Monday, June 02, 2008

A tale of tails.

June 2 ...

On this day in 1795, the Northwest Territory judge, George Turner wrote to George Washington. His letter was to accompany a gift of a buffalo robe and some beaver tails.

I don’t know if beavers’ tails figure very commonly on the dining table (or round the campfire) in the great Northwest any more, but they certainly feature regularly in tales of the old frontier. Once upon a time they figured in European tales too. In medieval times beavers’ tails were a very welcome food during the ‘fast’ (i.e non-meat) days of the Christian calendar, such as Lent – at least amongst the wealthy. How could this be? The beaver had fur, like a land mammal, but spent most of its time in the water. The debate went on for a long time, but eventually a greedily sensible compromise was reached and it was decreed that the tail would be allowed.

It goes without saying that beaver fur was desirable until recent politically correct times, so allowing the tail flesh to be eaten was very pragmatic. There were other ancient justifications for catching beavers too. They were a source of castoreum – ‘a reddish-brown unctuous substance, having a strong smell and nauseous bitter taste, obtained from two sacs in the inguinal region of the beaver … ’(OED). In other words a pheromone or ‘essential oil’ produced by the male beaver and used to mark out his territory and make the female swoon with lust. The oil was used in medicine. It was a powerful remedy, according to Pliny:

‘when applied to the head, it is productive of narcotic effects - a result which is equally produced by taking it in water ; for which reason it is employed in the treatment of phrenitis. Used as a fumigation, it acts as an excitant upon patients suffering from lethargy: and similarly employed, or used in the form of a suppository, it dispels hysterical suffocations. It acts also as an emmenagogue and as an expellent of the afterbirth …’

Quite useful, really. In view of its effect on the female of the species, and the fact that it was an expensive exotic ingredient, it also had a reputation as an aphrodisiac. Until recently (and perhaps still?) it was used as homeopathic remedy for headaches. Before you scoff, or are repelled by such ideas, think on this: you may be shocked – deeply shocked – to learn that you may have ingested it in chewing gum. Ask your supplier.

If you are gustatorily repelled or ethically outraged at the thought of eating furry aquatic animals with paddle-shaped tails, you can be reassured that you can have beaver-like alternatives. The Canadians make a beaver-tail-shaped doughnut called, not surprisingly, beavers’ tails, for the same reasons that there are cakey versions of bears’ paws and moose lips. I am not certain what those reasons are, apart from fun, which is a good enough reason. An earlier frontier version was simply bread, and the method was described thus in 1896:

‘If the traveler has no frying pan the bread is baked in a beaver tail. Such a loaf is long and narrow and is exposed to the fire upon a stick, the lower end being set in the ground, two or three cross sticks, the size of an ordinary skewer, are required to prevent the loaf from breaking and falling as it breaks.’

Finally, if it is not stretching linguistic coincidence too much, we can all enjoy our ‘beaver’ (more properly spelled ‘bever’) as an old English version of either a drink or a mid-afternoon snack.

And, I almost forgot, in his letter to George, George included a recipe for the tails.

Canadian Recipe for Dressing Beaver’s Tails.
First boil the Tail till it becomes soft & then broil it upon a gridiron until the fat or oil of it exudes in every direction. After this spread over the whole a coat composed of fine crumbs of bread & parsley, chopped very fine. Again lay it upon the gridiron till it becomes brown and crisp. In this state serve it up with vinegar salt and pepper.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Common food.

Quotation for the Day ..

You don't get ulcers from what you eat. You get them from what's eating you. Vicki Baum.


Shay said...

Beaver fur is still highly desirable, in places like China. The spousal unit runs a trapline here in the winter and sells the pelts to a firm up in Chicago.

(Hey, it keeps him out of the poolrooms).

And even in the interests of food blogging I am NOT going to ask him for a tail to cook.

The Old Foodie said...

I am in favour of anything that keeps a man out of a poolroom! I dont know if I could resist trying beaver-tail, if one was offered ...

Rochelle R. said...

How coincidental, just earlier today I was reading a little 1977 booklet, Indian Cookin'. It has a beaver tail soup. It sounded so unusual I had to read it. To prepare it you "skin the tail by broiling the tail over the campfire. The scaly skin will come off in a blistered sheet to reaveal the white, solid meat undernneath." I think I'll just take their word for it.