by Mary Jane Butters
Every fall, my entire Mormon clan went deer hunting for two weeks. In the sagebrush outback of Utah, my parents and relatives created a kid's paradise. Truant from school, we lived in wall tents, washed our clothes by hand, ate without silverware and swung from trees like miniature Tarzans. At night, we giggled ourselves to sleep on a bed of straw.
In tribal fashion, each family set up their own camp, separate from the rest, but only a stone's throw from the rest of the tribe. At night, the adults gathered together in the "camp kitchen" for poker and storytelling.
My family camped during the summer on fishing expeditions, but "deer camp" was different. Infused with a sense of purpose, we all had jobs that needed doing. Firewood-gathering was serious business; it could get cold or even snow on us. Once the men (and a few of the women) starting harvesting deer, there was meat to clean, hang and wrap. We, of course, dined on the best cuts, cooked on the spot over a campfire with potatoes smothered in caramelized onions and garlic. We always ate the heart and liver without delay. It was part of the ritual. Occasionally, someone would bring fresh ears of corn and we'd dip the cobs into a vat of melted butter, eating them with our bare hands.
We never went home until everyone had "bagged their deer" or "filled their tag." We were all working-class poor, which meant putting up one's own food was essential to survival. Back then, we rarely "ate out"; the only way to feed a large Mormon family was to hunt and fish, grow a large garden, raise chickens and maybe a few rabbits. One of my uncles had a dairy farm, so he kept us supplied in milk and butter. Back home, autumn meant filling the root cellar with potatoes, squash, beets, carrots, onions and garlic. It also meant filling the freezer with venison and fish. My father spent his entire adult life working in a factory that made cans. Consequently, he brought home thousands of empty cans for us to fill with our garden produce. In the cool of our basement, we all took turns cranking the manual can-sealer, adding hundreds of quarts of preserves to our basement stash.
My mother never hunted. Instead, she was in charge of "venison menu planning." And some years, my father or brother would harvest a deer that was older, making the meat tough. Not wanting to be wasteful, I remember my mother's cure -- Swiss steak. In a cast iron skillet, she simmered venison in home-canned tomatoes for hours and hours.
Eventually, I grew up, left home and became a vegetarian. After that, a vegan -- no meat, dairy or eggs. It was hit or miss: Some years I was committed, and some years I wasn't. I was finding my way through all of it ... the practicalities of protein, the religion of veganism, the regionality of food.
I spent years working for the Forest Service, when fishing seemed only natural. About 18 years ago, I bought land on the Palouse and began to farm -- growing my own food, food for others, too. In the beginning, the "others" were mostly deer.
Fencing became my full-time job, yet sometimes even a 10-foot fence doesn't stop a deer. I've lost fruit trees, strawberry plants, carrots, aspens, even tulips and hollyhocks to deer. Since I can't grow high-protein legumes like soybeans in my climate, I began to rethink deer meat. Schooled in the "gospel of food" by my mother, I got to thinking about venison recipes. I've come up with a solution that makes any deer, of any type, a delicacy.
Here's how. Butcher your deer right away. It can hang for a day or two if it's cold, but the longer you wait, the "gamier" it gets. Buy an electric meat grinder. Hand crank varieties can work. If you choose manual labor, locate a heavy-duty one like an Enterprise No. 22 or a Chop-Rite Bolt Down (888-438-5346, www.lehmans.com). Smaller, more common varieties that clamp onto a table are just too small. If you go with an electric grinder, try a Thunderbird 300E (800-321-1073, www.pleasanthillgrain.com).
Cut all the fat off your deer and discard it. It's the fat that can make the meat taste gamey. Put the meat through the grinder -- all of it. The works goes fast. Cutting and selecting for stew meat, steaks, etc. takes too long. Wrap it into one-pound packages and toss it in your freezer.
Next, comes the gourmet part. You're going to create different flavor profiles by combining herbs and spices. When I combine spices and herbs, I think in terms of geography. Spices dominate certain cultures, and we've all come to know those characteristics. With your ground venison, you can give it any of the following geographic profiles depending on the rest of the meal you're fixing. Over time, you can alter them according to your own discerning taste. Store them in an airtight container, away from light. Better yet, store them in your freezer. Don't forget to label them. I add salt, but if you're on a low-salt diet, simply leave it out. My favorite profile is one I invented and named Trelingua since it combines spices from three different cultures -- Indian, Mexican and European.
Using flavor profiles, you can suit different members of your family. If you have dried fruit, like plums or pears, or dried vegetables like tomatoes, chop them down to about 1/4 inch in size and add them just before you shape the meat. You'll have to play around with the amount you add for each profile, but it's a foolproof process. Eventually you'll get the hang of it.
Publication date: 10/16/03