For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to fry doughnuts in bear fat.
The reasons for my obsession aren't totally clear, even to me. But I do know my fascination started as a tween, when my mother and granny showed me a cracked and yellowing museum pamphlet that contained a recipe from our ancestors.
In 1851, my maternal great-great-great grandparents, Malinda and John Yokum, crossed into Oregon at The Dalles. Originally from Missouri, they would go on to settle alongside the South Umpqua River in Douglas County. Malinda would become known as a skilled cook among the highwaymen and desperados who stopped to use her ferry and buy a meal. One of her specialties was her doughnut recipe. Probably out of necessity, the doughnuts were fried in rendered bear fat.
The recipe intrigued me as a youngster in part because of that adolescent yearning to know who I was and where l came from. But mostly, it had a pleasing gross-out factor.
I visited Granny multiple times at her tiny mountain home in Willamina, Ore., where we turned her records and recipe books upside down to find the original pamphlet—but we never could.
Over the years, I began to suspect it was an apocryphal story. My family is filled with entertaining storytellers, most of whom have a slippery relationship with the world of hard facts. Stories at the dinner table tend to consist of half-remembered anecdotes retconned to include favorite Christian aphorisms. Hyperbole is our dialect.
But one day came the moment I thought would never happen. While on the phone with my mother, Granny casually mentioned she had found her recipe for bear-fat doughnuts.
I had to make the recipe. But finding that one crucial ingredient would be a challenge.
"Does anyone know how to get, idk, let's say two pounds of rendered bear fat?" I posted on Facebook. "This isn't a joke lol."
The first response was an Amazon link for a type of Russian bear oil. The quantity was small, and the poorly translated page didn't indicate culinary use. Most importantly, it was indefinitely out of stock.
Next, I started emailing custom game processors in my area. I learned bear-hunting season in Oregon was fast approaching. I figured a game processor might, for the right price, divert a quantity of the bear's illustrious gut.
Then I got bad news from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife—as far as Johnny Law was concerned, I wouldn't be getting any bear fat without the proper paperwork.
It's illegal to sell bear fat, apparently. Eliminating the black market for game meat was crucial to the department's mission to curb poaching. The only legal way to acquire bear fat would be to shoot the bear yourself or be gifted the fat by someone who had legally shot one.
This explained why the custom game processors never emailed me back: They probably thought I was a narc.
I then pursued another lead: Uncle Ralph.
My great uncle, Ralph Ertz, is a former Alaskan bush pilot and trophy-hunting guide. He's also the first man to kill all five species of North American deer with a bow. He lives in Montana, in a mausoleum of taxidermied critters he's killed.
"You asked me about bear fat and, listen, I'm an 80-year-old man now," he said when I called him. "I don't have any bear fat, and I don't know anyone who took a bear this year. In fact, I don't know anyone who took a bear in the last five or six years. My friends are old, too."
Uncle Ralph went on to explain that, as omnivores, bears begin to taste like whatever they've been feeding on. If they get into a salmon run, their meat will be fishy. If they've been foraging for berries all summer, it will be sweet.
Even if I could get my hands on the bear's precious oils, a proposition far from definite, what it would actually taste like would be a roll of the dice.
I considered posting an ad on Craigslist, but that option felt especially doomed. After all, trying to find a safe and reliable "Craigslist bear-fat guy" isn't exactly the same thing as buying a stranger's couch.
I felt dejected. But I did not want to be defeated.
The thought occurred to me that part of the pioneering spirit that created those doughnuts was that you made due with what you had. If Malinda Yokum didn't have bear fat on hand, she would have used what she had around. So I bought some lard.
I finally made the doughnuts on what was then the hottest day of the year, filling my poorly ventilated studio apartment with vaporized pork grease. The dough was sticky and uncooperative, and my IKEA hot plate (I have no stove) kept burning out, forcing me to restart it.
The dough had tasted great. But the doughnuts themselves, frying in the oil, were big, flaccidly buoyant and homely, like confectionary manatees—a disappointment. My pastry skills certainly needed practice.
Maybe I should give my mom a call and see if she could provide some tips? But as I felt my interest in making more doughnuts drain from my body like blood from a freshly gutted wild beast, I realized the doughnuts were probably beside the point all along.
Malinda Yokum's Bear-Fat Doughnuts
1.5 cups sugar
1 cup sour cream
2 scant tbsp melted butter
0.5 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
0.5 tsp freshly grated cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
Flour (make sure you have about 5 cups, although you'll probably end up using less)
2-3 lbs. rendered bear fat
1. Combine the wet ingredients in a stand mixer or mixing bowl, and cream in the sugar. Combine the spices, baking soda, and about a cup of flour in a separate bowl, and stir it into the mix.
2. Continue adding flour until the mixture starts to come together as a dough. This is a cake doughnut recipe, so don't overmix or you'll be left with a tough, dense product. Aim for pizza dough.
3. Sprinkle your rolling surface with a hefty amount of flour and roll the dough out half an inch thick. Cut with a doughnut cutter and fry in a pot of hot bear fat. "Hot" is obviously not a temperature, but once you cut the doughnuts out, you can try out different temperatures with the doughnut holes. A wok is actually the best choice for in-home deep fat frying, but a dutch oven or cast-iron frying pan both work well. The doughnuts shouldn't take more than a couple minutes to reach golden brown, and they should be steaming and soft inside. Y'know, like a doughnut.