When I lived in Bozeman, I met a lot of rad people- in general, but also- who were vegetarians except for local, sustainably-produced meat. In Montana, you can see bison flopping around in the valley on your way to Big Sky, there’s a solid chance one of your friends has a hunk of venison in their freezer from a deer they shot last year, and it isn’t rare to see elk steaks at the Food Bank. It was a very strange place where you could have pork from Amaltheia Organic Dairy and say, “Hey, two of my roommates have fed that pig, and the owner of the farm came to our house party once, and my cat was born in that same barn.” Last best place on Earth, indeed.
I’ve been a vegetarian for 14 years, and honestly, I don’t really miss meat. I mean, I’d be both a fool and a liar if I said I hadn’t thought of quote-unquote accidentally switching out my plate of boneless (doi) chik’n (stupid) wings with someone’s plate of hot wings at a Super Bowl party (14 years later and the only smell that brings out my carnivorous instincts is that of vinegary, spicy buffalo sauce), but I don’t particularly feel like there’s a steak-filled void in my heart.* I realized, though, that my strict refusal of any meat at all times was just as close-minded as the caricature of a meat eater who won’t even try a vegetarian dish because “what is this quee-no burger, some kind of rabbit food?!? PETA PEOPLE EATING TASTY ANIMALS.” Also, I spent my entire academic career studying the fascinating intersection of food and people; was refusing to take part in these food cultures limiting my understanding of them? So, I made a new rule for myself, because I love rules: I ‘m allowed one regional, meat-based specialty when I travel to a new place. It’s very exciting, knowing that the world is now your gastronomic oyster, kind of. Fortunately for animals, I’m too broke to travel, but they’d best sleep with one eye open. They whisper tales of the grown woman with a paycheck who comes and eats their young at night and then instagrams it…#local
Anyways, I had traveled to Bozeman, technically, so clearly I had to have a signature Montanan dish before I left. I spent the better part of three months weighing my options- should I get an elk steak? have someone make me an elk steak? a Nova eggs benedict with Amaltheia pork?- but eventually settled on a Bozeman staple: Montana Ale Works. Ale Works is the first place you take a first-time visitor. It’s like an Applebee’s if Applebee’s was a local joint that served incredible food and $5 glasses of New Belgium Lips of Faith. I’m actually browsing flights to Bozeman right now just to pop in, grab some parmesan pepper fries, and pop out.
This time, though, I wasn’t here for fries, or a sesame tofu salad, or the best veggie burger I’ve ever eaten. No, I was here for meat. Bison, specifically. The bison patty melt- a 1/2 lb of bison on rye bread with swiss cheese, caramelized onions, and thousand island sauce- had come highly recommended by several reliable sources, and who was I to turn down a dish suggested by the entire Sustainable Food Studies graduate department? Fortunately, it wasn’t difficult to recruit accomplices, and we toasted to large mammals with our patty melts. Clink! Our server said it was a first, which was honestly surprising.
I’m sorry this is such a terrible picture, it really doesn’t do the sandwich justice. First of all, let’s start with the beer: New Belgium’s Lips of Faith La Folie sour brown ale. It may be the best beer I’ve ever had. Tart, fruity, but still malty enough to make me feel cool drinking it. Nah, kidding, I’d look cool drinking a Capri Sun, I wasn’t too concerned. Also, those glasses are adorable, but I had too much respect for the establishment to steal one. I would’ve ordered it by the bathtub, but I knew I needed to save room for the, you know, half a pound of meat.
So, this sandwich. Dear god. I never understood why people would condescendingly shake their heads when I told them that vegetarian alternatives were just as filling as meat. No seriously, I’m soooooo full after that fried egg on toast and Greek yogurt, why are you looking at me the same way my parents did when I told them I wanted to be on the football team when I was in 3rd grade? I get it now. I have never felt so full in my life than I did after having finished that sandwich. Not sick, just teetering on the edge between food coma and actual coma. My vegetarian roommate, who also woman-ed up and met her patty melt fate, and I couldn’t even make it out to the bars afterwards. I fell asleep in the library an hour later. Yo, protein, respect.
Satiety aside, this patty melt was divine. I had forgotten what red meat tastes like, and the flavor and texture were just so unfamiliar and unique. It was perfectly charred on the outside, and wonderfully juicy and flavorful on the inside. It definitely didn’t hurt that it was surrounded by perfectly melted cheese, sweet caramelized onions, a tangy sauce, and crispy crunchy chewy rye bread. This is the sandwich of 30 Rock’s Sandwich Day. Yes, we can have it all.
The patty melt, though, didn’t signal some primal meat-eating instinct like people had said it would. I imagined chasing the dragon but instead of a dragon it would be a cow and instead of chasing it would just be me passed out, face-deep in carnitas at Chipotle. The fattiness was delightful, but also a deterrent. To quote my roommate’s boyfriend, though, “most people don’t eat a 1/2 lb of red meat at every meal.” Touché. No regrets, though (*destroys Man v. Food audition reel while weeping tears of shattered dreams*). ‘Tis better to have eaten a bison and felt uncomfortably full than to have never eaten a bison at all.
And now, a moment of remembrance for the bison I ate:
I ate you.
*Except for that time freshman year I went vegan and ate TDR lettuce sandwiches for two weeks straight and would have meat cravings so strong that I would sit in class and daydream about Little Red Riding Hooding the Hill intern who sat in front of me. Two birds, one iron deficient stone.