Smoked Elk Tenderloin (at 11,300 ft.)

By Dan Hinds

After the elk kill, there’s work to be done: make the right cuts, parcel the hunks, pack the meat out of the wilds. A moment at basecamp to rest. Between loads to the trailhead this past year I fantasized about a special repast of smoked elk tenderloin, that prime cut of what I consider the finest meat in the world. At the end of the day, alone at 11,300 feet with a growling appetite, I cracked a beer and here’s how it went:

Clean pit dug in the native soil, shovel blade-depth and -diameter. Heavy rocks positioned around the pit to enclose the smoking chamber.
While a cedar shingle plank (from the firewood pile) soaks for half an hour in the nearby spring, a talus field is searched for just the right plate-shaped rock to cap the pit.

4:50 p.m. Fire started in the main fire-ring nearby, split spruce kindling. Tenderloin trimmed (a generous slice delivered nearby as an offering to the corvid clan), marinating in bacon grease, salty bits from the bottom of a potato chip bag, and a splash of Maker’s Mark.

5:20 Blaze transitioned to juniper wood. Hamstring stretches to relieve the sore leg muscles.

5:42 Coals shoveled into the pit. Loin on shingle over pit, rock cap over all…fussing with the configuration, fussing…fussing…

5:44 Smokin’! Another beer snaps open as a patina of fragrant smoke adds to the late afternoon mellowness enveloping the high country.

6:00 Second blaze started in main fire ring, to rejuvenate coals in pit. Shingle starting to char, causing ample smoke to issue from crevasses in pit’s rock ring and cap.

6:15 New coals added to pit, loin starting to sweat. Golden sundown at camp with alpenglow on mountain peaks. Beers going down awfully smooth.

6:19 Camp deer (doe with two fawns) stroll through camp with light hoofs and suspicious eyes, ears, noses. Rock cap warm to the touch. IMG_3239

6:27 Third juniper blaze started in fire ring. The folding camp chair is the world’s ultimate luxury. How did I get so lucky? Pikas call, “Eeeeeee!” from the distant talus: missing a certain platter shaped rock from their domain?

6:38 Coals rejuved again. Loin sizzling slightly. A gray jay swoops through camp with inquisitive chortles.

6:46 Cusp of “shooting light”. 4th blaze going. Four days ago this chunk of meat was alive, allowing a bull elk to…what does the loin muscle do again? The coals glow through the rock ring like a fissure of lava in the earth. Smoke from the pit curls up, plays through spruce boughs and dissipates off across the mountainside like a whisper, like a spell.

7:18 Stars out. Moist sizzle and outrageous savory aroma emanates from the pit. Cap rock is HOT!

7:40 Fourth batch of coals shoveled into the pit. The meat chop looks fine on its cedar platter, a soft dark crust with rare juices bubbling through. Sleeping pad and bag moved out of tent to prime spot under stars next to smoking pit. Cold air sloughing off the high mountain behind. Almost too hungry for words, too tired to stand.

8:00 Done. Sliced and displayed for a moment under headlamp, then pounced upon. Hardly seems cooked though no longer bloody, like a smoke-infused mountain sushi steak, wobbling frictionlessly down into the belly. Oh yes! Half saved to fuel the boys coming up tomorrow for the last pack load from the elk kill. Spring water and Milky Way and now a deep sleep.

Thank you elk, thank you big mountains.