I live near a rather large wetland area and I watch for the wildlife that inhabit it. Herons and egrets abound and are very easily spotted, as they stand stock still in the water, searching for their daily meal. Another, more elusive creature is rarely seen. It is primarily nocturnal and only by chance or diligent and patient watching will you see an individual in the day time. Their evidence is clearly seen, as they are compelled to build dams across any waterway in their neighborhood. Beavers are only second to man in their ability to change their environment. I have a great amount of respect for what may well be nature’s greatest engineer. “Busy as a beaver” is surely an apt expression for these astounding industrious animals.
On my way to church, I pass through this immense swamp. Sunday after Sunday I saw a truck parked along the marsh. One morning, I saw a young man. It was not yet hunting season, so I thought he must be a trapper and asked him if he was. He was far enough away that I could not hear his reply, but I saw him throw his hands in the air. He had been approached before by animal lovers and was prepared to defend his source of supplementary income. I reassured him that all was good, I was not here to lecture him.
He was indeed a trapper. When I asked him what he did with the carcasses, he was surprised and asked, “What do you want them for?” I explained that I would be cooking them. His wife, though a good cook, refused to prepare anything he brought home, so after skinning them he just disposed of them. He took my phone number and promised that he would call me when he got something.
Along about 6 p.m. that night, I got a call from the young trapper. He had a successful day: three muskrat and two beaver. I jumped in my truck and met him at the swamp. He had two clear plastic bags. He handed me the one with the muskrats and he put the beavers in the truck. He refused payment of any kind and told me that the season was almost over and he would be pulling his traps, but kept my business card for the future. I did note to myself that those hairless beavers looked awfully big. Little was I to know how big until I got home. I could barely lift them out of the truck. These two aquatic creatures weighed in at a combined 62 pounds. I got them out and dragged them up the walk and stairs into the house, leaving a trail of blood leaking out of the bag. By this time it was after 7 p.m. and I stood in my kitchen wondering what my next step might be.
My brother, Fred Timpson, was an ardent trapper and had on occasion brought me beaver to cook, but he had already butchered, cleaned and wrapped them. I am not a butcher – my knives cut butter, very tender steak and chop apples with ease – but a thirty-pound beaver was quite another matter. I called a neighbor and asked if he had a cleaver or a sharp knife and would he come over. His first response, “Who or what are we chopping up?” He joined me with a giant cleaver and knives fitting for the job and we started to gut the animals and cut them up, chopping through the both meat and bone. Blood flew in all directions, all over the kitchen, cabinets, floor and both of us. The traps of today are more humane so they do not bleed out, and thus the meat is very bloody. By the time we finished, my kitchen looked like a scene from a horror movie slaughter. It was almost midnight by the time we finished cutting, wrapping and cleaning up. Sixty pound chunks of beaver (that would make a butcher cringe) in the freezer and two tails for soup.
I marinate beaver in a vinegar and salt mix, to remove any gamey taste. (Although my experience has been beaver has little gamey taste, unlike venison.) I prepare it like beef stroganoff with gravy and have served it at the Saugerties Fish and Game Club dinner with rave reviews. This large rodent is great eating and prepared properly can pass for beef, with a slight twist. I once served it to some unsuspecting friends, who, after they discovered what I had done, never came to dinner at my house again.
Barbara Buono’s column appears monthly