Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Nice legs!


I'll spare you the photos of the hanging sides of meat, but here are the pretty forelegs of a yearling moose that we butchered last weekend. My church, Valley Harvest ( http://www.valleyharvest.org ) is one of the non-profits on the list to be called by Alaska State Troopers when a moose is hit on the road. There are approximately 250 moose killed on the roads each year in our area. Convicts go get the ones off the railroad tracks and salvage the meat for the prisons, but non-profit groups who give the meat to charity are used to move dead moose off the highways.

Usually, the call comes to one of our church guys late at night, typically between 10 pm-midnight on winter nights, when most moose-car collisions occur. Whoever gets the call will gather a couple more strong guys, hopefully someone who has a winch on their truck, too. Sometimes if a tow truck is called for the vehicle in the accident, the tow truck driver will help winch up the moose into the bed of a pickup once the vehicle is out of the way. Usually the kind of moose struck and killed is a cow. These females can weigh between 800-1400 pounds.

Either the guys or their wives call me to say we got a moose and to make sure it's ok to bring it over. The reason the moose come to my place is that I heat my large garage to about 38 degrees so the cars will melt, it keeps things like soda from freezing, and it's a perfect walk-in cooler for aging moose meat, too! The guys back up the truck into the garage. The use a Sawz-All to cut off the legs at the knees. If the animal is whole (and not too messed up from the accident), they generally take off the head. Then, making a hole between the tendon and joint above the knee, the guys a leg on each side of a meat hanger held down low by the animal. We have a cross-stud nailed between two trusses. With a come-along on a cable, winching the animal up, they raise it so all of it is elevated off the tarp or the bed of the truck. Once they have it hanging, they can pull the pick up out of the gargae and we can put down the garage door and heat the garage to 50 degrees or so, which makes it a lot easier on their hands as they work, to not be so cold.

We spread a tarp below the animal and the guys start to skin the moose while it hangs. That doesn't take long, as long as the animal hadn't frozen yet before the guys could get to it. Usually it steams while they take the hide off because the body holds a lot of heat for hours. If stranded in extreme cold while hunting, and you have a moose kill, it's possible to gut it and crawl inside the body cavity to use the moose's warmth to keep you from freezing.

Last year we were getting a big cow moose every Saturday night for quite a number of weeks. I hoped to save one of the skins that was in good shape. I happened to have a large box of Kosher salt. One fellow helped me lay out one nice skin because it was huge and heavy. With the hair side down, we shook salt over the whole thing then rolled it up. A couple of the guys hefted it to the side of my garage, where hopefully it would lay frozen until spring when I could figure out how to tan it and work it. Unfortunately, my husky and the visiting Iditarod team who came in March when a musher stayed here, really wanted at it. Dogs pulled at it and wanted to chew on it, so unfortunately I had to get rid of it. And, later I learned that no one really wants a moose hide for a blanket or rug because they're hollow hairs like caribou. They are more brittle and break off at greater rates than a more supple beaver or bear pelt, so they can be messy and "shed."

Usually the guys will leave a moose to hang in my garage for a week til the next weekend, so it can bleed out on a tarp and age the meat a bit. At that point, they'll come get it, take it to our church kitchen, and call in the troops to butcher all day. With a dozen people, you can butcher and package a cow moose in about 4-5 hours. I was surprised the first time I saw it hanging that it seemed so much like a side of beef to me. I wondered if it would be hard to see a noble and kind-eyed moose getting cut up in my garage, but it wasn't, and I love it about Alaska that meat isn't wasted--that the cycle of life here includes making good use of thousands of pounds of meat by giving it to people who need it.

It's amazing to me to watch the ones who know how to butcher and see how they know where to cut to separate the parts and take off good cuts of meat intact. I've mostly been put on rib-trimming duty, and even though that's tedious, it's neat to work with these huge brontosaurus-sized Fred Flintstone ribs that are over two feet long.

If I don't want the guys to take away the sawed off legs with the hide, I can keep them. I just think it's neat to be that up close and personal to a moose leg/hoof/fur. It's fascinating to see the ingenuity in how they are formed, such powerful hooves and sinuous, muscular forelegs. It's fun, too, if I have tall piles of snow berms pushed up by the snow plow to stick 4 legs into the snow, like a moose got rolled into the snow pile with its feet sticking out. That's always good for a second glance from guests. And, of course, they're fascinating to Little Girl, who loves to sniff at them.

One time last year, a pregnant cow was hit on one of the recoveries our church guys did. Unfortunately both she and her fetus died. As the guys gutted her on the road so she'd be lighter to pick up and move, one of the wives along for the ride spent some time looking at the calf in the womb. She said it was very nearly to term and was a perfect baby moose, all curled up tight in its placenta, with long eye lashes and fur that was already colored in the best tones to camouflage it. My cousin-in-law, Turia, loves studying nature and the biology of animals, so she and I enjoy talking about the close encounters I get with mooses, both alive on the lawn and about to become dinner, in the garage.

We generally butcher to the same cuts as beef: roasts, stew chunks, ribs, backstrap, tenderloin, and ground burger that we make some of into sausage, all wrapped up in butcher paper. As anyone who comes to our church mentions that they're in hard times and don't have grocery money, we give them frozen packages of moose. We use it, too, for our church dinners. The ground meat is easily substituted for beef in spaghetti sauce, for tacos, and in casseroles.
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