Bear Ham and Navy Bean Soup
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
DiCaprio did it for me last year. Every time I opened my freezer a package marked, “bear ham” was staring up at me. I had been hunting for some recipe inspiration. The stirring finally came after watching the then newly released film, The Revenant, in which the main character, a real life 1820s fur trapper and frontiersman named Hugh Glass is mauled within a breath of his life by a grizzly bear and then left for dead in the cold wet wilderness.
Just for the record, I’ve never been mauled by a bear, nor hunted one. However, a bear has treed me. That hair–raising event happened during the summer of 1982.
Between my sophomore and junior years in college I applied, and was selected to work in the Campstore at Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park. When I reported for orientation at the end of May, arriving via the Amtrak Empire Builder disembarking at the Browning station to the east of Glacier, we were told that, “…one of you will not return to your family in September.”
Wide-eyed, I listened intently. We were told that every year since the Park’s opening, an employee had either fallen off a cliff, died of injuries sustained during reckless hiking, or encountered a grizzly and was mauled to death. Not unlike Hugh Glass. So, when they came to the part about bear bells, and dropping, or stashing your food pack, and emergency defenses like climbing a tree should one encounter a bear, I listened carefully. I’ve since come to learn this was a scare tactic aimed at keeping us safety-aware and on our toes when hiking in the heart of Grizzly country.
Nonetheless, one day out on an overnight hike in a remote part of the Park I heard grunts and then witnessed the mass of a grizzly with her cubs in tow. Their proximity to my location was uncomfortably close. Per my orientation, I dropped my pack with haste, and eyeballed a tree to climb that distanced me from my pack, and from the bear and cubs in case our paths were to cross. With legs scratched and bloodied from shimmying up in shorts, I developed a short-term love affair with a coniferous sappy pine, hugging it tightly for about an hour until the sow and her cubs sauntered out of sight.
Just one shy of 35 years have past. Yet, I can still feel the reverence, humility, and yes, terror, that swelled within as I clung tightly to the pine. She could have closed the distance between us in seconds and shaken me from my perch. Or climbed up after me and dragged me down. She could have mauled me and devoured me. It left me chilled with hair-raising, justifiable fear longing for safety the way a frigid January day in Minnesota leaves you chilled to the bone hungry for a piping hot bowl of comforting soup.
1- 1.75-2.0 pound cured and wood smoked bear ham
1 pound dried navy beans
2 large onions
4 cloves garlic
3 celery ribs
3 carrots (I like the rainbow carrots)
5-7 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup of mashed Yukon Gold potatoes
¼ minced carrot tops or fresh parsley
2 Tablespoons whole milk, or cream
Bacon grease, or olive oil for sautéing vegatables
Salt and Pepper
Pork shank, or ham hock for extra smokey flavor
Dried Chantrelle mushrooms for garnish
Crust loaf of artisanal bread for sopping
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Note: The bear ham came into my pantry by way of J.J. Reich. He’s up the road from me here in Minnesota and works at Vista Outdoor. He harvested the 150 pound sow with a Savage American Classic Model 14 in 30-06 with Federal Premium 180 grain Trophy Bonded Tip.