Food for Thought

Food for Thought

Steak dinners and Valentine, Nebraska.

  • By: John Gierach
Shore Lunch

I had one of the best steak dinners of my life on the outskirts of Valentine, Nebraska. It was at a family restaurant called The Bunkhouse, one of those places designed to feed the locals as well as snag passing tourists in season with the usual corny western motif and a “Little Cowpoke Special” on the kid’s menu. There were a few paved parking spaces out front, but my friend Ed and I were towing a bass boat, so we drove around back to the enormous dirt lot reserved for campers and 18-wheelers. A hot wind was blowing out of the east across a pasture and a truck stop and there was dust in the air along with the combined aromas of cow flop and diesel.

We’d been fishing all day over near Ainsworth and just wanted a store-bought meal, air conditioning and no dress code beyond, “shirt and shoes required.” The alternative would have been to drive the 20 miles back to our rented cabin at Big Alkali Lake: an airless wooden box that would be too hot for cooking until 10:00.

We were desperately hungry and I’m sure that had something to do with it, but the fact is, this was an excellent locally raised rib eye that was cooked to the Platonic ideal of medium rare. That requires exquisite timing, since the marbled fat in beef keeps it cooking for a little while after it’s removed from the heat, so if you cook it till it’s done, it ends up being too done. You tell how ready a steak is by the way it feels when it’s wiggled with a fork. A raw steak feels blubbery; a well done (that is, “ruined”) steak feels like the sole of a shoe, with infinite gradations in between.

The baked potato and the salad were adequate, but nothing special. The dinner roll looked and tasted suspiciously like one of those frozen jobs, but only a snob would quibble over a piece of bread when he’s just paid a measly 10 dollars for a truly memorable steak. The only drawback was that for the rest of the trip Ed kept calling me “little cowpoke.”

I once had an equally good steak at a fancy place in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. I’d been fishing for tarpon and bonefish with a record producer friend who’d had a good year, and one evening he took me and two other friends out for what he called, in a theatrical tone of voice, “a good meal.” The restaurant had a piano player tinkling quietly, linen napkins and tablecloths, waiters in silk shirts, a cool breeze wafting in from the Gulf and a view of yachts and fishing boats on the water.

The dress code was relaxed there, too, since this was a fishing town and visiting sport-fishermen are forgiven worse misdemeanors than showing up for dinner in shorts and sandals. The steak was every bit as good as the one in Valentine—but no better—and if I read the bill upside down correctly, the tab came to nearly eight hundred dollars for the four of us, although, to be fair, that did include brandy and cigars out on the veranda.

I tried to invoke my populist guilt over a meal costing that much, but couldn’t bring it off because I was so far out of my element. The producer had just told me that in his best year he made over 10 million dollars, but that it wasn’t as much as it sounded like because, “You wouldn’t believe my expenses.”

I said, “You’re right, I wouldn’t.”

Why eat steak in a fishing town in the Keys? For variety. The standard drill on that trip was to cruise the docks when we came in from fishing to see what the commercial guys were bringing in. When something looked good, you’d note the name on the truck that was picking it up, go take a shower and then walk or drive to that restaurant and order “the catch of the day,” which in this case was exactly that. With fresh cole slaw, hush puppies and homemade corn bread, it would cost about the same as a Big Mac and fries. We’d split the bill with the record producer, which he thought was charming.

We’ve become an almost totally homogenous culture now, ruled by junk-food chains, but it still seems true that if there are cattle grazing within sight of a restaurant, the kitchen staff probably knows how to cook a steak. The same goes for seafood when you can glance out the widow and see fishing boats tied up at the dock. In most towns in northern Wisconsin, you can order the walleye special without checking the menu to see if they have one. In northern Michigan, it’s lake whitefish, walleye or perch. On the other hand, beware of “wild Rocky Mountain trout” on menus in the mountain West. It’s a hatchery fish, or at least it damned well better be, since selling wild game under any circumstances is illegal.

The legitimacy of delivering a stringer of wild trout and a few grouse to a friend who owns a good restaurant and having him cook them for you during regular business hours is a little less clear. The way I see it, you’re paying him for the use of a table, a waiter, condiments, silverware and his considerable skill in the kitchen, but not for the birds and fish that you brought in yourself. Of course if Big Brother knew about this he might see it differently.

I do appreciate good food and I’m sincerely puzzled by why it’s so hard to find, and sometimes so expensive, especially since it’s often no harder to cook a good meal than a bad one. Along the same lines, it also seems odd that so much expensive food is so ordinary. On the other hand, I make a living as a fishing writer, so I travel a lot in remote areas and will more or less happily eat anything. In fact, I’ve developed a grudging fondness for a certain brand of convenience store microwave mystery-meat burgers, although they tend to be best after a long hard day on the river and when there’s nothing else available.

For that matter, one of my friend A.K.’s favorite camp meals consists of a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew sprinkled liberally with garlic salt and served over slices of whole-wheat bread (for the fiber to keep you regular). You might briefly wonder about that plug of bright orange fat that always congeals under the lid, but after a long, cold day of fishing, it tastes great. A friend who once spent time living at an arctic research station said they’d melt a whole stick of butter in everything they ate and they stayed warm and never gained an ounce. “Good food” is a relative term and we only start going to fat when we eat like lumberjacks and work as accountants.

Some of the best meals I’ve had I’ve cooked myself, although that’s obviously a subjective judgment as well as a selective memory, since some of the worst fall into the same category. Anyway, like all middle-aged men who hunt and fish, I feel I have this instinctive knack with wild game, even though there’s no big trick to it. When you start with fresh, wild, organic food and a good appetite, all you have to do is not screw it up by overcooking or over-seasoning.

There should also be no negative thinking about ingredients. Eat reasonable portions, stay active and understand that wild food is better than tame and there are no substitutes for things like real butter, bacon and salt pork. I should probably admit here that I was traumatized by so-called “health food” back in the 1960s. I came to know it as gummy brown rice, vegetables steamed to mush, loaves of bread heavy enough to double as doorstops, and of course tofu, which a friend says is really just dried latex paint.

On a fishing trip to Hog Park in Wyoming one summer, I grilled venison tenderloin chops for my friend Vince. The meat was from a plump young doe shot the previous fall and it was untouched by marinade, sauce or even salt and pepper; just flopped on my folding grill and cooked briefly over pine coals to medium-rare—the only proper way to do game. It was so good Vince decided I was a great cook and believes it to this day.

Two days earlier we’d bypassed an official Forest Service campground and had camped up a four-wheel-drive track along a small brook-trout creek, but that afternoon a bunch of young guys moved in nearby and immediately began blaring a battery-operated boom box and tearing up the landscape on whiny little Japanese dirt bikes. It was too late in the day to break camp, so we decided to gut it out and move in the morning. The venison chops were a soul-saving meal that short-circuited a bad mood and the next morning, while searching for peace and quiet, we stumbled on a pretty little tributary full of dumb, hungry trout and moved in like we owned the place—which in a way we did.

For some reason, we never ate any trout on that trip, although we could have since we caught plenty and there were no special regulations to prevent it. It’s just that catch-and-release fishing eventually becomes so habitual that on most days killing a few doesn’t even occur to you. This is a huge change from the days when bringing home a stringer of fish for dinner was the only way wives and mothers knew you hadn’t been out drinking.

Often when I do kill and eat wild fish more or less on the spot, I’m so pleased with myself that I swear I’ll do it more often, but then in practice it’s usually someone else who thinks of it. At a fish camp in the Northwest Territories back in the 1970s, I was happy enough with sandwiches until we got into some small lake trout on streamers one day and the guide suggested a shore lunch. We had steaks cut from a six-pound lake trout fried in bacon fat, canned pork and beans, thick slices of buttered homemade bread and boiled coffee with condensed milk, all on a bright day that was still chilly enough that it felt good to sit close to the fire.

I recalled that lunch so fondly that the following year I reproduced it over a fire pit at home with a small laker from a nearby reservoir. It was okay, but nothing like I remembered, even though all that was missing was a million-plus square kilometers of northern wilderness straddling the Arctic Circle where, just a week before, the unsuccessful search for a lost float plane had finally been called off. In a place where you could easily wander off and never be seen or heard from again, life seems precarious and even the simplest meal becomes a banquet.

Since then, most of my fish meals—and all of the best—have been cooked and eaten within sight of the water where the fish were caught. On a river in Alaska, our guide wordlessly took a lovely four-pound arctic char I’d just landed and walked up the bank to clean it. I kept casting and never took my eyes off the water, but I heard a driftwood fire snapping behind me on the bank and, a little while later, I smelled fish and assumed that any hungry brown bear within a mile or so downwind could smell it, too.

The char was prepared with what the guide called his “secret recipe:” grilled with butter, garlic and a squeeze of lemon. I’m not being coy when I say I don’t remember the name of the river—it was something in Yup’ik with seven or eight syllables—but I remember we’d seen a lynx and a wolverine before noon and I remember that fish vividly, both in the water and later on a paper plate next to a pile of macaroni salad.

Hunger and wildness are both good sauces for fresh fish and so is blamelessness. When you’re with a professional guide who says it’s okay to take a fish, you assume it is, if only because guides tend to be insanely protective of the fisheries that provide their livelihoods. It also helps when you’ve seen hundreds of fish in the last few hours and have caught and released dozens of them (not forgetting that well-meaning people have been wrong before about the unlimited bounty of wilderness).
We do have to think seriously about conservation now, but keeping a few fish to eat in places where the regulations allow it doesn’t have to be a huge ethical dilemma. For that matter, killing something beautiful, elusive and delicious and then eating it right on the spot is the kind of pure animal pleasure we all deserve from time to time. Still, I like to eat trout occasionally from home water that I’m intimately familiar with and where if I thought it would do any harm, I wouldn’t do it out of pure self-interest. I’m less likely to kill fish on someone else’s home water unless I’m invited to.
For instance, there were those brook trout at a private lake where some friends and I were guests. The club wanted to thin out the smaller 12- to 14-inch brookies, so we had meals of them three nights in a row, cooked three different ways. I wondered about the wisdom of killing so many nice-size brook trout, but the club had a management plan and who was I to argue? In the end, it was a rare, decadent treat of my favorite fish.
There was the little jack salmon I caught in another river in Alaska that took the 3/0 hook too deep and came in streaming blood from his gills. He was dead anyway—the angling equivalent of road kill—so we delivered him to Patty Kent, the outfitter’s wife, who baked him and served him on a platter with carrots and potatoes.
And there was the mess of brown trout we cooked up one late September evening after a landowner on the stream asked us to kill some so they wouldn’t overpopulate and stunt. We butterfly filleted six or eight small trout and spread them out on a wire grill. It was after dark and you could clearly see the glow of the hardwood coals through their flesh, silhouetting the bones and spots like an edible stained glass window. Browns aren’t usually my favorite trout to eat, but these tasted the way food always does when you’re simply alive, and therefore hungry.

You can order John Gierach’s latest book, Fool’s Paradise, at the Buy/What’s New section. His Sporting Life column appears in every issue of FR&R.