The Mooseburger era

My father didn’t have much of a life . . . it was mostly consumed with work, day and night. And he hated spending money because he quite frankly didn’t have much to spend.

But one thing, without fail, halted his way of life each fall after silage cutting. He and my mother would leave for 10-14 days and head off to a big game hunting adventure.

Early on, they typically went to the area of Douglas, Wyo., where they would hunt antelope. Eventually, they joined up with an outfitter in Jackson Hole, Wyo., who would take them high into the Tetons for a breath-taking stay in the wilderness. Elk was generally the objective.

Then arrived the year my father was accepted for a moose license. That was the one he always wanted — he would talk with hope about the mammoth bull he would bring home, whose head would hang on the wall of their “someday new house.” But getting a license for a moose took more than just wishful thinking — it was a lottery of sorts where only a few were annually allowed. There was a large sea of applicants each year.

When the registered letter arrived, one would have thought my father had actually won the lottery. Of course, the license was expensive. But this was going to be the trip of a lifetime as he went searching for the big bull moose.

They were taken, by horseback, through mountain trails that left my mother wishing for flat land. But once at camp, they were treated to private tents and a large mess tent in which a cook “fired up the best food they’d ever eaten.”

As my dad and the other hunters traveled out into the field, my mother was able to read, write, meditate by a brook and stare at the peaks above her. It was heaven, she said.

And for my father, it was more than he could have wished for, as their wilderness guide took them to places only God could see on a regular basis.

Then, the big day came, as my father spotted the biggest bull moose he could have even imagined. Yes, in the end, my father was the victor . . . about which I have mixed feelings. But for my dad, it was a moment of elation.

The moose, as it turned out, was a record in the hunting world. A photo of my father and the big bull appeared on the cover of numerous hunting brochures and I guess a Wyoming magazine. The faded pieces of paper still adorn pages of an old photo album.

There was a lot entailed with getting that monster off the mountain. I don’t remember exactly how they said they did it, but I do know it came with many logistical decisions and maneuvers.

All I know for certain was the carcass was delivered to a licensed locker somewhere and eventually it arrived in white, paper packages. A lot of white, paper packages. So many packages, in fact, they had to buy an additional deep-freeze to hold it all.

“We’ll have meat for a year!” my father proudly exclaimed.

None of us had consumed moose meat before, so it was an adventure for the whole family. My mother started with moose steaks — they were pretty good, but a little gamey. More gamey than elk, of which we’d become accustomed.

There was moose ring sausage — now that stuff was the bomb. It was fantastic! It had been mixed with ground beef and pork and had a fabulous flavor.

The majority of the animal, however, had been ground into what the blue stamp on the outside of the white packages proclaimed simply as “mooseburger.”

“Mooseburger,” my mother mumbled as she sifted through the freezer, looking for another new culinary adventure. “Let’s try it!”

So she thawed out a couple of packages and decided she’d just make burgers out of the meat.

I remember looking at the ground meat in a bowl, as she prepared to make patties.

“Wow, it’s almost purple,” I said, looking at the gross hue.

“Well, it is wild game, so it’s going to look different than hamburger,” she commented.

She fried the patties and soon we were at the table, ketchup and mustard in hand. My dad was so excited that we’d be trying this new menu item. He took the first bite.

“It’s really good,” he said, quickly grabbing at his big glass of water.

My mother gave him a skeptical look and told us kids to start eating.

I took a bite. The taste was overwhelming. It was absolutely, without a doubt, the worst thing I’d ever eaten, and quite frankly, the worst thing I’ve still ever eaten in my life.

Not only did it have a horrible after-taste, it had a horrible during-taste and a smell that lingered in our sinuses long after the after-taste was gone. It was pungent, so gamey, coarse and yet mushy at the same time.

“That’s very interesting,” my mother said, clearly trying to keep her feelings to herself in order for us kids to consume as much as possible.

My father, of course, ate his entire burger. But he didn’t go back for seconds as he normally did.

I tried to eat it all, but it made me want to gag. I saw my brothers trying to slip parts of their burgers underneath their plates. No one wanted to say anything, especially because we lived in a household “where you finish everything on your plate because there are kids starving all over the world.”

After the inaugural mooseburger meal, I saw Mom actually put the leftover burgers in the bowl for the dogs instead of in the refrigerator.

“It’s really bad,” I whispered to her.

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” she whispered back. “We’ll just have to mix it with other meat and put it in different things so it’s not so strong.”

And then, I remembered my father’s earlier words . . . “We’ll have enough meat for a year!”

I knew that if I had to eat mooseburger for a year, I might prefer being one of those starving kids they always talked about.

So began the mooseburger adventure which started in the late-1970s and stretched to the early 1980s. My mother would try to hide the mooseburger in chili — its electrifying flavor would rise above any tomato sauce, bean or an entire jar of chili powder.

She would mix it into sloppy joes — a garden of onions couldn’t disguise the disgusting.

It went into spaghetti sauce, it was mixed with ground sausage for Saturday breakfasts.

The mooseburger found its way into meatloaf, meatballs, stuffed peppers, cabbage rolls. It was mixed into Spanish rice, vegetable soup, goulash.

Regardless of its stage, mooseburger was always the lead actor. Not only was it the only thing one could taste in a recipe with maybe even a dozen ingredients, it was the only thing a person could smell while it was cooking.

My dad continued to profess that he LOVED it. He would turn crabby if anyone wrinkled their nose, proclaiming that we were LUCKY because we had so much meat to eat. We were lucky, yet I noticed my father’s meat intake had lessened over time . . . his excuse was that he was developing a “beer gut” and needed to trim down. Huh, he was as tall and lanky as ever.

After what-used-to-be-called-supper was over on one particular night during Lent, my brother asked Mom if instead of putting our loose change in the “Rice Bowl” (which was then sent to feed those starving kids all over the world), we could just find a way to send them all the mooseburger.

He looked at her with all sincerity. He really meant it. She calmly, and seriously, told him she didn’t know how we could get it shipped overseas.

“I mean, it tastes bad, but it’s better than eating nothing, I guess,” he said. “Maybe the starving kids would like it. Maybe the priest can help.”

After he was gone, I could hear my mother on the telephone with her sister. She laughed until she cried . . . quietly saying she wished to God there was some way to ship that awful meat somewhere. And maybe it would take a priest to fix this problem.

My father always said we just “needed to get used to it and pretty soon it’ll be like eating regular hamburger.” Well, I was a kid when it arrived and wearing a bra when my father finally threw in the towel and declared the remaining mooseburger “freezer-burned.”

With relief, we watched as he loaded up the “in-the-freezer-too-long meat” and called it. The mooseburger era was finally over and we could return to eating favorite food items without dread.

Oh, mooseburger. I can almost smell it as I write this. I can almost taste it.

Thank God the Mooseburger Era ended.


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