Their summer diets were largely vegetarian. With no refrigerators or freezers, it was impossible to butcher a pig or a cow as most of the meat would quickly spoil, and the chickens were better kept for eggs. The answer: wild meat.
In 1882, the Baines family arrived from Manchester, England, and would have starved on several occasions if not for wild meat. Fred Baines, who was a child at the time, recalled that "badger was an oily strong nauseating meat, it took a strong stomach to handle it. Personally, I prefer skunk or muskrat."
Of course, wild game fed prairie families for millennium, primarily the bison, but also beaver, rabbits, moose, prairie chickens, geese, gophers and the aforementioned muskrat and skunk.
Beaver was long considered a delicacy, but not by everyone. Artist Paul Kane didn't much like beaver when he travelled here in 1846: "It is a fat, gristly substance, but to me by no means palatable; the rest of our party, however, seemed to enjoy it much. The tongues were decidedly delicious; they are cured by drying them in the smoke of the lodges."
I wanted to taste the pioneer experience for myself. Thanks to a friend, I acquired a piece of beaver, cleaned and frozen, which I cooked in a traditional recipe for beef stroganoff, a staple of Hungarian settlers. It was amazingly delicious with local chanterelle mushrooms. If you don't have beaver, substitute beef. :)
1 lb meat, trimmed of fat
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp butter
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 tsp paprika
Salt and pepper
1 cup chopped mushrooms
2-3 cups beef broth
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
1 cup sour cream
Boil beaver in water for 20 minutes. Remove and cool. Slice meat against the grain into thin strips.
Heat oil and butter in a large skillet. Cook onions until soft. Add meat. Sprinkle with paprika, salt and pepper. Sauté until meat is no longer pink.
Add mushrooms, 2 cups broth and Worcestershire sauce. Cover skillet and simmer two hours or more, adding more broth if needed, until meat is tender.
Before serving, stir in sour cream. Bring to a light bubble and remove from heat. Serve on noodles.
(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)