Hunting and gathering: The need to eat. Top of the old pyramid in Social Science 101. It goes hand-to-mouth and is practiced by every creature on the planet in one way or the other.
There was a time in human history when it wasn't a lifestyle choice; it was life or death. Of course, one could go on about how today's society has transformed the instinctual imperative to hunt into a proclivity for drive-thru sustenance. Just imagine if that holiday pig-out festival relied solely upon the men who were able to track and ultimately kill an animal, and not mom's ability to clip coupons and hit the grocery stores before it gets 'too crazy'.
No matter how one feels about modern-day hunting, whether it is a healthy practice etched on the cave walls of our own humanity, or if it is a testosterone-infused Bambi-killing onslaught, no one can deny the important role it played in human history.
Hunting became for some a far more successful method of obtaining food than farming, so life by the spear developed at a more dramatic pace than agriculture. So it's funny to think humans are just getting the hang of this agrarian life, having only been farming for the short time of 10,000 years. Hunting and gathering was our bread and butter for almost 5 million years before there was even bread -- or butter.
Modernity has displaced hunting from the realms of necessity into a more recreational activity. Cultivation and distribution of livestock has been fine-tuned over the years so the only thing a person needs to hunt these days is a parking place at the grocery store. Beef, pork, chicken, fish -- you name it -- are available to anyone at almost any time of the day. As an added bonus, it is safe to eat -- and relatively well-priced -- thanks to government regulation.
But this sterile and sugar-coated method of getting meat for the family is in some ways deceiving and when the reality of where our food comes from hits home, it can be a bit disconcerting.
Personally, I haven't always embraced the wilder side of the meat world. As an Oklahoma gal, my encounters with the spoils of a successful hunting trip were more "miss" than "hit".
The first wild creature on my plate was pheasant and I was told it was a lot like chicken. I noticed my mother was looking at the plate of freshly fried pheasant like it was a plate of worms. I disregarded her hesitation completely and dove in with a "watch this!" attitude. A few juicy bites in, I chomp down on something hard and undeniably metallic. And then, I find another. This was definitely not a prize in the Cracker Jacks box. I spit them out nonchalantly to show my mom. Her face pales and she pushes her plate away as if it she finally found the excuse to not eat her peas.
"Those are bullets. The bullets used to kill the birds."
Reality hit me like a ton of children's books and Disney movies. These birds were murdered?!
Growing up, guns were completely taboo in my household. The only time I really heard about guns was on those television shows about gang violence and wives shooting their husbands. (Yeah, we watched a lot of Lifetime television in my family.) So the thought of a gun being used to kill an innocent bird hit a bull's eye in my soul. I pieced together the mystery of the meat, and swore to only grilled cheese sandwiches until I could make sense of it all. A fickle vegetarian, this vow lasted all of two days.
As a brave middle schooler, I had a chance to try venison for first time at a friend's house. Fully recovered from my unfortunate pheasant incident, I was intrigued by the lure of a new type of food.
I stayed in the kitchen as my friend's mother prepared the deer that was "really fresh -- just killed". Maybe I was a macabre kid, but instead of that description horrifying me, it only delighted me more. As it sizzled in the pan, I could tell immediately this was not the steaks I'd had before. I asked if I could do the honors and flip the venison steaks and I was handed the spatula like it was the key to the city. With spatula in hand and a steamy, meaty fragrance tickling my taste buds, I gave one of the steaks a perfect flip. The sense of accomplishment was quickly replaced with a sense of terror. As I looked down, I noticed something wasn't right.
Things got real -- real fast. Eyes wide, jaw dropped, pointing to the dead animal in the frying pan, I notified the lady of the house without a single word.
Then I promptly requested a grilled cheese sandwich.
Since then, I've opened my heart -- and my mouth -- to the more exotic world of wild game. I adore duck and I believe lamb is far more charismatic than beef. I've even taken matters into my own hands, and can cook up a killer deer chili and buffalo tacos worth roaming home for.
I'm not the only one who has developed a taste for something other than the traditional dinner triangle of beef, pork and poultry. Chefs are playing around with game birds, such as quail, which can be found permanently perched on many restaurant menus. At-home chefs are also getting into the game, with local butcher shops and specialty meat purveyors eagerly standing by to serve. These adventurous folks look to wild game as a way to add a little excitement to their menus; but many are also attracted to it as a pure and natural source for nutrition.
The Original "Free Range"
On the outset, the idea of actually pulling the trigger with the purpose to kill seems brutal. But we essentially do the same thing with a check card at the grocery store every time a cash register rings up that pot roast or holiday turkey. It is the nature of Nature, the food chain wrapped around the ol' circle of life. However one makes their peace with it, obtaining meat from the grocery store isn't a more civilized method than hunting in the wild. Hunting is, however, a far more intimate relationship to food than most people desire.
For years consumers have engaged in an ignorance-is-bliss attitude about the convenience of picking up meat at their local grocery store. Lately consumers have become more concerned about what chemicals are used to rear animals and how animals are treated before they appear neatly packaged on grocery store shelves.
Organic, free-range, antibiotic-free, preservative-free, chemical-free are not just catch-phrases these days. They have become requirements for many families. Because the more exotic types of meat -- like deer, quail and elk -- have stayed out of the mainstream, they have avoided mass production and the trappings that make big business meat processing so unattractive. When making conscientious decisions about what to put on the dinner table, alternative meat hits all the marks.
Hunters can go one further and actually cut out the middleman altogether and just pluck their next meaty meal straight from the forest without worrying about the animal having a steroid addiction. What could be more natural than that?
Now this may work out fine and dandy for the hungry human, but it seems like a bum deal for the wild woodland creature. Dig a little deeper, though, and hunters may not be the bad guys after all.
Just Shoot Me
It seems counter-intuitive, but hunting is beneficial to the health and well-being of animal populations in the wild. It's not just some maniacal excuse to use guns on a living, breathing creature. From an ecological standpoint it actually helps indigenous animals thrive.
"In the grand scheme of things fewer animals may die of hunting than natural causes," said Micah Holmes, Information Supervisor for the Oklahoma Wildlife Department. He says that hunting is a way to manage many populations of animals in the wild. In Oklahoma alone, a little over 100,000 deer were harvested in 2009.
That may seem like a large number, but if the population of deer was not controlled and numbers were allowed to inflate, a tipping point would occur where their habitats could no longer provide for them. And it's not just the deer that would suffer. Animals like squirrels and birds compete with the deer for the same food sources, and as bigger animals gobble everything in sight, there's less food for the smaller guys down the line.
Urban sprawl has taken ownership of many habitats putting even more pressure on dwindling resources. This isn't just bad news for the animals. We begin to see animals spilling over into "our territory" as they expand their search for food. Deer come closer to roads, causing a hazard. Climb a few links up that food chain, and predatory animals follow their prey into human areas. It becomes Mother Nature's game of dominos, where the life, or death, of one animal can ripple into the lives of so many others.
Populations of native animals are carefully monitored by organizations like the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation (ODWC). Agencies like it across the U.S. ensure that populations of wild animals can continue to scurry happily in the homes they've had for millions of years.
Deer is just one species that is managed by hunting in Oklahoma. Antelope, bear, crow, dove, deer, pheasant, quail, rabbit, squirrel, goose, duck and turkey will find themselves in the crosshairs in Oklahoma at designated times throughout the year. This isn't a "shoot anything that moves" scenario. Each animal has a specific time they can be hunted and there are limits on size, number and sex of the animals that can be harvested.
"We want to provide the most opportunity for the most number of people who want to hunt -- that's why we have very strict and specific rules on each season so hunters can take those animals without hurting those populations," Holmes said.
In Oklahoma, however, the role of hunting as population control is ancillary -- necessary, but not critical for the animals that find themselves part of the hunt. Instead, hunting in Oklahoma really helps a host of other animals -- including the two-legged variety -- that enjoy the great outdoors.
There are about 1.6 million acres in Oklahoma alone that can be used for hunting and other outdoor recreational activities. These areas are called Wildlife Management Areas or WMAs, and they are closely monitored to ensure responsible usage and sustainability of fish and wildlife that live there.
The Department of Wildlife has a big job to do in Oklahoma, yet it does not receive general state tax dollars. Its funding comes from hunters and anglers through license fees and a manufacturer's excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment.
"Most people, including many hunters, don't realize that our department doesn't receive regular tax funding like most state departments," Holmes said.
"So those hunters who pay for licenses -- and then the equipment they buy to hunt with has an excise tax that is paid by the manufacturers, which makes its way back to the state.
"Hunting pays for conservation -- allows us to do research, and buy property that is good for all animals -- even us," Holmes said.
So basically the areas Oklahomans and tourists use to camp, horseback ride and wildlife watch is kept hale and hearty because of hunting.
It isn't just a funding source for the ODWC. It also adds a boost to Oklahoma's bottom line.
"It's a big business," Holmes said. "These hunters buy gas, stay at hotels, eat at the local diner and buy equipment. It all adds up to significant revenue."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation from 2006, "the total economic effect of deer hunting activity in Oklahoma during 2006 was estimated at nearly $500 million, and the total economic effect from 2006 hunting activity in Oklahoma in general was estimated to be about $843 million." A majority of these dollars are spent in rural communities in Oklahoma that depend on hunting seasons to bolster their bottom lines.
"Deer hunting is the most popular activity, but overall we have about 200,000 licensed hunters," Holmes said.
Last year, a little over 100,000 deer were harvested from the wild.
Compared to other states, hunting still remains a popular activity. Most states have seen a decline over the years, citing disinterest among its constituents and diminishing areas where people can actually hunt. Oklahoma has bucked the system in this regard, with numbers remaining stable.
"Oklahoma's overall population has increased, so our numbers per capita have dropped, but our number of licensed hunters has remained steady," Holmes said. "Other states are pretty envious of our numbers.
"In Oklahoma hunting is a way of life, and because of hunting, we make Oklahoma a better place. We believe wildlife and wild places are important."
With so many benefits from hunting, it is easy to overcome any stigma associated with the method of obtaining wild game. What is good for the goose seems to be good for the gander, in the most literal sense.
The next obstacle for many, however, is a matter of taste.
Get In the Game
The taste of meat from animals who roam the wild has a very distinct flavor. Described as "gamey" by some, the reason for the distinct flavor has everything to do with where the animal comes from and how it lives. Game birds, like quail, duck and squab, use more muscle because they are actually airborne in every day life. This gets the blood pumping, making their flavors more pronounced than their domesticated counterparts.
Michael Fusco is a familiar name here in Oklahoma, having been culinary royalty in Tulsa for over 25 years. His current success story is the Riverfront Grill, located along Riverside in Southern Hills. Aside from being proprietor extraordinaire, he is also an avid hunter and fan of wild game.
"It's about harvest for me -- ability to procure an item," muses Fusco, "not only wild game, it can be corn fresh from the stalk or fish from the water."
"People ask me what my favorite food is -- but I ask them 'well, what season is it?'"
As synonymous as sweet corn is with summer, to Fusco, autumn leaves mean it's time for venison. Hunting for Fusco is about the tastes and flavors that come along with the season -- what's fresh, what's at its peak of flavor. And nothing is fresher than an animal that is living the same day you eat it. For this reason, wild game definitely has a different taste than the products produced by the meat industry.
"You are what you eat and the same is true for wild animals," Fusco said.
Cow (beef), for example, is fed a diet of corn for the majority of its life, which acts as a fattening agent.
"Deer will eat grass and leaves of various plants, then fall comes and they eat acorns and persimmons," Fusco said. "A wild diet gives animals a wild flavor."
Animals in the wild are typically in great condition as well. The animals in most beef or chicken factories are given a limited food diet, but are also filled with antibiotics to keep them immune to disease that is prevalent in such conditions. Many animals are given steroids that unnaturally give them a "healthy" size and weight. Animals that fight to survive in the wild have a drastically different make-up.
Fusco describes these animals as "the cream of the crop,"
"These ultra athletes have survived all the other predators, and because these animals are at the peak of health, you get the quintessential flavor of the animal," Fusco said.
This also affects the texture of the meat, with increased muscle use creating a tougher, sinewy cut of meat. For many the only tolerable form is as jerky, where salt and dehydration depletes every nuance of taste. In many cases a hunter seems to eat what he's killed out of obligation and pride, but not because it actually tastes good.
Case in point: I'm dining with a good friend of mine at an upscale restaurant and I order the duck. He makes a face like I've ordered a liver and chocolate sandwich. I ask if he's ever had duck, and to my surprise, he answers that he hates duck -- even though he's hunted duck with his family for years. My dish arrives with slices of decadent duck breast cooked to a cherry-blossom pink. I arm wrestle him to take a bite. He claims "it isn't even cooked all the way!" But after coaxing him and questioning his manhood, he begrudgingly takes a bite. His eyes widen. Then he closes them as he chews in ecstasy. After years of tolerating duck, he realized that this bird has unrivaled flavor if prepared correctly.
The work to guarantee a delicious piece of meat starts immediately after the hunt ends. How the animal is prepared after it's killed plays a huge role in the taste.
Fusco considers this part of the hunt almost a "holy ritual".
"Once the animal is harvested, it's important to gut and clean it right away; paying careful attention to clean the blood thoroughly from all edible areas," Fusco said. "What most people believe is a gamey flavor is actually rancid, stale hemoglobin on the flesh itself."
As a rule, deer hunters need to move fast -- dressing, skinning and cooling the deer within an hour if temps hover around 60 degrees. A bit more time can be taken if the temperature is lower, but for the best possible meat, sooner is better.
Areas that can't be cleaned can also be treated to remove blood within the membrane to mitigate the undesirable flavor. Parts of the animal that are used most rigorously, such as the shoulder and leg, can be soaked in salt water to draw out the blood -- eliminating the gamey taste. The same trick can be used to exorcise the same intense flavor from duck, for example, by giving it a bath of salt water with a dose of baking soda for 2-3 hours. And above all, eat the meat as soon as you can. Once it has been in the freezer for a year, the original flavor is lost. Having venison chili in the summer is an anachronism, so fill those holiday and winter menus with what is in season and create a new tradition for your family and friends.
Another tip: cook what people know.
"Ground venison can be made into meatballs or meatloaf," suggests Fusco. "Even fajitas can be a familiar friend to those who are apprehensive about trying wild game."
Just like cuts of beef or chicken, wild game has the same body parts -- some with a tougher texture that works better for slow cooking, others with a texture perfect for a quick sear on the barbie.
"It's all about cut. The back leg, or "the round", is better braised. Because it has a large amount of connective tissue made of collagen, a low and slow cooking method allows this collagen to turn into gelatin -- a delicious liquid protein," Fusco said.
Despite the vivid anatomy lesson, I am still salivating.
There is a wide variety of cookbooks available with recipes for wild game. Even the Department of Wildlife helps out by offering a huge section of recipes and preparation tips on their website for just about anything that swims, runs or flies. With a wealth of information on preparation available, hunters can thoroughly enjoy the rewards of their expedition.
If a hunter finds that there is more meat than he or she can handle, there is a fantastic program called Hunters Against Hunger. This program, sponsored by the ODWC, allows hunters to donate their catch to the Oklahoma Food Bank.
Last year over 48,000 lbs of fresh meat was donated to the organization where donations of fresh meat are hard to come by. This donation provided 192,000 meals to hungry Oklahomans. For more information on how to participate in this program, visit the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife's website, or the nearest deer processing station.
Out of the Woods
I admit it. I don't think I've got the gumption to do the dirty work myself. Luckily, if I'm craving something out of the ordinary, I don't have to throw on my camo gear and wait in silence for hours in the cold. I just need to hop in my car and stop at my friendly local butcher shop.
The usual protein suspects, like beef or chicken, will always be a mainstay, but now exotic wild game meats can be found alongside their domestic brethren. These animals are not from the wild per se. Government regulations prohibit the sale of wild game directly to consumers. Instead, farms raise a variety of animals in environments that closely mimic the natural conditions the animal is accustomed to, to maintain the integrity of the flavor.
Harvard Meats, located at 15th and Harvard, has answered the call of the wild. Their meat cases are always stocked with top-notch standard options, like grass-fed beef and all-natural chicken. But these standards are flanked by more exotic options, like buffalo, deer, elk, rabbit, quail, alligator, even kangaroo. This isn't just to provide to a small niche market. The demand for these types of meats has steadily increased over the years.
"It's Oklahoma, so a lot of people are familiar with a lot of these meats," said Chrystal Rose, "Jane of all trades" at Harvard Meats. Rose does everything from cut meat to help customers get exactly what they want.
"A lot of folks love our buffalo, which is from a local provider," Rose said, "but the other meats are bought through a national distributor who we work closely with."
Government regulation does not allow the sell of game meats from wild sources, but farm-raising is a safe alternative for getting these products onto the market. In many cases, the meat maintains its basic flavor but much of the "gaminess" is lost.
Havard Meats has regular customers who love that they can easily purchase a variety of classic wild game. But there's a market for kangaroo?
"You have the frat boys who love to get extreme with their grilling," Rose said with a giggle. "We can barely keep the kangaroo on the shelves!"
Kangaroo meat is similar to venison in flavor, but because it's a very muscular creature, slow-cooking is recommended. The advice that Rose passes along to the "frat boys" is to only grill it to medium rare or rare. At $18.95/lb it can be a pricey game of truth or dare, but in the right hands, this type of meat can be quite delicious.
Rabbit tends to be the top seller at Harvard Meats. Farm-raised rabbit is a lean meat, with a slightly sweet flavor. It has virtually no fat, is very high in protein and tastes a lot like, well, chicken. It can be used as a chicken substitute in many recipes and is rarely raised with the use of hormones or steroids.
Rose says that they always keep their eyes peeled for other interesting additions and work closely with their providers to find the best quality meats. So no matter what your hankering may be, there are specialty meat shops in your neighborhood that can fit the bill. UTW did some hunting of its own and found Harvard Meats to be one of the few locations that offers such a wide variety of wild game.
If you are looking for a wild dining experience, many restaurants have dishes that feature game meats like venison or quail. Regulations prohibit the sale of wild-caught animals through restaurants, so these animals won't be directly from the wilderness, but the flavors are still very similar.
If you want to experience some of these unique flavors prepared by an expert, Michael Fusco features venison, quail, pheasant, even wild boar on his menu at the Riverfront Grill. This is available seasonally, so time is of the essence to enjoy the flavors of fall. A new restaurant in McAlester, Okla. recently opened its doors and boasts a menu chock-full of exotic dishes. Wild Thangz Eatery & Pub encourages its customers to "eat on the wild side" and serves up dishes like alligator tail and its famous deer chili year round.
A Wild Life
Animals deserve our respect. It's part of our humanity. It would be an endless debate to talk about the finer points of killing one creature for the survival of another. The bottom line is this is who we are. This is how we are built. This is how we survived and, I daresay, evolved.
There is something almost more pure about hunting than what we experience in the modern three squares a day. Our modern day relationship with our food is a cleverly built façade that is more marketing than substance, yet hunters and hunting are constantly villainized, described as cruel and unnecessary.
Perhaps modern suburbanites need a dose of reality to understand that meat doesn't just appear magically in grocery stores. Maybe they would respect the food they eat a little more and maybe, in turn, they'll respect the world around them a little more.
There is a saying that goes 'hunting isn't just life or death -- it is more important than that'. Humankind's relationship to nature and the animals that live there may be overshadowed by the contraptions and frills of modern life. But strip all of that away and basic human needs still remain. We really are not much different than the doe in the forest, searching for food and a safe home so she and her young can survive another day.
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