Jim Posewitz, who eats wild game pretty much daily, says that everyday is like Thanksgiving for him. The holiday's ethos, he explains, is one that draws on a recognition that some hunters carry with them all year long.
He's grateful, he says, not just for the meat that he puts on the table, but for the contributions of the land that sustains the wild creatures he hunts, and for the generations of Americans who have made conservation a priority and restored game species to viable populations over the last 30 years.
"I'm thankful for the opportunity to be a hunter," Posewitz says, "and the consumption of the animal is absolutely fundamental to completing the process. It's part of restoring the natural flow of the ecosystem."
Posewitz, a former member of Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has made a veritable second career out of persuading hunters that it is their moral duty to treat animals with respect. And though I've called in order to get his thoughts on the eating and preparation of game meat, he steers our brief conservation toward the obligation of the hunter to the resource -- the need to honor the animals we kill beyond turning them into trophies with a shotgun or bow.
For Posewitz, founder of the 4-year-old Orion Hunters Institute, the message is clear: Don't kill anything you don't intend to eat.
And in this age, where most foodstuffs come pre-butchered, pre-wrapped, and often pre-prepared, it's easy to see how this idea might appeal not just to the hardcore flannel and orange clad troops in the woods, but also to those who find themselves at odds with the capitalist, consumer lifestyle that popular culture seems intent on touting.
In the meantime, this overlap between holiday and hunting season, and the focus not just on good stewardship but also good eating, goes a long way in shutting out criticism of hunters -- and the sometimes hypocritical views that people take toward the taking of life. After all, even wrapped in plastic and styrofoam, there's little escaping the fact that supermarkets deal in the flesh trade as much as any hunter ever has.
Accordingly, Posewitz goes on to say, the best way to prepare wild game is simple and unaffected. Throw it on the grill, and don't even marinate it much at all, he says; let the taste of the woods come through and remember where the animal came from.
Even so -- and I can't help but believe that Posewitz after 300-some-odd days of eating game doesn't feel occasionally want something different -- there are advantages to dressing food up. And one imagines that just as leaving elk or sheep meat plain can be a sign of respect for the animal, specialized recipes for venison or fowl can honor game as well.
As one friend likes to joke: "If God didn't want us to eat animals, he wouldn't have made them out of meat."
When it comes to processing wild game in the pre-cooking stage, there are few who know more than John and Peaches Peterson at H&H Meats in Missoula. While Posewitz's ideas about honoring animals seem to strike John as a little out there, there's no denying that the couple's life work currently bears most of the earmarks of a profound concern for the connections between the hunter and the hunted.
Peterson estimates that he processes between 3,000 and 4,000 animals each year. As you enter his shop on South Avenue, the first blast of dead game -- along with the smell of hair being singed from the carcasses -- threatens to overwhelm. But it's clean there, and in a moment the nose grows used to the aroma of animals and their blood, sinuses opening until you can detect the sweet scent of sausages cooking.
"My feeling is that I have to respect the customer," Peterson says. "He has enjoyed his hunt and being out in the woods. He may have carried the animal some distance.
"It's a firm responsibility to take somebody else's stuff, after that sort of hard work."
For Peterson, it's clear, business comes before pleasure. But the two aren't entirely divorced either. "When I make a customer," he says, "I also make a friend." As for the meat of the matter, he makes sure to keep his backroom spotless, and asks that his clients do the best job they can cleaning and gutting the animal.
When Peterson's cutters get their hands on the animal, they bone the whole thing. The boss says it's the only way to go, eliminating much of the gamey taste by avoiding getting the marrow on the meat. In a sub-zero freezer with more than 300 personal lockers for those who don't have space in their home, he holds the meat once it's been butchered.
Some go to chops, some get ground up with pork and beef to make sausages. Peterson quickly adds, however, that the hunters who bring their game to him are guaranteed to get their own animals back and no one else's. And unless he or his crew has handled the meat first-hand, Peterson says, doing the boning and cleaning off the hairs, he refuses to grind anybody's meat or turn it into sausage.
Blood shot and other trauma to the meat, Peterson says, are things that a hunter must watch out for -- and concerns about the treatment of the animal once it has been downed also make him reluctant to act as a secondary processor. And when you butcher the game yourself, he says, you must also keep an eye open for previous wounds and other health anomalies.
Once it gets to the dinner table, Peterson says, then it's important to realize that the meat can carry the same microbes as any domestic animal. Beyond that, he recommends not cooking the meat at too high a heat, adding that overcooking the meat will often produce something that's tougher to chew on.
"You're talking about high protein," Peterson says, "the simplest thing to do is turn the heat down to half. Game meat does not have to be cooked until it's well done."
"One of the primary purposes of hunting is to exercise our need to remain a part of the natural world. We still have the desire to participate in the natural process," reads a new pamphlet from Orion. "Our developed world is becoming separated from nature; it is becoming artificial. Our meat comes shrink-wrapped, supermarket stamped with an expire date and a price."
Those words rang clear in my head at a recent dinner with friends. The dish pictured on the cover of this newspaper, from the recipe described below, was being served by a friend who had killed a big horn ewe in the Rock Creek drainage about 40 miles from where we sat. The distance from range to plate was as short as any warm-blooded animal had traveled to provide me with a meal, and the obvious care of the chef came provided an added pleasure to the already exquisite flavor of the meat.
The meat had been rolled in a mixture of nuts and pepper and bourbon, and cooked quickly to a point just beyond rare over red-hot coals. If you can think of words to describe a pineapple to someone who's never eaten one, you can imagine the trouble I'm run up against trying to explain this meal. I will say that it did not taste like anything I've eaten before. It was tender and moist, with no hint of game, just a sweetness which defied definition.
As we drank wine and digested, my friend explained his own take on hunting, which he sees in an economic and cultural -- dare I say, constitutional -- light. For this fellow and many like him, hunting is a cheap way of filling the larder for winter. And more and more, even hunters are allowing for some of their meat to go into foodbanks and other drop off points for the needy.
Which points to the constitutional, or national, pride which many hunters in the country seem to take in their endeavor. As Posewitz explains, in Europe at least, wildlife was connected to the land, and the land was owned by the royalty, so the peasants had no right to any of it. But with the American Revolution and all, a system was put into place that allows, in Posewitz's words, "blue-collar men and women to be a part of what was once the sport of kings."
Even so, Posewitz is clearly on a mission to keep hunting from being viewed as something common.
"It's not just an animal standing out there by accident," he says, "waiting for you to shoot it. Our message is utilize as much of the animal as you can, and return what you don't use.
"It's a way of recycling, and if you don't do it, that shows a lack of respect."
|On Tuesday, Dec. 2, from 6:30 to 10 p.m. University of Montana Dining Services hosts the Getting Wild with Wild Game Cooking Show. Dishes include: big horn sheep pizza, blackened game salad, moose mincemeat pie and more. Tasting samples will be available, and there will be sausage- and jerky-making workshops. The event is free, but registration is limited. Call 243-2027 for a ticket, and bring non-perishable items for the Missoula Food Bank that evening.|
Photos by Jeff Powers.
One freezer at H&H Meats in Missoula holds as many as 125 game animals awaiting butchering.
Terry Amt bags wild game "weiners" at H&H Meats, where her boss John Peterson believes that each customer is a potential friend.
At the Fish, Wildlife and Parks checkpoint near Bonner, game animals are counted and cleaned.
Duck hunting is complex by nature, and that's the reason, with each passing season, I find myself in more and different swamps, sloughs and rivers, going to further and further extremes to pursue a creature that is viewed easily enough from a car window.
Duck hunting, in its purest forms, is possibly the most labor-intensive of common game pursuits. Inherent in the process of hunting ducks is a work ethic that genuinely works. This is not to take anything away from big-game hunters, whose steep-terrain hiking and game retrieval tasks are formidable.
But over the course of a season, I can't help but believe that a duck hunter loses more sweat and gains more sore muscles than any breed of hunter.
A typical morning of waterfowling begins several hours before sunrise. Because shooting time begins one-half hour on the dark side of dawn, and that is often the period when the ducks are most active, it is crucial to be properly set up by that time. A long hike to the blind is common, with 30 pounds of decoys on one's back and up to another 20 pounds of gear -- and hot coffee -- stashed elsewhere on the body.
That the body is nearly entirely encased in rubber or neoprene makes this trip such an effective perspiration inducer it's a wonder fitness guru Richard Simmons hasn't picked up on it yet.
Upon arrival at the hunting spot, the decoys must be deployed in a manner approximating the natural grouping patterns of ducks. Invariably, this means trudging through marsh mud, a torturous combination of standing water and swamp goo known to intimates as "Loon shit." This is also the substance that awaits hunters on extended tours in pursuit of crippled birds, an ethic-driven and necessary activity for those who hunt -- but don't always shoot -- well.
What makes a true duck hunter is the ability and the aesthetic to appreciate the innumerable subtleties the endeavor (it is not a sport) has to offer.
When done right, duck hunting provides moments of resonant visual poetry: the fixed arc of cupped wings as they descend to the decoys; the quick bank-and-turn of a duck that heeds a call; the moment of the kill, when shot strikes the bird and it folds tragically like a gently clenched fist; the pure heart of a dog breaking through inch-thick ice to retrieve a fallen bird.
A good season of waterfowling also provides a freezer full of duck meat, not exactly known for its mellow and popular mild taste. The flesh of a duck is a deep, rich red color, dense and not given to fat. When you punch a duck's ticket you essentially gain, in the upward transfer of energy through the food chain, the strength of thousands of migration miles.
I have found that the best way to take the edge off that strength, when it comes to the human palate, is to skin and breast the ducks, leaving as your prime sections the thick fillets of the breasts, as well as the thighs and wings. From there, it is a simple matter of finding the right liquids in which to immerse the birds before cooking. What follows are a pair of favorites:
Marinade: Olive Oil, Worcestershire Sauce, Soy Sauce, Honey, Whiskey or Brandy (optional), Pepper
I've never measured the proportions for this marinade, but all components are relatively equal, with a heavy hand to the soy and a light one to the pepper. The booze adds a nice kick, but use it sparingly, unless it's for the cook. Allow breasts and thighs to soak in blended marinade for several hours. Baste meat frequently during grilling.
Cook to no more than medium rare.
This is the recipe for those who wish to eliminate, as much as possible, the gamey taste of wild duck. It is also the one most likely to impress the hell out of whomever it is you're trying to impress. (Lastly, it is also irrefutable proof that breast men can be cultured and sensitive.)
Put duck breasts in a plastic bag with enough flour to coat. Brown the breasts in a skillet of just enough melted butter to sear both sides. Place the breasts in a casserole dish, and then pour in a mixture of whipping cream and cooking sherry (3-to-1 ratio in favor of the cream). The breasts should be nearly covered. Sprinkle grated orange peel on the exposed meat. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-55 minutes, adding cream-sherry mixture as needed.
Serve immediately along with wild rice and steamed veggies. Receive compliments graciously.
A good retriever can be a waterfowler's best friend. Photo by Brian Daley.
I traded jars of homemade jelly for a pheasant and made this last Christmas.
Dredge pheasant in flour, Season-All and paprika. Melt 1 tbls. butter with Crisco in heavy pan; brown pheasant on all sides. Combine chicken base, water, wine, lemon juice, onion flakes and nutmeg. Pour over pheasant. Cover and roast at 350° for 45 minutes or until tender. Remove pheasant to heated platter. To the pan, add 3 tbls. butter and drained mushrooms; cook five minutes. Remove pan from heat, add cream.
Pour sauce over pheasant. Serve with rice pilaf, cranberry-orange relish and baked squash. Clare Hafferman
Dredge backstraps in flour. Shake off excess. Salt and pepper the steaks. In a hot pan, melt butter and add a splash of oil. Sear meat on both sides. Serve immediately (rare or medium rare). Steve Jordan
Saute venison with oil and garlic over medium high heat in large frying pan until well browned on both sides; remove from pan and saute the bacon, onions and potatoes for about five minutes. Add bouillon and wine, then return venison to pan. Cover, add flour mixture and peas. Cook an additional three to four minutes, until sauce is thickened.
Serve with warm crusty French bread and a merlot or cabernet wine. Colleen Nicholson
My husband and his hunting partners love this after a long day of hunting.
Fry the bacon. Remove from pan and set aside. Drain most fat from the pan. Coat elk meat in flour and 1/2 tbls. seasoning salt mixture. Clean vegetables and chop. Add elk meat to frying pan and brown quickly. In crockpot, add the elk, vegetables, tomoatoes, bay lear. Add water to cover and put in remaining seasoning salt. Cook on high for two hours, then reduce to low and simmer until potatoes are tender (4 to 6 hours).
Serve over a bed of rice or with hot fresh bred. Suzie Stubblefield
Soak meat for at least 1 hour. Start grill -- preferably using wood or wood chips for flavor. Chop shallots, garlic and hazelnuts, mix with pepper and press into all sides of roast. Place close to the flame and cook on all sides until evenly done.
Serve with sweet potatoes (described below) and steamed vegetables of choice.
Cut spuds into chunks and parboil, then mix with melted butter and sprinkle with spices. Preheat oven to 400° and bake for 25 minutes, then broil till brown. Chris Clark