05 January 2012

A Yak Story

Article & Photos by Alexis M. Smith

It’s the morning after a holiday party.  Cocktail glasses and wine bottles clutter the kitchen counters; remnants of the evening’s comestibles crowd the faux bois laminate table: candied grapefruit peel, gingerbread in the shape of saws and axes, a sugary pie with nubbins of caramelized walnuts, powdery stollen flecked with absinthe-hued mystery fruit.  My houseguest and I are ignoring the mess–she’s my best friend from seventh grade (my first year of Catholic school, after my family moved to Seattle from Alaska), up from Berkeley for a visit–sitting in the lap of the lit Christmas tree, we’re catching up.

I’m on my eighth cup of black tea–brewed so sinisterly dark and unctuous my ancient English ancestors would have raised an eyebrow–when my boyfriend calls and asks if we’ve had lunch.  We have not.

“Good,” says he.  “I’ll bring some yak.”

“Yak?” I say, looking at my guest for approval.

She shrugs and nods.  Why not?  She’s always game.  (Some things never change.)

For me, it is not such a cavalier decision to eat, or not to eat, the yak.  I haven’t consumed red meat in nearly twenty years: When I was twelve my hippie aunt gave me some vintage copies of Vegetarian Times.  Intrigued, I wrote away to an organization advertised in the back pages, a little group called PETA, and awaited information that would inform a short paper I planned to write for Social Studies.  Finally, the pamphlets arrived in the post: I became a vegetarian overnight.

Like many former vegetarians and vegans in food-obsessed Portland, eating locally has come to mean more to me than asserting dietary absolutes. I returned to my Alaskan roots first, eating fresh Pacific Northwest seafood.  When I was pregnant I began eating poultry again.  And last Christmas morning I broke my decades-long bacon fast.  If the food is fresh, if I know someone (who knows someone) who had a hand in its production, I’ll happily put it on my plate in place of the processed soy products that stood in for meat for so many years.

But yak?

Growing up in Alaska I ate moose (Alces alces: chewy, woodsy but bland) and reindeer (a.k.a. caribou or Rangifer tarandus: toothsome, lingonberry-tinged sausage blistered over a campfire).  A friend, a former resident of Olympia, WA told me about friends there who text each other when there has been a deer v. auto collision, so they can harvest the meat (radical meat, they call it).  A childhood friend in Alaska who hunts bears posts excited Facebook updates when she’s having “beariyaki” for supper.  And I have to admit: beariyaki sounds kind of delicious.

Twenty years of eschewing red meat, and I’m staring down a pound of raw yak meat as Boyfriend and Guest discuss whether to use some of the tasty shallots I stock-piled from my Sauvie Island CSA (Edible Horizons) or whether the yak would overpower their delicate earthiness.  I Google “yak” to find out more about this beast whose bright red flesh gleams accusingly from a bowl.  Turns out yaks have shaggy long hair; it’s freaking adorable.  I become inquisitive about Yak’s provenance, like Peter and Nance from Portlandia.

“Where did you get the yak?” I ask Boyfriend.

At the last St. John’s Farmer’s Market.  From a guy he bought bison from before.

Which farmer?  Where’s his farm? What’s his name?

Boyfriend regards me, amused.

“Uh…Steve?” he says, hands thrust into bowl, massaging sauteed onions and mushrooms into Yak.

Soon yak patties are sizzling away, oozing their yakness all over my cheap non-stick pan. Yak is pretty lean meat, if that sort of thing matters to you when you’re eating an animal that could carry you up the Himalayas. And there are a couple of ranches near Portland that sell yak (Pine Mountain Ranch seems to be the largest supplier), despite  (or perhaps because of) the lack of sherpas.

Piling the yak patties onto multi-grain buns, we decide to try without condiments.  The first bite is not delicious.  But for a first taste of red meat after twenty years, the surprise is how familiar it tastes.  It’s red meat.  And it tastes like places I know, It smells like somewhere I’ve been before.  There’s hay.  There’s poop.  But old poop.  It’s my grandparents’ derelict barn: the scene of many a childhood hide-and-seek game gone wrong.

“It tastes like I’m in a field.  With animals,” Guest says.

I dive into the fridge in search of mustard and chutney.  I slather them on.

We have collected all the odds and ends of last night’s meal.  Lit by rays of pure winter sunshine, our meal looks damn good.  Boyfriend and Guest and I chat and eat, and soon I can take a bite without mentally attempting to disengage my olfactory system.  If I finish half my yak, I promise myself, I get a piece of leftover Grizzly Bear Pie, knowing no grizzly bears were harmed in the making of the pie.

Alexis M. Smith is the author of Glaciers (Tin House Books, 2012).  She reads, writes, eats, and haunts thrift stores in and around Portland, OR.  For more information on publications and events, visit her website: alexismsmith.com.

Alexis will be reading from and signing copies of Glaciers at Powells, January 9th, 7:30pm.