It’s hunting season, and here on the East End that means venison. I like to think I am reasonably conscientious about food, but I admit to ethical grey areas. I no longer eat CAFO meat or large predator fish, yet I never pass up the once-in-a-blue-moon chance to taste real caviar. Yes, there’s a twinge of guilt, but … iced vodka! I have eaten eland and crocodile in Kenya, but on my imaginary treks through Mongolia, I decline dog. I wouldn’t shoot a deer myself, and I love to watch them graze on the meadows at sunset, but I have heard enough rants from farmers to understand they are not compatible with crops. And this meat is from free-range, healthy, non-medicated, well-muscled browsers that helpfully finish themselves on wine grapes. How can I say no?
A friend of mine bow hunts for large male deer, and the first kill of the season has an impressive rack of antlers. The head goes to the taxidermist and will eventually hang on his “Wall of Fame.” The carcass is trucked to a couple of new guys in Riverhead. Butchering deer is not their day jobs — they’re in construction — but there’s now brisk demand for their services. It’s all word of mouth, and I suspect a fair amount of beer is involved. My friend used to use a butcher in Jamesport, but that guy is now in his 70s. Deer are heavy, and hacking through bones and meat is hard work, so he’s done. It’s actually great that these guys in Riverhead continue the tradition, because it’s a dying art. None of this is illegal, by the way, although we’re not naming names; the USDA says you cannot sell wild-caught venison, but you can have your own catch processed for your own consumption. And yes, you’re allowed to give it away to your friends. It’s amazing how, when you tell people you have some coming, they will say, “Oooh, I loooove venison!” hint, hint …
The paper-wrapped packages of meat arrive in a big cooler. There are roasts and chops, tenderloins, fillets, stew meat, sleeves of ground meat and sausages, and more. It’s a huge quantity of meat. I’m already thinking marinades for the big roasts: lots of foraged juniper berries (they’re all over the place) in a bath of red wine, herbs and nut oil. And dark, rich venison stew thickened with a proper roux, in front of the fire on a snowy night. Anyway, I open a package of the sausages to make for dinner with roasted squash and sautéed mushrooms. Squash is a daily feature this time of the year. Early in fall it’s all ambition, with squash and ginger soup and squishy squash ravioli, but now I just stick them whole in the oven for an hour, works great. The sausages are slim, dark red and bloody, which, truth told, is mildly disturbing. But I sternly remind myself that if we are going to eat meat, we not only have to touch it, we have to own it and not pretend the stuff magically appears on the supermarket shelves. I rinse them thoroughly in case they accidently fell in the dirt or got inspected by a dog during the somewhat dubious chain of custody and set them to sizzling in a cast iron pan.
The sausages taste really nice. They’re not at all greasy, as venison is of course very lean, and they’re made with a smooth texture and a dose of thyme. They’re mild and a touch sweet, too, with a hint of perhaps maple syrup. To be picky, they would be better as breakfast sausages. So a few mornings later, I do them with scrambled eggs. Yes, they’re perfect this way. I don’t tell the kids that it’s venison until they taste them, and I get away with it. “Oh my God, I love venison!” says my daughter, who hasn’t met many foods she doesn’t like. My son is slightly wary. “This is deer? Venison is deer?” So we launch into a full-blown discussion on the Circle of Life and Death, which eventually goes off on a tangent in which they decide that when Mommy dies, she will be cremated and sprinkled onto a coral reef.
Me, I’m still thinking about sausage variants. I am going to talk to these new guys; I want to know if, with the next deer, we can please have fatter sausages that are coarse-ground, with no sweetness and maybe a little cracked black pepper and crumbled sage, too? I think I am going to need to buy my own sausage-stuffer thing, a skein of casings a.k.a. intestines, and an attractive camouflage apron, because I can see where this is going.