Around the end of last year, I was reading The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. It’s about a man who was a vegetarian for many years, but decides to take up hunting and eating the game he brings home. It’s a worthy read for anyone who’s interested in hunting.
The Hubs has been hunting all his life, and I’ve become very interested in it as I’ve become accustomed to processing, cooking and eating the meat that he brings home.
I decided that my New Year’s Resolution would be that I would hunt in every season available in West Virginia. I hoped I would be successful in providing some of the meat that we eat, but even if I wasn’t, I knew I would enjoy just being in the woods.
It was a lofty resolution that I’m certain I won’t fulfill. But it certainly did drive me to leave my comfort zone, because I’m such an animal lover. Hunting is a way of life in West Virginia, but it’s an issue that there’s plenty of discussion and debate about. I’m not going to delve into that, but I will say that I do understand the full gravity of hunting after my first successful trip.
Last weekend, some counties had an early antlerless season. The Hubs suggested we go. We had been squirrel hunting together a handful of times since I bought my license, but I hadn’t even any squirrels on those trips. I do enjoy being in the woods, and with the amount of hiking involved, I feel like it’s a good workout (always important to me). The Hubs borrowed a gun from his sister, who is an avid hunter, for me to use (his rifle is too big for a first timer like me). We took it to the shooting range near our house to practice, and I was a terrible shot. A few years back, I shot his rifle a couple times and was dead on, but I guess those shooting skills waned since then. I began to worry, because like the author in A Mindful Carnivore, my biggest fear was not getting a clean shot, and actually mangling a leg or otherwise wounding the animal so that it died a slow death and terrible somewhere deep in the woods.
We set up in an old rough-built blind on the farm of a family friend that overlooks a big field. There were a handful far away, and the Hubs told me to take my shot for the closest one. I missed altogether, not once that afternoon, but twice. We waited and watched until it began getting dark, coming home with no meat that night.
The second day, the Hubs swapped the gun I was using for a youth model that also belonged to his sister. I’m not too proud to say that the youth model felt very comfortable to me. It is lighter and smaller, and I liked the scope a lot better. We walked to the edge of a field and two big does were laying in it. The Hubs encouraged me to take a shot again at the closest one, which was still laying down. I missed again, twice! I was beginning to wonder if I had any business hunting. We sat and waited another 20 minutes or so. I saw another one come into the field by itself far away, but walking right toward us. We watched it slowly amble toward us for what seemed like forever, stopping to eat here and there. Finally, he said it was close enough to shoot. Having already missed 4 times, I tried extra hard to hold still and take my time. I finally not only hit one, but I hit it cleanly in the chest cavity. As a hunting enthusiast, the Hubs was way more excited than I was. We waited a few minutes before going to check on it.
My heart absolutely sank when I saw how small it was. There was no doubt it was a yearling. I felt like if I was actually going to take the life of an animal, I should try to get one that yields as much meat as possible. This seemed like a waste to me. The Hubs got down to field dress it, and realized it was a button buck. That made me feel marginally better, because the day before we’d seen a buck run off several does feeding that were too far away for me to shoot. Bullies.
Now came the part I was most excited for: the process of turning this animal into meat. We checked it in, then took it back to his sister’s and brother-in-law’s house to hang it up in their big shed. Venison, like any other large animal, benefits incredibly from at least a day hanging in cool dry conditions. The next day, the Hubs helped me skin it, but I butchered the whole thing by myself. I mostly followed the step-by-step instructions for butchering a deer in my Afield cookbook. It’s a wonderful resource for butchering and processing game and fish, and comes with several incredible recipes for each type of meat.
This week, we’ve eaten pretty good. Before I got the Afield cookbook, I had only eaten venison a few different ways: as a replacement for hamburger, fried loin steaks, as a pot roast, or after canning, made into barbeque sandwiches or soup. I always knew there had to be more ways to highlight this very unique meat. I’ve learned the qualities of venison depend on the deer itself, and can vary. Big does killed in December naturally have more fat in the meat. Young deer like the one I killed are markedly more tender and have less of a wild taste. Sometimes bucks are very tough and have quite a wild taste.
Because it was a young tender deer, I decided to grill the tenderloin following the recipe in Afield. It was amazing. The flavor was so delicate and it was so juicy. The tenderloin was marinated very simply in olive oil and salt with fresh parsley and rosemary for a couple hours. Grill it whole for only a few minutes on each side. It was the best venison I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of venison.
I made some calovo nero kale to go with it. That’s the really dark green wrinkly Tuscan variety of kale. It was delicious with the venison!
This week, I also made breakfast sausage with the shoulders. I got a Kitchenaide meat grinder attachment last Christmas, and I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t used it until this week. Last winter, in anticipation of making sausage with my meat grinder, I also ordered a fresh pork belly from the Monroe Farm Market. It had been in the freezer ever since. The ratio of venison to pork is 3 to 1, which makes perfect sausage. Not too greasy, but just enough. I learned a lot from my first foray into sausage making. It’s a pretty messy process, but I do know how I want to adjust the recipe for the next batch. More spices and a coarser grind. Nonetheless, what I made was delicious though. I even put 2 pounds in the freezer.
Tomorrow, I am going to grill the heart, another recipe from Afield. The shot went through the lungs, luckily, which is just as an effective kill shot as through the heart, but I preserved this protein for eating.
I told the Hubs that my favorite part of this hunting trip for me was turning this animal into meat. I have volunteered to be the butcher for all deer from now on. And I ordered myself a meat processing kit with several different types of knives and a saw. I think I could have done a much better job with the deer I killed had I had the right tools.
It’s a different kind of satisfaction eating meat that I killed myself. It puts it in a perspective that I couldn’t have imagined. Not only is it one of the most sustainable sources of meat, it’s very healthy and lean and full of unique nutrients because of the deer’s diet of vegetation and nuts. Not to mention it’s also very, very delicious!