Searching for my brother’s cottage in Wisconsin’s North Woods, my son and I turned our car down a dirt drive, hesitating at first. Then, past some trees, we spotted an overturned fishing boat on a trailer. Stretched over its hull was a hide drying in the warm autumn sun, still attached to the head of a young buck.
Yup, this had to be the place.
I cringed, laughed and salivated in quick succession. There’d be a venison feast in my future.
I come from a family of hunters: my late dad, my two brothers, a slew of nieces and nephews. I grew up tramping through the woods, learning to hold still and listen, to relish the sudden whirrr of a pheasant flushed from a cornfield, to pick burrs out of our golden retrievers’ feathery tails and to pluck pinfeathers off the breasts of ducks dipped in hot paraffin wax. I learned to load shotgun shells while in grade school and to shoot a .22 rifle at cans lined up on a fence rail. (I didn’t necessarily hit them.)
My dad learned hunting from his uncle; his own father’s interest in game went as far as cards at the Elks Club. Dad, over the years, hunted everything from rabbit to caribou, the latter as a young Army private stationed in Alaska. He was so enthusiastic that he even took us Christmas tree hunting one year, joining his best friend and his family in blasting the tops off two pines on the friend’s land and dragging them out of the snowy woods on sleds. Usually, he was protective of natural habitat.
Dad’s appreciation of wild game extended to the table. That was a common precondition of the sport: If you killed something, you ate it or shared it with those who would.
Though I never joined in the killing – never even aimed at a live target – I obliged in the kitchen.
At first, it was through eating. We ate venison burgers padded with a little pork sausage so the lean meat wouldn’t dry out during cooking. Venison roasts draped with bacon strips and cozied up in a pan with chunks of potatoes and carrots. Pheasant and grouse, braised in a covered casserole with butter, sage and (canned) mushroom soup, often with some teensy woodcocks tossed in. Duck or occasionally geese, rubbed with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper, then roasted slowly with much basting. When birds were on the menu, my five siblings and I learned to chew cautiously, anticipating buckshot and spitting it, indelicately, into paper napkins.
By adolescence, I was cooking game: ground venison in Hamburger Helper or spaghetti sauce, venison steaks on the grill. Pheasant substituted for chicken in a broccoli casserole with, yes, condensed cream of chicken soup. I didn’t always treat the meat right: Wild birds, lean and muscular from all that running and flapping, could come out of the oven tough as jerky. But a near-endless supply of game in the chest freezer allowed for year-round experimentation.
This kind of upbringing sounded exotic to my friend Lily Raff McCaulou, who’d grown up in a gunless home and had only lived in big East Coast cities before becoming a reporter in Bend, Ore. There, she took up hunting as a means of better understanding her new environment and neighbors. She wrote about her evolution in a thoughtful memoir, “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner” (Grand Central Publishing, 2012). [Featured in podcast above.] Among the book’s notable sections was her account of bagging her first big game. After killing a young buck elk, she’d tried to think of a prayer to offer out of respect: “When nothing else comes to mind, I lean in and whisper, ‘Thank you. I’m sorry.’”
My own ambivalence about hunting had, by my teens, increasingly given way to distaste — not for the game but for the pastime’s imposition on my social life. I’d long since stopped shooting with my dad and brothers, caught up instead with friends, school activities and work. But I was marked as part of a hunting clan.
One cold November night, running late for a high school basketball game, I rushed out to our dark, detached garage to get the car — and smacked into the carcass of a deer hanging from the rafters. I fumed when, settling into the bleachers, I discovered a smear of blood on my ski jacket. I got embarrassed by sometimes having to drive a car with a duck boat on its roof rack or by having to explain to a friend why my dad’s hunting coveralls were draped over the boughs of the blue spruce out front – the better to mask human scent. We’d become “The Beverly Hillbillies,” minus the wealth.
I was eager to leave that sitcom behind. Fresh out of college, I went to work for a Hudson Valley newspaper where my responsibilities included covering food. That brought an invitation for a harvest feast at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. The main course? Venison medallion with chestnut puree. It elevated my estimation of game — even the cultured crowd partook.
The meal helped rekindle my interest in wild-game cookery, but I was far from my chief suppliers. And the physical and psychological distance grew as I moved to one metropolitan area, then another — places where hunting wasn’t as obvious and the sound of gunfire usually meant bad things for humans. After a seven-year absence, however, I returned to Wisconsin — to Milwaukee, where I eventually resumed covering food.
My dad’s cooking repertoire had expanded in the interim, and we nudged each other to improve. He shared recipes for venison stir-fry and rabbit; I passed along my mother-in-law’s instructions for venison Stroganoff. He started making jerky; I found him a special spice blend to season it. He pulled out a frozen shoulder roast; I tenderized it with buttermilk and slow-cooked it with garlic, onions, carrots and bay leaves.
Dad shared his knowledge, too, about the role hunting played in conservation, formalized under the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act. Better known as the Pittman-Robinson Act, it was intended to offset decades of overzealous hunting, trapping and netting “for food or feathers,” according to the National Wildlife Federation. The law imposes an 11 percent tax on the sale of guns, ammunition and bows and arrows. It helps fund states’ programs for fish and game management, education and research. My dad and brother Fred, it turns out, had participated in a research program in the early 1970s. Hunters recruited by 11 states’ Departments of Natural Resources mailed in woodcock wings that were tested to gauge levels of toxic chemicals in the environment. A kid at the time, I’d been oblivious.
Just as I’d begun to really appreciate hunting as a piece of my heritage, my own growing family and I moved to Washington, D.C. The wild-game supply line got interrupted again.
About six years ago, on one of my last visits home while my dad was still alive, I asked if he’d take me shooting. We hadn’t done this together since I was a kid, and he practically bounded off the couch. We drove out to the (closed) local sportsmen’s club, where Dad set up a couple of makeshift targets — the cardboard backing from frozen pizzas – and handed me a .22 rifle. “Watch where you’re pointing,” he cautioned as I raised the stock to my right shoulder and squinted into the scope. I shot wide. But Dad, in a rare exercise of patience, coached me until I hit the target a few times. Then he took aim and turned both targets into giant doughnuts.
As a reward for my interest, he sent me back east with a cooler containing frozen venison loin and a roast — some of the last wild game I’ve cooked.
But on a golden October afternoon in the North Woods, I found myself at a picnic table in my brother’s yard, family all around and onion-smothered venison steaks on our plates. It was a feast as good as any I remember.
See related story: Game sources.
Chef Georgia Pellegrini, in her memoir “Girl Hunter” (Da Capo Press, 2011), pairs pheasant with apples. “The meat itself is a bit sweet and blends together with the muted sweetness of the apples and cream,” she writes of this classic combination. Though her recipe calls for two whole pheasants, presumably wild ones, a single, 3- to 4-pound farm-raised bird will do; it extended the roasting time by 45 minutes. Pellegrini also calls for cutting each strip of bacon into 1/8-inch strips and securing these with toothpicks. Instead, you can drape the bird with several strips of bacon and occasionally baste it with pan drippings.
- 2 whole wild pheasants*
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 6 pieces of bacon or pork fat, cut into 1/8-inch strips, if desired
- 2 tablespoons butter, divided
- 2 large apples, cored and sliced into 1 /4-inch wedges
- 1 tablespoon Calvados
- 7 tablespoons heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Season the pheasant with salt and pepper inside and out.
In a heavy-bottomed ovenproof pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and brown the pheasants on all sides, 5 to 10 minutes. Lay the bacon over the pheasant and secure it with kitchen twine or toothpicks.
Remove pheasant from the pan and set aside. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter to the pan and saute the apples for 2 to 3 minutes or until softened. Place the pheasants on top of the apples. Cover with aluminum foil or a lid and place in oven. Immediately lower the temperature to 425 F and roast for 30 minutes, or until leg moves easily and the meat, pierced in the thickest part of the breast, runs clear.
Just before roasting time is complete, combine Calvados and cream in a cup. Pour over the pheasant and return to oven for 5 minutes.
Remove pheasant from oven, carve into joints and serve very hot with the apples and sauce.
*Substitute a whole, farm-raised bird for two smaller wild ones. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends cooking poultry to an internal temperature of 165 F.
This venison meatloaf recipe is adapted from "How to Dress, Ship and Cook Wild Game," a 1951 pamphlet from the Remington Arms Co. Inc., then of Bridgeport, Conn., now of Madison, N.C. It contains instructions for cleaning and preparing birds and small and large game (butchering instructions included). When I was growing up, the meatloaf periodically made its way to my family's table, as did its Dutch Oven Quail and Roast Pheasant. We were spared the Woodchuck Patties, a recipe suitable "also for raccoon or opossum," the pamphlet notes. For the meatloaf, it recommends grinding cuts such as venison flank and shoulder. The original recipe calls for a full cup of milk, reduced here to 3/4 cup. I've also added a dash of Worcestershire sauce and freshly ground black pepper. If ground venison is unavailable, substitute lean ground beef.
- 1 pound ground venison
- 1/3 pound ground pork
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs
- 3/4 cup milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 tablespoon chopped onion
- 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large mixing bowl, combine venison and pork. After mixing the meats thoroughly, add remaining ingredients. Mix to combine. Place in greased pan and bake for 1 hour at 350 F.