About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Venison

[Venison is the culinary name for meat from the family Cervidae which includes the meat of Deer, Elk, Moose, Reindeer, Roe, Caribou, Elk and Chital]
Deer hunting season closed in our area yesterday and Elk season opens in about a week.  Neither of us hunt but we do have friends who put in for the elk lottery every year.  One even got drawn last year, but came home empty handed (unfortunately as she had promised to share!).  We were bummed as we really love fresh venison* and haven't had the opportunity to have more than a few pounds at a time for a very, very long while.

Come to think of it, I think the last real venison feast we had was when we lived back east and I bagged a big buck (on the day before hunting season opened, no less).  Here the full story...
"Oh Deer!"
It was the fall of 1987 and my wife, Kathryn and I were living in the village of Millerton, NY in an area known as the “Tri-State Region” where NY, MA and CT state lines converge together.  We had been working on renovating an old farm house for several years.  Kathryn, was employed at a terrific old country inn “The Under Mountain Inn” in nearby Salisbury CT.  I was doing some part-time freelance/relief cooking for nearby restaurants but my main job was to complete final work on the house so that we could get it on the market for sale.  We were down to only 1 vehicle for the two of us, our Ford F-150 truck we’d named “Plain Jane”.
Plain Jane was less than a year old from when we’d bought her new from the dealership and there was nothing wrong with her at all aside from the fact she was, well, plain.  When shopping for a new vehicle on a shoe string budget you can’t do much better than finding a leftover from the previous model year just when the new ones are coming out.  Tack on some extra miles for being test driven around a few times, and make it a stripped down model with no AC, no power anything, no automatic tranny, no interior upgrades (it did have an AM radio though!) or fancy wheels or special paint job or pin striping (this girl didn’t even come with a rear bumper!) and you can get a pretty sweet deal.  Besides, we were not in a position to be too picky about what we ended up with having just thrown a rod in our old GMC step-side and needing a truck right away for hauling materials etc for the house project.  Anyway, Jane, in her plain brown wrapper, was our solution.
Kathryn usually rode her bike the 15 miles to the Inn in the afternoons and I went out in the truck around 11PM to pick her up.  The trip was always a pleasant one swinging through the picturesque little towns of Millerton NY, Lakeville, and Salisbury CT before going North through some classically beautiful New England farming land to the Inn which lay just before the road crossed next into Massachusetts.  Majestic old oaks and maple trees hung heavily over the road for the last few miles to the Inn and even at mid day it was like driving through a long dark tunnel created by their branches.  The Inn itself sat on a large piece of property in an almost too perfect pastoral setting across the road from a large and lovely lake and surrounded on three sides by woods and corn fields.  Although country charm and quaint scenery was what many out-of-towners came for, the area was locally well known by outdoorsmen for the magnificent trout that thrived in the crystal-clear lake waters and the trophy deer bucks who lived in the deep woods, venturing out to annoy the farmers by feeding on their corn.
One crisp, cool autumn night, on the eve before that year’s deer bow hunting season was to open, I set out with plenty of time to spare to go pick Kathryn up from the Inn.  I often went there a bit early so that I could visit with Marged and Peter, the Inn’s owners and operators, usually hanging out in the kitchen watching Peter, the chef, finish up the last orders and talking shop.  After passing through the slumbering little towns I continued on.  The pitch dark tunnel of trees seemed even closer than usual.
Suddenly, from the corner of my  right eye I saw a wisp of motion, black on black from the dark void at the side of the road where car headlights fail to penetrate fully.  I reflexively cut the wheel hard to the left as I jammed on the brakes.  The sound of breaking glass and the thick, solid, thud that reverberated through the truck’s cab told me I had not been quick enough but I concentrated on bringing the vehicle back into my own lane and to a stop.
A few dozen feet down the road I was able to pull safely off to the side.  Grabbing my flashlight I walked back along the black rubber course my tires had left on the pavement.  Soon I came to some scattered headlamp glass shards and bits of amber plastic from my turn signal lens.  After stopping I hadn’t taken time to see what shape the truck was in but I was getting the idea that it would need more than just a little bit of work.  Looking around, the flashlight caught something on the far edge of the shoulder.  My fears and expectations were simultaneously realized: I’d collided with a deer - and a big one at that.
I approached and cautiously checked the poor crumpled thing.  It was apparent that he was absolutely dead.  (Thank goodness for small favors.  If he had "only" been seriously injured I would have felt compelled to find a safe and suitable way to dispatch him as humanely as possible.)  Equally apparent was the fact he was indeed a buck - and one with large and lovely full rack of antlers as well.
It had been several minutes since the impact and still no other vehicle had come along in either direction.  On that road, at that hour I was not surprised.  As I looked up from the deer I saw a flashlight bobbing towards me from up a nearby dirt road.  I went to meet the light and met a man who lived just up the road, which was actually his driveway.  He had heard the impact (and no doubt the accompanying screeching tires) and had come to see if anyone was hurt.  I assured him I was fine and asked to use his phone.
I called Kathryn at the Inn and told her that I’d hit a deer just down the road, I was OK, the truck was damaged but I thought it would run and drive OK but I’d have to call the state police and file a report for insurance which would take a while and I’d be a little late picking her up.  By now I was feeling the hit of adrenaline pumping through me in the after effect of the accident.  I was kind of jittery and my mind was going a mile a minute.  I was having to work a bit to speak into the phone and breath normally so I wasn’t sure what I’d heard when she spoke to me.  I asked her to repeat herself.
“What are you going to do with the deer?” she had asked. 
Do with the deer?  Wasn’t running over it good enough?  What was I supposed to do with it?  I told her that it was off the road and that the highway department or somebody would eventually pick it up if I filed a police report, I didn’t have to do anything with it.
 “But don’t you WANT it?  For the meat?” she came back.
It hadn’t even occurred to me to keep the deer.  Was that legal?  Was it possible?  Did I really want to eat something that had been tenderized by a truck?  What if its guts had all busted open and the meat tasted disgusting?  I was sure that I’d heard that it was really important to gut and hang a dead animal as soon as possible so it doesn’t go bad or something.  I had no clue what would have to be done.
“I don’t know.” I told her.  “I haven’t really thought about it.”
“Well…” she sighed, and hesitated, trying to read my mood, “It sure would be a shame to waste it if it’s still good”.
Her words cut through my adrenal fog like the bright beam from a light house.  The old stingy, waste-not-want-not New England country boy in me hated to see waste and she knew it.  I may not have been thinking too clearly but Kathryn surely was.
 “Let me call the police and see what I need to do.” I told her, brightening to the idea.  “I’ll either see you or give you another call in a little while.”
The State Police were efficient and helpful on the phone.  They got all the pertinent info from me about the what-and-where of the incident and said they would send a trooper out my way in the next hour.  I made arrangements for them to have the Trooper go to the Inn to get the report so I could continue on my way.  When I told them that I was possibly interested in keeping the carcass they said that it would have to be inspected by the responding officer who would verify it to be a car-strike death and properly tag it.  I was truly surprised that was that easy.
Well, almost that easy.  There was still the matter of getting the deer into the bed of the truck but how hard could that be?  I asked the Good Samaritan who let me use his phone if he’d be willing to help but I guess he thought he’d done enough for one night.  I was on my own. 
I got the truck and backed it up close to the body.  Flipping on the truck’s rear-mounted spot lights that I had installed for night work around the property, I went around for my first good look at the deer.  My he looked big!  Really big!  I’d had no idea I’d hit such a very large animal.  My closest examination so far revealed that, aside from a bit of blood pooled around the mouth and nose, there was no outward sign of trauma, no big gaping holes in the flesh or awkwardly twisted limbs.  I figured this was a good sign, indicating that we really might be able to get some good usable meat off him.
I struggled for the better part of 30 minutes getting him in the truck using brute force, ropes, even some stout branches I found used for leverage like pry bars - in short, every trick of which I could think.   I wished I'd paid a little better attention in physics class.  Irresistible force meets immovable object = venison steaks?
Eventually I was successful and got my filthy and exhausted self back on the road to the Inn which was just a mile or so further along.  Kathryn and Marged and Peter all came out to see how I was, see my “catch” and admire my handiwork to the front of Plain Jane. In the bright lights of the Inn’s back door it was clear that the truck would need extensive front end body work but at least it seemed to be running alright.  In the truck bed the dead buck was still an impressive sight with his respectable 8-point rack.

Plain Jane with her Boo-Boo
“Some bow hunter is going to be very disappointed tomorrow.” Peter said with typical English understatement. 

The state trooper soon showed up, as promised.  He took some notes in his little book, looked briefly at the truck and the carcass in the back.  He then wrote out a game tag for the deer and tied it to one of the rear legs, then left.  Kathryn got off work soon thereafter and we headed home but not before Marged called out her customary “Watch out for deer.” caution.  (Marged says “watch out for deer” to departing guests the way most people say “good bye” or “see ya later”).  She was kind enough not to say “I told you so” but her cautions were a bit overshadowed by obviousness that night.

On the drive home we debated just what to do next.  I’d worked in restaurants with plenty of big cuts of meat before and was comfortable with the butchering aspect of working with the carcass but neither of us had ever taken a whole, big, dead animal with fur and head and guts and all and processed it into food.  We didn’t know where to start and really didn’t want to screw it up and ruin the meat (if it wasn’t ruined already).  We then had a thought; My Uncle Paul used to do a lot of hunting and regularly took several deer in a season.  If anybody could help us out it was him.  The only problem was that he was at his cabin in Vermont.

After arriving home, we decided to give him a quick call up in Vermont to see if he could at least give us some general directions on what to do.  Although the hour was quite late when we reached him, he was more than game (so to speak) to help.  He described to us what we had to do, while we took furious notes as he spoke.  We moved the truck off the driveway and nearer the house so that we could take advantage of a flood light there.  With my Uncle’s dictated help-guide in hand we went to the bed of the truck and hefted the beast all around in every direction, trying to locate the body’s “landmarks” Paul had described as starting and ending places for the various cuts.  This was the first piece of meat I’d ever worked on that had those particular places still attached to it. Even the whole sides of beef I'd worked with didn't have heads, let alone "navels" etc.  I had more than a bit of trouble wrapping my mind around instructions like “…then just cut completely around the anus…”  but we got through it somehow.

Paul had insisted on the phone that this wasn’t a difficult job but also stressed strongly that, we should exercise extreme caution not to nick the gall bladder with the knife during the gutting procedure or it would leak bile into the body cavity and probably ruin the whole carcass.  Well, sure, of course it would, wouldn't it?.  But how the heck was I supposed to know what the gall bladder looked like?  Besides, this wasn’t your nice, normal, keeled-over-from-a-clean-shot-to-the-heart  kind of carcass.  It had been slammed into by a couple of tons of steel at 45 MPH so some of the things inside were a bit scrambled and busted to start with.  Anyway, after a few false starts and a couple more phone calls for clarifications we actually did managed to gut the beast out nice and clean, finishing in the wee hours of the morning with lots of “help” from our 3 cats.  I can tell you, we were SO glad to be done.  Paul had also given us instructions for properly hanging the animal to age-out in our shed for several days before the skinning and butchering could begin.
My trophy buck hanging in the shed
When it was time to butcher we knew that we didn’t really have the space or facilities for doing a good job at the house so we decided to bring it into the commercial kitchen of the local resort where I worked from time to time and process it there.  We removed the head and skinned the body at home, wrapped it in a sheet and brought it in through the restaurant’s loading dock late one night, well after the kitchen crew had all left.
The processing went smoothly, though it took several hours.  Because of limited freezer at home, space we opted to de-bone every last scrap of meat to save room.  By the time we were done, we had just over 100 lbs of boneless, steaks, roasts, stew meat, sausage and ground venison all wrapped in neatly labeled packages to take home.  The only waste we had in trimming up from the collision was a part of one thigh that was badly bruised into the meat and a section of the belly (not much meat there anyway) that apparently absorbed the bulk of the impact of the truck.
With a yield of over 100 lbs of boneless meat from the animal we calculated an approximate live weight of something over 300 lbs.  No wonder I had trouble getting him into the truck!  Anyway, that meat lasted us almost a year and was some of the best meat of any kind we’d ever had.  With such a bonanza available to us, I was able to perfect some really special venison recipes I’ll be sharing soon including my Grandmother's Mince MeatMedallions of Venison with Port and Blackberries and my Venison version of Swiss Steak.
(As an aside, our insurance paid for all the repairs to the truck minus our $200 deductible so we figured we got all that boneless meat for about $2.00 a pound.  They also suggested I install (and paid in full for) a set of "deer whistles" that are supposed to alert/scare deer out of the vehicles path. The original ones on Plain Jane's bumper had been destroyed by the impact. We never did install the new ones)

No comments:

Post a Comment