Please welcome a new contributor from the real West, Charlotte McGuinn Freeman, who writes the LivingSmall blog, grows a garden, and is restoring a 1903 bungalow in Livingston, Montana. She's too modest to say so herself, but she's also the author of the novel Place Last Seen (Picador, 2000), which got great reviews and is currently being made into a movie. We defy you to stop reading after only one paragraph of the riveting first chapter.
In the guest post below, Charlotte tackles a topic we don't often see covered in the sustainable-eating movement: hunting and game.
I dated a hunting guide for about a year, and while we got along famously, to outward appearances we were an odd pair. When people would ask, I’d grin and tell them that “I only date him for his freezers.”
Up here that line always got a laugh. Our growing season is short but people still know how to put food by – whether it’s blanching and freezing vegetables, or making jam and pickles for the pantry.
And people hunt. We live in the midst of large herds of wild, organic, delicious ungulates. A single elk tag (license) can feed a family of four for much of the year – it’s a big animal. And even if you don’t get an elk, there are always deer and antelope. We also live in the midst of large herds of domestic cattle, sheep and even some pigs – all of which can be bought by the whole- or half-animal from a local rancher or a 4-H kid at the county fair, sent to a local slaughterhouse to be killed, processed, and stored in the chest or upright freezer that nearly everyone I know has in their garage, or basement, or mudroom.
If local is the new organic, then most of my friends here are very trendy. As with most little towns in the scenic intermountain west, we have our issues between the newbies and the locals, but game cuts across all the class boundaries — we all eat local wild meat. Whatever you might feel about hunting, you have to admit that you can’t get much more local than going out on a cold fall morning before sunrise, then shooting, field dressing, and packing out an animal that is destined for your freezer. An animal you intend to eat for the next year.
The year I dated the hunter I probably ate a little more game than my neighbors, but not much. Any ordinary weeknight dinner might be venison tacos, antelope steaks on the grill, elk pot roast. If it was a special occasion, we’d have birds. Mallards, Hungarian partridge, or doves. A festive evening began with a kitchen trash can full of feathers and the smell of game birds on the grill, and ended with plates full of bones sucked clean. I miss those birds.
This is the time of year, as the gardens are overproducing and the game tags are arriving in the mail, that we all start peering into the frosty depths. It’s time to start clearing out the old to make way for the new. I sent a quick email around to see what my friends had left at this point.
The freezer files
Scott writes: “Nothing too exciting in there right now. Elk and antelope steaks and burger, juice concentrate. Also bulk butter from Costco, 12 pounds of strawberries, freezer jam from Oregon, bagels, codfish, and a bit of smoked sturgeon. The Lake Michigan salmon has been gobbled. Some of the packages are impossible to identify beyond the general category of 'meat,' because [a friend who shall remain nameless] once left the door ajar and the resulting meltdown washed away the labeling. I just thaw them and eat whatever is in there. If nothing else I can always make a stew.”
Andrea and Doug report that they have “two chest freezers — one with stuff from last year's garden (green beans, roasted chiles, pumpkin, tomatoes), various homemade stocks, and meat from Matt’s Meats, whatnot from Costco. In the other, the good stuff: Whenever Danny cleans out his freezer to make room for this year's dead animals, he gives us his leftovers. Also, Craig doesn't have a chest freezer, so we are his overflow. All this means we have elk, venison, antelope (and occasionally unidentifiable body parts) whenever we need them.”
Lill has cherry pies, a quarter of a grass-fed local steer plus 30 pounds of liver for the elderly (and, she admits, spoiled) cats, a box of salmon from our local friends who fish all summer off the Alaska coast, half a 4-H pig, some organic peas, corn and beans, and game that was given to her by friends.
I call Nina, who grew up on a vegetarian hippie commune, and who has informed her husband that no dead animals are allowed to come into the house unless they’re wrapped in white butcher paper. She reports that she’s down to a few last packages of ground antelope, a lot of sausage, and one antelope pot roast. They have four beautiful little girls who are big eaters. Then I hear her yelp “What the hell is this?” as she uncovers her husband’s cache of bones—“which, apparently, we’re supposed to boil.” Nina eats meat now, but she still has a few issues.
My own freezer coughs up a few last packages of ground antelope and elk, a package of elk stew meat, and one last package of antelope round (a little tricky to cook, it’s very lean). Way in back I find two or three one-pound packages of loose game sausage . I think it’s what the guys at the processing plant make when they get bored just grinding up the odd bits. It makes a great pasta sauce with broccoli rabe and chiles. I’m thrilled and surprised to discover I’ve got two one-cup freezer containers of porcini in butter – my porcini patch burned up this summer in the forest fires, so I got skunked (although last year’s fires threw a bumper crop of morels in the spring).
And already, this year’s bounty is starting to repopulate the freezer – big vacuum-sealed bags of cherries and plums from the bumper crop of fruit we had this summer, four quarts of garden minestrone, bright green pint jars of basil whizzed up in the food processor with lots of olive oil and just a little bit of garlic (this weekend’s project is to do the same with the bed full of flat Italian parsley). There’s a whole freezer shelf full of chicken carcasses – if I’m going to pay that much for organic chicken, I’m not throwing out the bones, but it’s been too hot to make stock. And in the very bottom there are a few sad, leftover packages of kale, broccoli rabe and chard. Another thing on my list this weekend – put up greens from this year’s garden.
Mystery meat—it's what's for dinner
I think that it’s because of hunting that the local ranchers do pretty well selling directly to the public. Unlike city folks, we’re all used to those mystery packages in the back of the freezer. For every perfectly grilled elk loin you’ll eat at a party, you’re also looking at a lot of those one-pound packages of ground meat, and a lot of oddball packages of “stew meat.” Whether it’s elk, antelope, grass-fed beef, or a local lamb – there are plenty of people, including the guys behind our local meat counters, who you can ask how on earth you’re supposed to cook up some mystery cut. If you’ve only ever bought meat in the supermarket, where everything is labeled as a recognizable cut and displayed on one of those icky absorbent pads, then a box of white paper packages, some of which bear strange and unreliable labels as to which part of the animal they came from, can be daunting.
But just as folks who join CSAs learn to cook vegetables they’d never seen before like kohlrabi and chard and turnips, it only takes a year or two in Montana before you learn to be sanguine in the face of a thawed-out chunk of bloody game animal. Like all local product, it takes on a significance. You need to learn to cook it well because one of your friends got up on a cold cold morning and went out, shot this animal, then hauled it back to the truck on his own back (or in the case of Shannon, on her own back).
And so, you learn a new skill. You make a few mistakes, but you ask around, you get recipes from people, and a couple of years into it, the concept of making tacos from ground antelope instead of ground beef has become so ordinary that you’re startled when your friends back in that city you left are shocked that you’re cooking with game.
Hunting isn’t for everyone. I myself have never killed anything bigger than a fish. In my family, it was the men who hunted. Although a couple of years ago I considered taking up bird hunting for the sake of my orphaned bird dogs, when push came to shove, it just wasn’t my thing. I like leaving a few chores to the menfolk –killing, gutting, and hauling home large dead animals seems like one of those things that they like doing, and that I appreciate deeply. Someone has to be, to paraphrase that man in the White House, “the appreciator.” That would be me.
I’m not with the hunter any more, although he says he’s still going to kill me an antelope this year. I guess that’s another thing I’ve learned here in Montana. The sign of a good breakup is when he’ll still go kill you enough meat for the winter.