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  • November 22nd, 2018

CONFESSIONS OF AN OMNIVORE

 

By Joel M. Vance

 

I am a hunter and I make no apologies for that.  But I hunt to eat…or I eat to hunt.  There is, in my genome, the genetic matrix of the hunter/gatherer.  I am never happier than when I’m in the garden in spring, watching the green sprigs of new life, or when I’m in the field with a shotgun and flushing birds to be shot.

 

Man wasn’t granted canine teeth for chewing gum or gnawing on carrots.  They are for tearing meat, although they do work fairly well on carrots and Doublemint.  I am, along with bears and raccoons, an omnivore.  Carrots or meat, it’s all the same when hunger strikes, but even better is carrots and meat.

 

So I raise a garden and when the oak leaves blush and frost rimes the prairie grass, I follow bird dogs and carry a shotgun.  I hope to kill quail, pheasants, ruffed grouse, woodcock or any of several other game birds.  Or I crouch in a rude blind, shivering in bitter cold, in hopes that migrating mallards or gadwalls will come to my plaintive call and bobbing set of decoys.

 

And yes, there is a certain sadness when a vibrant creature lies dead on the ground or on the water.  Taking life is not something done lightly.  Killing solely for sport is an iffy proposition—I don’t shoot crows or prairie dogs or anything I don’t plan to eat.  Some do and I don’t criticize them.  I just choose not to do it myself.

 

Those opposed to hunting argue that today we don’t need to kill for food, save in the most dire circumstance, that the IGA Supermarket provides us with everything we need.  Of course those chops and chickens at the supermarket once were part of something living, breathing and with more life to live than was granted by the butcher.

 

But that’s a case of out of sight, out of mind.  Another argument is that we don’t need meat, that we can eat vegetarian.  That is not an option, at least for me.  I crave fish, fowl and game.  I am the legatee of Neanderthal man, crouching in the mouth of a rude cave, fearfully gnawing on a haunch of something he managed to kill. My hunting tools are far more sophisticated than Joe Primitive and I employ more subtle ways of cooking than charring raw meat over a smoky fire, but the result is the same—a full belly and a temporary sense of well-being.

 

Too many in modern society will snack on the flesh of once-living creatures with no thought of how their food got to the plate.  I do know because I caused that transformation.  I have shot my entree to death and this is a tragic circumstance to many.  I believe that animals (including birds) are born to die. There are predators and there are prey and since I have those canine teeth I ease comfortably into the predator camp.

 

My ideal meal is a venison roast, cooked rare, with vegetables that I have grown in my garden, prepared by me or my wife, and served to treasured guests with a fine bottle of cabernet or shiraz.

 

We sit in the dining nook, overlooking the lake where we fish in summer, ice skate in winter.  We live off the lives of other creatures.  It has been this way since Man first slogged out of the primeval mud and it’s not likely to change in my lifetime.

 

Quail are my delight.  These little eight-ounce birds are as tender as a baby’s cheek, as are their larger cousins, ruffed grouse.  Pheasants have tough legs because they would rather run than fly, but the bosom of them is succulent to the max.

 

Wild turkey doesn’t need butterballing or whatever it is the processors do to give a tame bird some flavor.  These lordly kings of the wooded ridge are tender and flavorful and the invariable comment from senior citizens with a rural background is, “Why, that tastes the way turkey tasted when I was a kid!”

 

Most Americans, at least urbanites, never have eaten wild game.  At best they might have experimented with farm-raised venison.  But those animals are pretty much cows with antlers, fed the same rations as feedlot steers.  They haven’t dined on acorns or wild succulents that lend a tang of the wild to the innate taste of the meat.

 

It isn’t “wild” or “strong.”  The so-called “wild” taste of wild game usually is the result of poor handling, not an intrinsic strong flavor.  If the cook is put off by the prospect of gaminess, he or she can soak the meat in milk for a couple of hours.  Duck breasts and venison both benefit from this.  Brining will moisten white-meated birds, making them less likely to dry out in the cooking (overcooking is a common error among neophyte wild game cooks).  A cup of salt to a gallon of water makes a good brine.  Cover the bird with water, brine for several hours (overnight is not too long).  Rinse thoroughly before cooking.

 

Another culinary trick for fileted duck breasts is to dredge them in olive oil on both sides, sprinkle liberally with Cavender’s Greek Seasoning, and marinate in the refrigerator overnight.  Grill the breasts and you’ll think they’re prime beef filets.

 

Here’s another recipe for any dark-meated bird: marinate in refrigerator for 12-24 hours (½ cup Worcestershire sauce, ¼ cup vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon garlic powder).  Sauté two cloves crushed garlic and one small diced onion in two tablespoons of butter until onion is clear, add meat (duck breast size or smaller) and cook in a cast iron skillet over medium heat for five minutes, turning often (the meat, not you).  Add a cup of sliced mushrooms and continue cooking until meat equals your beefsteak preference.

 

That recipe is thanks to Tom Huggler, a Michigan outdoor writer/gourmet cook, and is from Campsite to Kitchen, a sadly out-of-print cookbook published by the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

 

If you prefer your duck to taste like duck any recipe from the many wild game cookbooks listed will work.  Choose one that tickles your fancy.  Duck should be cooked rare; goose medium well.  All wild game benefits from a side dish of wild rice.  The best wild rice (which isn’t rice, but a marsh grass seed) is very light in color.  The blacker the seed the farther it is from the wild rice beds.

 

I buy rice in northern Minnesota from a really nice hermit whose front yard looks like Fred Sanford’s and who always seems to be suffering from a massive hangover.   Wild rice stores well, either frozen or sealed in jars.  It’ll keep for years.

 

There are wild ducks that eat good and there are those that the dog would spurn.  “Puddle” ducks, those that spring from the water and like small bodies of water, generally are the best eating.  They include mallards, every hunter’s favorite duck; and gadwalls, wood ducks and teal.  Some ducks simply are not good eating.  The worst I ever tried was a bufflehead, a chunky little duck that looks like a flying butterball, but tastes like a flying garbage can.  The king of food ducks is the canvasback, sadly declined in population to where the limit is one, but the chances are you’ll never have a chance even to see one, much less reduce it to table

 

Two game species that have not declined are white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, both of which number at least as many and probably more than they did in the days of  John Smith and Pocahontas.  You have three choices on acquiring wild venison: 1. Kill it yourself; 2. Beg some from a hunter friend; 3. Hit one with your automobile.  The first two choices are preferable to No. 3.

 

Venison roasts are lovely.  Steaks are easily overcooked, as are ribs.  Best of all is the backstrap muscle—the tenderloin.  It will melt in your mouth.  It needs no trickery to make it tasty.  Cook as you would a beef filet.

 

The latest fad in wild turkey cooking is deep fat frying.  It takes a powerful amount of oil in a huge vat, over a fierce fire…but the submerged turkey emerges from its dip succulent and moist.  And instead of roasting for hours, a 10-pound bird is done in less than one hour.   Peanut oil is the preferred liquid, but safflower or canola also will work.  It definitely is an outdoor exercise because of the danger of fire from hot oil splashes (which also are dangerous to the chef).

 

The wild turkey is the bird that Benjamin Franklin recommended as the American symbol and it is the voice of spring, announcing atop an oak-hickory shrouded ridge that it is the meanest son of a bitch in the known world (which for a turkey may be five or 10 acres).  A wild turkey in strut, centered on the bead of a full-choke shotgun, is a vision to raise hackles and make strong men question their certainty about life, longevity and planetary orbits.

 

But as a prey creature, a wild turkey stands above all else.  Deer, elk, all the “trophy” animals, are victims of circumstance.  You may stalk them, but in the end you shoot the equivalent of cows in a pasture. A wild turkey is different.  You prey on a gobbler’s springtime lust to lure it to a call.   Perhaps you can do the same with an elk or a moose, but it is mandatory with a spring wild gobbler.

 

You hear the first gobble of the morning before daylight, a bird roosted high on a thick white oak branch who came awake early because a barred owl said it owned the woods.  “No way, you piddly little squirt!” declaims the gobbler and the game is on.  You softly intone seductive hen calls that will melt a gobbler’s caution and you continue to pillow talk until he flies down into the sharp spring morning and comes looking for the hen he plans to bed.

 

And that is me, armed with a Model 12 Winchester, full choke, that dates to 1916 and a powerful hunger for wild meat.

-30-

 

 

 

 

 

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