Humanosity says….Who knew that bear fat was once a relatively common ingredient so common that it mattered what time of year it was harvested? The fact that what was once common knowledge has disappeared actually shows how cultural change has encouraged the return of North America’s bears.
It’s rare to find a good news story when looking at the plight of large predators across the world. The big cats are facing extinction in our lifetime unless conservation efforts are stepped up. As climate changes drastically warms the Arctic, polar bears are struggling to adapt to the loss of ice.
However, the numbers of bears in North America, especially black bears has been steadily increasing and now they have returned to many of their historical habitats.
Canada has seen bears return to 95% of their original habitats. New Jersey has been issuing hunting permits since 2010 and despite this has seen twice as many bears born than were hunted. Bear populations in Florida have doubled since 2002. Whilst bear numbers are returning the practice of eating them hasn’t made a comeback, despite New Jersey releasing a recipe guide for black bears in 2010.
Today using bear fat is restricted to small numbers of hunters and traditional uses among Native American tribes. Hank Shaw, a modern-day hunter and chef reckon that using bear fat in pastries is without peer. However, he states that the time of year that you harvest the bear fat can make an enormous difference. According to Shaw bear fat takes on the taste of the bear’s general diet at that time.
He writes that in early autumn, when nuts, berries, and acorns dot North America’s forests, bear fat is “sublime … virtually indistinguishable from the finest pork lard you can buy or make.” The fat of blueberry-eating bears in Montana, for example, assumes sweet, fruity hints and a slight purple tinge. But if a bear most recently ate fish or suburban garbage, the lard takes on a briney odour that ranges from low-tide to truly vile.
Shaw is one of a few people keeping this knowledge alive as for most of us the bear has long transitioned from our dinner plate into a more spiritual part of our imaginations.
Bear Fat: The Swiss Army Knife of North America
A look back into history shows the extraordinary number of uses for bear products that our ancestors had. Bear fat was used by Native Americans to variously; weatherproof their bows, straighten hair, repel insects and moisturise hides. Apaches even used bear fat in glass jars to predict the weather.
Even in 19th century Europe bear grease was considered a good treatment for hair loss. Atlas Obscura writes that
In London, John George Wood wrote in 1856, “it was the custom for … hairdressers to keep bears on their premises.” Many Londoners, he adds, paid for the privilege of rubbing their heads on the bear’s body, so as to ensure they got real bear grease.
Cooking with bear fat was common practice right up to the late 19th century. Bear was even considered such a delicacy that it was on the menu for a dinner in honour of Charles Dickens in Manhattan. The 3000 guests who attended were treated to an entree of roast bear leg.
According to Atlas Obscura “one Jean-François-Benjamin Dumont de Montigny, a native of Louisiana, wrote in the 1720s, his company rejoiced in dressing a green salad with bear fat and oak sap or crafting a bear fat roux. Bear recipes continued to appear in cookery books well into the 20th century.
Unfortunately for bears, their abundance and the versatility of the products derived from bears led to the decimation of their populations in North America by 1900.
Roosevelt and the Teddy Bear
Fortunately for bears, their fortunes began to change around 1900. The growth of livestock farming meant the arrival of alternatives to bear products. Sarah Wassberg Johnson, who writes on the history of food states that as the frontier turned in to farmland “why go bear hunting when you could raise beef, pork, and chicken (and their requisite fats)?”
Part of the transformation of attitudes towards bears is often attributed to the huge growth in popularity of the teddy bear at this time.
The story is that President Theodore Roosevelt was on a fruitless hunt in the early 1900s and some of his aides caught and stunned a bear before tying it to a tree so it could be dispatched by the president. However, on seeing the dazed bear Roosevelt chose not to finish it off and instead had it released. The event caught the imagination of the nation and a New York toy store cleverly capitalised on the unorthodox presidential pardon and created the world’s first teddy bear.
The transformation of the bear in the imagination of North Americans was reinforced by the nascent conservation movement of which Roosevelt was a part. The founding of the national parks, the greater appreciation of native American attitudes to nature, as well as the agricultural revolution in former frontier areas, all are responsible for taking bear off the menu.