This is one of the pieces I wrote at the “Two Things I Love Best” food-writing retreat. The prompt was, “Tell me about something you were scared to eat.
I was living in Ketchikan, Alaska at the time. 13 feet of rain a year. Yes, 13 feet. Not 13 inches, 13 feet. That’s 156 inches a year, twice the precipitation of Seattle.
There were dozens of kinds of rain in Ketchikan: the misty rain that was ever present, except on very rare sun days, the soft gentle rain that we disregarded completely as we walked through town, played softball at midnight in the fading summer sun, or trolled for salmon out on the Tongass Narrows. Then there was the rain that got your attention–the pelting rain storm that slammed you as you struggled to walk down the street, the bitter cold horizontal rain that got inside your waterproof gortex rain suit that covered every inch of you from head to toe.
It was always wet in Ketchikan. All we ever wore were rain boots. My fingers and the pads of my feet were always white, creased and doughy; I would have sold my first-born child, if I’d had one, for just one peek at the sun.
I’d moved to Alaska from Santa Cruz for my first “real” job: being a radio news reporter for the Alaska Public Radio Network, at KRBD-FM in Ketchikan, the southernmost island in Alaska’s famous banana belt. To get the job, I had faked my audition tape. I’d never worked as a radio news reporter as I had claimed on my resume. But I had been volunteering at KZSC-FM in UC Santa Cruz, hosting a rhythm and blues show, featuring artists like Esther Satterfield and Aretha Franklin. I loved radio and spent my spare time interviewing people and producing mini-documentaries, cutting the tape by hand with a white grease pencil and a razor blade. The fact that I could fake a fictitious news report meant I had the skills to do the job, and I was hired at a whopping salary of $16,000 a year, which seemed to me like I had struck gold and was going to be rich.
I was twenty-five years old. I had recently come out as a lesbian, and when I arrived in Ketchikan for my interview (yes, they flew me up for an interview–another staggering coup for me), I was determined to see if there were any other womyn-loving-womyn up there. Yes, that’s how we spelled it those days. W-O-M-Y-N. We were womyn-lovers. Through stealth and sheer determination, I ultimately did find others like me up there, 11 of them in fact, none of whom would consider even whispering the “L” word. Those women lived in a rough and tumble world, the last frontier in America where it was okay to be who you were as long as you blended in and didn’t ever talk about it. I was 25, out just two years and proud of it. My in-your-face style wasn’t a fit for the womyn in Ketchikan who saw me as a threat to their quiet way of life. That, though, is whole other story.
The story I want to tell you now is about the food that I was scared to eat. I faced it down at a Republican Party fundraiser I’d been sent to report on. I wish I could remember the name of the woman who hosted the event. She was dressed in some kind of outrageous red, white and blue outfit with a red, white, and blue top hat. It was 1982, Ronald Reagan’s heyday as President. I wasn’t a Republican, and never had been, but I was there with my trusty Sony-TCD5M cassette recorder, interviewing people.
The chair of the Ketchikan Republican party, whatever her name was, came up to me with a big smile, introduced herself, and offered me some bear teriyaki. “It’s brown bear,” she said, holding out the platter. “My husband killed it last weekend on a hunting trip north of Juneau.”
I hesitated. I’d never been a very adventurous eater, but I was in enemy territory and an Alaskan now, so I took a piece. It felt dense and dry in my hand, like jerky, yet still moist. I took a bite and started to chew. And chew. And chew. The first taste was the teriyaki, which was rich, multilayered, and delicious. Then there was this wild gamey taste, unlike anything I had ever tasted before. And that texture. It was like meat squared. It felt like was eating something that was going to bite me back, a source of protein so concentrated it would grow more hair on my chest with every bite I took. “I’m eating a bear,” I said to myself as I chewed and chewed and chewed. Minutes passed and I was still chewing my first bite. My saliva didn’t seem to be having any impact, so I just kept chewing. Everyone around me was eating bear, too. It was old hat for the Native Alaskans; they’d grown up eating subsistence. Wild meat was their way of life. Hunting wasn’t a sport to them; it was survival.
But I was a girl who’d grown up in the New Jersey suburbs. And now I was a liberal lesbian undercover at a Republican fundraising event; for me, bear was cracking open a new frontier. I felt as if the top of my head had blown off and something new and primitive and elemental was being unleashed. I wanted to roar and scream and pound on my chest, wrapping my fingers in my newly sprouting curly black hair. “I’m eating a bear,” I kept telling myself. “I’m eating a fucking bear.”