidermists, and bear-skin rug makers in the state.  Good to know that someone’s business is doing well, other than bed-bug exterminators.

"The bears make me busier, it's a nice little hit," said Richard Santomauro, a taxidermist in Wall, N.J., who is presently working on two bears. He charges $185 a foot for rugs and $255 a foot for life-size mounted animals, measured from nose to toe.

"They don't mind spending the money," he said. "I have one guy who just dropped a bear off and he wants a life-size with a trout in his hands and the trout is another $400 and something dollars." The total cost for that mounted piece will be around $1,900.

I’d hate to wake up in the middle of the night on the pull out couch in that guy’s den, and run into the life-sized bear avec trout while stumbling bleary eyed to the bathroom.

Of course, as I personally don’t know a soul who hunts (Bob and Jack, alas, are both long dead), the likelihood of my falling into the arms of a stuffed trout-bearing-bear is remote.

As is the likelihood of my ever eating bear, which I’ve never done.

Not that the opportunity hasn’t arisen.

Years ago, there was a restaurant in Boston that specialized in game meat. I ate there several times because the non-game meat and fish were pretty good, but after a few meals, we decided that the smell of lion, and tiger, and bear was too overwhelming. (Oh my!)  The place eventually went out of business, replaced by an upscale chain restaurant.

Bear meat is described as greasy and fatty, so it’s not something I’m going to be automatically drawn to.

Frankly, if I’m looking for fatty and greasy, I’ll add salty to the mix and go for potato chips or fried onion rings.

New Jersey bears don’t run grizzly size, but they run big enough – 300 pounds for the average male, 200 pounds for the average female – so that New Jersey bear hunters are sharing their bear in much the same way that, I suspect, Garden State backyard gardeners deal out the tomatoes and zucchini come August.

Hunters can eat their fill, and fob it off on family in friends (frozen pack of ground bear would make a nifty stocking stuffer), but they can’t give it to food banks, which take venison but bar bar.  This is, perhaps, because cooking bear requires care-bear care, as there’s risk of trichinosis.

If you render the fat, by the way, you could use it to, say, make doughnuts. Or whatever else you use lard for.

As a child, I remember reading a book about some post-World War II DP (Displaced Person) children from Poland, who ate lard sandwiches on black bread. Reading about their lunch made me a tad bit queasy.  Give me my peanut-butter on white any old time, but lard on black bread? No, thanks, I just ate.

Fast forward many years, and I was in a restaurant in Krakow that was billed as serving authentic Polish peasant food.

As we sat down, we observed a number of parties, who appeared to be natives, wolfing down some spread that was in an enamel bowl on each table. I couldn’t figure out quite what it was until they plopped some down in front of us.  Lard with flecks of ham in it. No thanks,I just ate.

I did try a teensy-weensy bit. It tasted like blecchy, gross fat with a faint whiff of bacon.

I can only imagine that bear lard with flecks of bear would be even worse.

But, hey, I’m not in New Jersey during bear hunting season, so I guess I’ll never know.

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