Don Johnson, his daughter-in-law, Marlie Johnson, and wife, Sylvia Johnson, pose in 1976 with heads from trophy musk ox they had shot on Nunivak Island. Eating wild game was a tradition in the Johnson family. Sylvia found musk ox meat dark and somewhat dry.
Photo courtesy of Mary Ford
When some Kenai seniors got together 10 years ago to discuss their first Thanksgiving in Alaska, not one could recall having had turkey for dinner. But they did remember preparing and eating wild game not only at Thanksgiving but throughout the year. Here is what Sylvia Johnson had to say:
-- Mary Ford, Kenai Historical
“Our first Thanksgiving in Alaska, we had moose. It was 1948 and we were living in Fairbanks. I hate to tell you where we kept that moose. We had started digging a hole for the outhouse and it didn’t get finished and it was just perfect to keep that moose meat in.
“I had told my son that whatever he killed, he had to eat. Well, he managed to kill a porcupine and I’d never done anything with a porcupine. But since he had killed it, we were going to eat it.
“We skinned this porcupine, which was the right thing to do. And I had read somewhere that you put some soda in the water, you parboiled it, and then you could fix it a number of ways. So I put the parboiled porcupine in the refrigerator while I’m trying to find recipes.
“But the porcupine kept disappearing! And finally there wasn’t enough left to do anything with. Then I discovered my kids loved it and all three of them were going in there and making sandwiches. I think I got one bite. It tasted very much like chicken.
“I’ve also cooked beaver. My husband trapped long enough to get me a fur coat in the 1950s. My daughter, mother-in-law, my mother and I all ended up with coats. He would bring the whole beaver home. They usually froze in the snares and it was too cold to sit outside and skin them so he’d bring them into the basement.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh, they’re pretty good eating.’ So I ended up cooking beaver. It was quite fat and the meat was stringy.
I also cooked musk ox. We had gotten a permit to go musk ox hunting and we brought them back. The meat was almost black, hardly red at all, and had about four or five inches of fat over the whole exterior of the body under the skin. That musk ox hind quarter was about the size of a pork ham and it was just all meat. The meat was not marbled. I cooked it very similar to moose meat, except that we never had steaks, as steaks, because it was so dry it would be like a piece of shoe leather.
“It’s been interesting up here. I enjoy the game meat. In fact, I prefer it. The only thing that we never ate was the brown bear. But I used to cook black bear. Somebody told me to cook that with red wine. Now sheep meat and goat meat, as long as we didn’t get the hide turned over so the hair got onto the meat, that was really good eating.
“I’ll have to say I had never tasted turkey until after I got married. I lived on a farm in Iowa and I remember one Thanksgiving we had studied about the Pilgrims and they had turkey. My sister and I begged our parents to buy a turkey. This was during the depression. There was no money for a turkey and so roast chicken was our Thanksgiving meat.”
This column was provided by Mary Ford and Sylvia Johnson with the Kenai Historical Society.
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