My mother was an acolyte of The Joy of Cooking. Despite her devotion to that tome of all things culinary created by Irma Rombauer and her descendants, I have no doubt that, were my mother still alive, she would be appalled that I was surveying its index for a rodent recipe. Yet I am certain she made use of that very rodent herself, if only for an inexpensive, warm winter coat. But eat it? Never.
A Holocaust refugee and an eternally grateful American,The Joy was my mother’s god, bible and religion rolled into one, a symbol of her transformation from pre-war carefree girl of the French Riviera, to post-war accomplished American homemaker and mother. Its voluminous all-inclusiveness spoke to her longing to assimilate, to present the perfect Thanksgiving dinner, to ply her children’s friends with snacks that they wouldn’t snigger at. Thank goodness she never succeeded and instead we enjoyed a childhood of ratatouille, tomate provencale, pissaladier and other savory Nicoise dishes that American children were not supposed to like.
I grew up to be a Rombauer disciple myself, thrilled when I unwrapped the bulky graduation gift my mother handed me, to find my own copy of that eclectic, gold-lettered, white tome. On this particular day I had good reason to praise it under my breath for there, between “Beating, methods of” and “Bechamel Sauce” was exactly what I was looking for. Beaver. And lest they disappoint, the Rombauers thoughtfully included a subsection, starkly labeled “Tail.” Thus I learned that, “To Indian and settlers alike, this portion of the animal was considered the greatest delicacy.” And to think that none of the pioneer books I devoured as a child ever said beaver tails were to trappers as peanut butter sandwiches are to a kid’s lunchbox, in the category of “without this I will die.”
Reading it now, though, it made perfect sense. What other source of fat would they have had in that era? Even if olive oil had appeared on the shelf of the dry goods store it would have been days of snowshoeing away, while beaver tail fat could have been replenished right from the nearby trapline. The “Tail” entry ended with these intriguing instructions: “Hold over open flame until rough skin blisters. Remove from heat. When cool, peel off skin. Roast over coals or simmer until tender.”
“Bernard, could you start a fire outside please?” I yelled. “We have to barbecue some beaver tail.” Just saying this gave me enormous satisfaction, proof that I had indeed come a long way from my suburban New York upbringing, even if my mother’s mores still spoke to me from the stained pages of an outmoded cookbook.
When the pine logs had turned to coals, we put a grill over the fire pit and lay the severed beaver tail on it. Just as the Rombauers indicated, the skin started to blister. Judging doneness by when the flat member looked sufficiently like a facial exfoliation gone badly awry, we lifted it off the grill and waved it around to cool, a beaverish flag of surrender. Then I attacked the flaking outer skin. It peeled easily, leaving a smooth, brown membrane beneath. Back on the grill it went, where it lay still, impersonating one of those strips of rubber found by the roadside after a tire blowout.
“When will this be ready?” Bernard asked. By way of an answer I advised him to ply our guests with wine, as much to entertain them as to dull their senses for what was to come. I didn’t reveal my discovery: that the Rombauers were disconcertingly mum on the crucial instruction of how long to grill the tail. I had a fleeting worry that their beaver entry might be the product of creative guesswork, that a tasty morsel of beaver never actually crossed any Rombauer lips. They probably perceived beaver tail as one of those forgiving food items, figuring if you’re a busy trapper, then grill it for hours; if you’re a hungry trapper start gnawing after ten minutes. Having no pressing engagement with a trapline, I let it grill for twenty minutes and then placed it on a grand Italian majolica platter. No word in The Joy about proper beaver tail accompaniments or sauces, so I offered the tail accompanied by nothing more than a salt shaker.
We stared at the tail for a minute or two, nervously eying it and each other. I gulped. As hostess, it was my duty to take the first bite. As the most daring of the assembled eaters I could barely contain myself. After all, it was my ethos in practice here, which is if you kill an animal you must use all its parts. This particular beaver was trapped to mitigate the rampant building of dams threatening to flood our driveway and, come spring, constipate our ranch’s flood irrigation system. His pelt had been frozen, preserved till it could be cured by the top hair-on hide tanners in the country, a living room easy chair already picked out as its eventual, post-body, home. His haunches sat in the refrigerator, coldly biding time till I had the remaining ingredients for beaver pot roast. His tail, which only three days ago was thwapping a beaver pond in alarm, was now our appetizer.
Unsure what I’d find beneath the thin brown laminate protecting the tail, I sliced a piece off, discovering dense fat, white as clotted cream, waxen and firm as plastic. I poked about a bit for anything resembling meat, but found none. Preparatory to eating what I hoped would be a tasty morsel, I peeled off the thin layer of protective skin and held the alabaster strip to my nose. No scent to speak of other than a faint whiff of smoke. I sprinkled a liberal lashing of salt, closed my eyes, put it in my mouth, bit down and chewed.
I decided immediately that beaver tail is delicious. In small quantities. I wouldn’t want to have to depend on it to stay alive, but I could now say from my own experience that it had virtually no taste, and was dense enough to approximate chewing a soft rubber dog bone. This was working fat, used by beavers to lug small boulders down a steep slope to shore up the dam below. There was no resemblance at all between beaver tail fat and, say, the fatty gristle that surrounded a rib eye steak.
My initial sliver barely left a dent in the tail, so I dug out a second small divot and swallowed it, too, then passed the platter with a meaningful glance that implied, “If you’re sitting at my table, you must eat some of this.” Everyone dutifully took a slice, chewed, swallowed. No one gagged, but no one raved either. Mainly we chattered with relief that we could now get on to the normal part of the meal. That left 95% of the beaver tail on the pretty platter, a portion any trapper worth his salt would have killed for. And probably did. I appealed to my friend who’s allergic to most fats. “Would you like to take the rest home?” She leaped at the chance, leaving me with only the aforementioned beaver haunch to contend with.
There’s more to The Joy of Game…..coming soon