Flash in the Pan 

The cook who couldn't shoot straight

After I missed the elk I’d snuck up on, bedded down and oblivious, I went to the range to figure out what went wrong. Forty rounds later I concluded that my gun won’t shoot straight.

“It’s a poor workman who blames his tools,” says my brother.

“Your gun was made in a muffler shop,” says the guy at the gun counter.

My 1945 British .303, he says, was manufactured en masse during England’s World War II effort, when most of England’s combat guns were assembled in shops and factories that didn’t specialize in rifles. “Any shop with a mill and a lathe made guns,” he says.

He holds up his hands to describe the size of a dinner plate.

“Your gun,” he says, “is designed to hit a man-sized target at 100 to 200 yards. It doesn’t need to be accurate beyond that.”

“That’s bullshit,” says a guy I meet at the rifle range. “It could be the straightest-shooting gun ever. Until you test it out, you just don’t know.”

Caught in the crossfire of a hunting season on the wane and a freezer running on empty, I’m trying to resolve the often contradictory advice I get from almost anyone I ask about guns.

Along the way, I feel like I’m turning into one of those weird gun freaks I always wondered about.

This is not the part of hunting I like to focus on. The shot is a necessary part of the hunt, but for me the climax is in the kitchen. Still, it makes no sense to do the driving, hiking, stalking…and then miss.

The guy at the range points out that shooting 40 rounds through my rifle won’t tell me anything after the third or so shot, because once the barrel heats up the shots start to wander. And even a perfectly tuned gun can’t compensate for operator error—a wide swath of uncertainty that dwarfs my gun’s inherent margin of error. So I’m back at the range, trying to be patient, letting the workman and his tool cool off between rounds. And lo and behold, it does shoot straight.

When there’s meat in my scope, there are three places I consider shooting: the head, the neck, and the lungs. The lungs offer the biggest target, as well as decreasing the likelihood of hitting good meat or non-fatally injuring the animal.

On the other hand, my sweetheart wants to tan my hides, so to speak, so a head or neck shot has the advantage of sparing the hide a bullet hole. The problem with head shots is that she likes to brain-tan using the brains from the animal that gave up its hide. That leaves the neck as the best option, assuming the workman and his tool are up to the task.

Then I read Richard Manning’s recipe for beer-simmered deer-neck burritos in the Montana Writer’s Cookbook. Once I tried it, I found myself in a new bind.

Manning’s recipe solves the problem of what to do with the neck, which has a lot of good meat—meat that’s a real pain to clean off the bones. If you don’t have a neck, you can use any other part of any other animal. But the beauty of Manning’s recipe is that it cooks all the meat off the bones, leaving them clean and saving you the work.

Out of paranoia that someday mad cow disease—found in brain and nerve tissue in cows—will appear in deer, I remove the spinal cord from the neck by pushing it out with a rod or dowel.

Then I follow Manning’s instructions, paraphrased below with my color commentary:

Put the neck in a big pan and brown it in oil on medium heat. Don’t short the browning, it adds flavor. Just don’t burn it. Keep turning it until it’s perfect all the way around.

At this point, in Manning’s words, “add and sauté more chopped garlic cloves than you think necessary and onion.”

Then he instructs to add a cup of ground cumin. I didn’t have the balls to add that much—I used about 1/3 of a cup and it worked out great. But I can’t guarantee a cup of cumin wouldn’t be better. Then add dried chili peppers and salt and pepper to taste.

Then “Pour beer over the whole business, enough to almost submerge the neck, and simmer very slowly, making sure to add water whenever it threatens to go dry.”

I went with a dark, sweet porter. Mmmmm.

When the meat has simmered for hours and is almost off the bones, use a fork to strip the last strings of meat and remove the bones.

Continue cooking until enough liquid has cooked off to work the meat into burritos with avocado, cheese, cilantro and salsa, and whatever else you like. This is the climax of the hunt.

You’ll never take a neck shot again.

flash@flashinthepan.net

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