Eating Venison for Another Year

It’s opening weekend of deer season in New York State, which is a very big deal in my house.  If you are a hunter, or are married to a hunter, it is a very big deal in your house too.  Assuming my husband is successful today or tomorrow or the next day, we will have a freezer full of extraordinary meat that will last us until this time next year.  If he gets two deer, we will luxuriate in the bounty, entertaining friends and family throughout the year, many of whom might enjoy their first venison ever.

Although I have been married to my hunter for 25 years, this year is different because it is my first time joining him on this special occasion.

We are lucky enough to own a big beautiful piece of white tail heaven in Columbia County, where Peter and his hunting buddies have been going for many years. Until recently it has always been a bunch of guys doing their thing for three or four days, then hitting the highway home with a prize strapped to the roof for everyone to see.  Lately, however, there is a new feeling surrounding hunting weekend.  There are new hunters and a new conversation about hunting.  There are more women hunting or asking to learn how.  The hunters aren’t all talking about who can get the biggest buck, but more about the glories of the woods and the meat they will be bringing home– “I have earned the right to eat meat for another year now”.

I went up to feed our hunters and came home transformed.

We have this vision of turning our place into a full-fledged hunting lodge, or agri-tourism destination in the near future.  It has everything—40 acres of wildlife, gorgeous land with a creek running through it, an amazing (though incredibly ….rustic….) 1750’s house, the Catskills on one horizon and the Berkshires on the other, and more and more folks involved with sustainable farming all the time.  There is a huge u-pick farm and orchard within walking distance, and our town is full of history.  As a small step towards that vision, we opened our “lodge” to new guests this year and included first rate eating as part of the appeal.  The food would be locally sourced, sustainably raised, and would of course include one meal of venison.  I had a wonderful response to my idea, and we were ultimately joined by a filmmaker and  his cameraman who are working on a movie about manhood, and the film maker’s personal journey.  He signed up for the whole nine yards.  Bought a gun, spent the day learning everything he possibly could from my husband about hunting; they shot, made a tree stand, learned about habit and habitat, talked about gear and everything else they possibly could to get him ready for the big day.  For my part, I cooked.   For days.  When I wasn’t cooking, I sat by the fire and listened to the hunters, and it was glorious.  I heard the reverence and love they had for the task ahead of them.  They knew so much about the woods and the animals in it, and treated the whole process with a deep respect and admiration that seemed almost metaphysical.   There was a clear connection, a bond, between the hunter and his prey, that I had never witnessed first hand.  One of them referred to opening day as “his religious holiday”, and for the first time it was about more than the food for me.  I always loved the venison, but now I got the camaraderie, the reverence, the love for the process.  It is basic, and essential, and takes us back to a better place.

Yes, it is better than walking into a supermarket and buying flown-in feed-lot beef in a Styrofoam package that has been sitting in a refrigerator for who knows how long.  It is better than having no idea where your food came from or how it lived or how it was killed.   Unless you know these things, how can you possibly feel good about what you are consuming?

5:00 in the morning opening day of deer season.  Our novice hunter, Mr. Film Maker from Brooklyn and his camera man, hoisted their gear into a tree stand in the freezing cold.  He wondered aloud to all of us if he would, armed with just his lessons and his new gun, rise to the occasion and be able to get his first deer if the opportunity presented itself.  When his movie comes out, you will know the answer.  I will tell you that we all enjoyed a deep, rich, venison and wild mushroom ragu on tomato pappardella  that night.  For dessert we had a tarte tatin I had made from the apples grown up the street.  We drank a Hudson Valley wine, and the hunters talked about how beautiful the woods were, how they dealt with the cold, what they saw or thought they saw as the light was coming up on the day, and my husband’s eyes twinkled with some of that light in a way that was brand new to me.

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