Hunting’s a family affair in field and kitchen



Pfc. Jerry Guensburg hunted caribou while stationed at the Army’s Fort Greely in Alaska in the mid-1950s. His daughter, the author, at 2 1/2, must have lost a shoe while retrieving ring-neck pheasants. / Photos courtesy of Carol Guensberg

Pfc. Jerry Guensburg hunted caribou while stationed at the Army’s Fort Greely in Alaska in the mid-1950s. His daughter, the author at 2 1/2, must have lost a shoe while retrieving ring-neck pheasants. / Photos courtesy of Carol Guensburg

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.

venison meatloaf

Venison can become many things, including meatloaf. / AFR photo by Carol Guensburg

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.

"Call of the Mild" recounts author Lily Raff McCaulou's education in hunting.

Lily Raff McCaulou recounts what she’s learned from hunting in her memoir, “Call of the Mild.” Hear her on the podcast (link above).


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.

Remington Arms Co.'s 1951 pamphlet, "How to Dress, Ship and Cook Wild Game"

This 1951 pamphlet from the Remington Arms Co. Inc. opens with the hunter’s prayer: “Let me shoot clean, kill clean; and if I can’t kill clean, please Lord, let me miss clean.”

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.

Makes Makes 4 servingts

AFR Tested

Pheasant With Roasted Apples

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.

Makes 1 loaf, 6 to 8 servings

AFR Tested

Venison Meatloaf

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.

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17 Responses to Hunting’s a family affair in field and kitchen

  1. Melissa Sanders Chisholm October 20, 2013 at 1:57 pm #

    What a great article Carol. Really brought back memories of growing up in Marshfield, especially in the fall. I used to go out squirrel hunting with Mad Dog and Frank after school. My husband just put some venison in the freezer that a friend of his gave him. I’ll be sure to try the meatloaf recipe.

    • Carol Guensburg October 20, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

      Melissa, lovely to hear from you and to read your comment. It took me back. I’d forgotten you’d hunted — the real deal. Enjoy that venison!

  2. Julie Ruffing Gallagher October 23, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    Carol, thanks for the memories! Love your style of writing. My father and brother were not hunters since they were just too busy farming to take time off to hunt but my uncle and cousins hunted. We always had venison sausage from them and it was a treat when served with Colby cheese. Nowadays when I get home to visit family, I often meet people who come to hunt on the family farm after asking permission, of course. I’m always amazed at the size of the wild turkeys they bring out of those corn fields. I ate a lot of wild game in Germany and some in France and the Czech Republic over the past years and it always brought back memories of my Wisconsin roots. I’ll be moving to Bosnia soon so I’m going to be on the lookout for good game recipes. Hmmmm, venison Cevapi, anyone?

  3. Deb Peterson October 24, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    Strong voice, interesting information–as always. I was out and about over by Augusta two weeks ago for an art crawl and saw a pheasant! First one I’d seen since I was a kid near Janesville. Apparently, some area group raises them and turns them loose for hunting season, but I guess the ones that don’t get taken are aiding the re-population effort.

  4. Lindsey October 25, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    Carol, this is excellent! Great sights and sounds. And the photo is priceless!

    • Carol Guensburg October 28, 2013 at 8:49 pm #

      Lindsey, thanks for the kind words. You’ve probably seen plenty of wildlife on your hikes. Has game been on your table?

  5. Carey Tynan October 27, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

    Loved your story…….I was just on a farm outside of Harrisonburg, VA and walking the fields found 2 pheasant feathers. The recipes sound yummy!!

    • Carol Guensburg October 28, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

      I remember seeing stylish women’s hats from earlier decades — maybe up to the ’60s — and being surprised to find something as familiar as pheasant tail feathers stuck in the hat bands. But they are lovely, aren’t they? What I especially remember: the small, iridescent green feathers from around a male bird’s head. They practically glow — and more brightly on the living birds than on us.

  6. Linda Robertson October 28, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    This article is so interesting and well written that it puts the reader in the woods and leaves him/her feeling hungry! Priceless photos.

  7. Karen Schrage November 13, 2013 at 8:33 am #

    The memory juices really flowed after reading your article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel during early morning coffee time. I didn’t know of anyone one else who used paraffin wax to take off the pin feathers of a duck. I always tried to see how big of a piece I could get at one time. I really forgot about the buckshot in the different birds we ate. I wonder if I ever shared this eating experience with my friends. I am sure it would have grossed them out. We always ate the venison liver the same way as calf’s liver. Some years I did better at deer hunting than some men in our party. Now I have an English Setter pup that I am having trained as a field dog. To give him the real joy of hunting I am going to, at age of 72, find some land to take him hunting. So what if I might miss a bird or two. I will be out getting good exercise, while both he and I will have memories galore. Thank you

    • Carol Guensburg November 27, 2013 at 3:51 pm #

      Karen, you’re inspiring! I hope you get your bird. You’re right, you and the pooch will have fun no matter what.

  8. Tom Mlinar November 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    hope you got the message, will repeat here. I was stationed at Greely at the same time as Jerry. He obviously was an MP, I was in the Signal Corp. I too hunted caribou and shot one, but not near as nice of a rack as Jerrys in the picture. I also remember someone from the MPs that shot a black bear. Hope to make contact. This picture I presume was 1955 or later, because Ft Greely wasn’t Greely, it was renamed in Aug 55 to Ft Greely from Big Delta AFB. I live in wisconsin, have hunted every wild game at one time or another, and my family, our rule of thumb and still is to this day, if your not going to eat it, don’t shoot it. period. Love your recipes, and will try them all tough some are pretty much what we do with our game. Make lots of jerky, and homeade venison sausage. thanks again Tom Mlinar South Milwaukee Wis

    • Carol Guensburg December 9, 2013 at 11:34 am #

      Tom, I don’t know how I missed your message — but I’m delighted to see it now! My parents loved Alaska and their time there. I’m so happy to learn of someone else stationed there at the time. I believe Dad served as an MP at the base from 1954 or ’55 until May or June of 1956, not long after my sister Susan was born in Fairbanks. I came along a year later, followed by four more. As I suggested in the story, I didn’t always appreciate all the time we spent in the woods, but I’ so grateful to that heritage. It sounds as if you’ve always taken advantage of that.


  9. Jon Martin November 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    Hi Carol,

    Saw your article today in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. It was nice to see a name from the past.

    Hope all is well!!

    • Carol Guensburg November 27, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

      Jon, glad to jog your memory. Now you understand why I thought of hunting as a mixed bag. I hope you’re well!

  10. Deb Guldan November 23, 2013 at 12:21 am #

    Hey girl! Just saw an piece in the latest edition of USA WEEKEND, reminding me I hadn’t checked the blog in awhile. What a fun surprise this hunting article was! I will share it with my hunting buds and my hunting hubby too!!!
    Inspired me to get the Britts out again ASAP – the woodcock and grouse are calling our names!

  11. Donna Keene February 9, 2014 at 1:19 pm #

    We don’t think much about eating wild game or fresh fish in the city, so when I married my hunter it was good to cook with God’s ingredients again.

    When we moved a little farther out, he threw a still-warm goose in the wheelbarrow after only 45 minutes on the Potomac River — I got goose down all over the neighborhood forgetting how many feathers one bird has. The local dogs went nuts for weeks every time the wind blew and I avoided my new neighbors!

    We try to serve some game, smoked duck breasts at least, whenever a guest visits. Too many friends have never even tried it. Thanks for such a walk down memory lane.