Hunting for food: The whys, the hows and the how nots

My favorite after-workout snack comes from Schmickels hot dog cart, found at both the north and south Home Depot stores in Fort Collins. They have hot dogs and Polish dogs and breakfast burritos but also feature a Wild Game of the Day, and I love an adventure.

I’ve sampled buffalo dogs, jalapeño elk brats, wild boar beer brats and a pheasant/rattlesnake brat. I loved the depth of flavor that the usual fare doesn’t have and was anxious to try more.

There are restaurants such as the Buckhorn Exchange in Denver or The Fort in Morrison that serve game meat. There is also the Red Lion in Boulder and a Boulder-based website called Exotic Meat Market that carries alpaca, alligator, bear and beaver among many other weird things.

But none of the commercially available “wild game” meats are wild at all but are farmed and fed commercial feed. The USDA would never allow the sale of wild meat so if you are going to eat real wild game, you either make very good friends with a hunter or go get it yourself.

The best reason to do this is that the flavor of wild game is so full that there is no comparison to the farm-raised varieties, as I have discovered from rare gifts of wild pheasant, whitetail deer and antelope. Another reason that I was surprised to learn is that wild game is so much healthier. Wild deer and elk are much lower in cholesterol than even chicken.

André Duvall, now retired from the Colorado Division of Wildlife, is a lifelong hunter with a love for his sport and a sincere respect for his quarry.

Duvall described the primeval satisfaction of stalking, taking, processing and enjoying the results as an immersion in nature and a deep connection to the evolution of humans as omnivores. He believes that those who hunt for trophies alone are missing the point and probably attempting to compensate for something.

Human beings, especially males, evolved as predators. The process of hunting for food reaches deep into the earliest of genetic memories. A good hunter must be a good naturalist, with a knowledge of the habitat and the habits of the animal. A good hunter will know how to recognize a healthy animal.

A good hunter must never be in a hurry. His or her goal is to quietly stalk the animal and bag the quarry in a peaceful situation – no running, no panic. A frantic chase will cause lactic acid build up in the muscles and infuse the meat with an undesirable gamey flavor. The one-shot kill is the goal.

A good, ethical hunter will experience a moment of regret upon bagging his quarry – also a primeval reaction shared by all hunters since the cave men. A good hunter will know how to cut up a carcass, in the field and right away, in order to keep the meat fresh and sweet.

Game processing is also a necessary art for the serious hunter. Duvall recommends taking two coolers, one with all the usual picnic stuff and one packed with ice to fill the carcass after gutting to insure freshness. When dressing his kill, he is careful not to puncture the bladder, stomach, or any part of the intestine; the hair or fur should never touch the meat. It is fine to leave the guts in the field since there are plenty of critters and birds who would love a free meal.

Once home, the carcass should be processed right away, even if it takes all night. All fat should be removed so that no bitter flavor accumulates. The meat should be band-sawed or boned out before freezing. Aging at 30 to 40 degrees will help the fibers break down and tenderize the meat but that requires a walk-in cooler.

Cuts should be sealed in vacuum bags and labeled with the species, the cut and the date before going into the freezer.

Other ways to finish wild game are smoking, making jerky or sausages, or simply grinding. While there are a number of reputable game processing services in and around Larimer County, it is always best to do it yourself. Diagrams are available from the Division of Wildlife and many hunter safety courses include the care and eating of game carcasses.

For those non-hunters who have been gifted with some mysterious bird or portion of deer or elk, the preparation can be a bit daunting. Any birds will have shot in the carcass that must be removed with a sharp paring knife. Wild game tends to be dry. Steaks should be broiled further from the heat than a regular beef steak and frying is not recommended. A cooking bag enhanced with butter and garlic will keep a steak or a roast moist and tender.

Pheasant breast and legs should be prepared separately, since the breast dries out far more quickly than the legs. There are many recipes for pheasant breast online; the legs, thighs and wings are fabulous in a crock pot with a tomato-based stock, as a cacciatore.

I’ll probably never learn to use a gun at my age, so acquiring actual wild game for food will always be an elusive quest. I guess I’ll continue to fake it with the farm-raised varieties. Good, but just not the same.

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