I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, back in the mountains, a region so enamored with deer hunting that my high school was closed on the opening day of deer season and we had a semester-long hunter safety class as part of the physical education curriculum. However, the local affection for shooting deer did not translate into an affection for eating them. Folks liked trophies and antlers, but they didn’t much like the venison.
Venison was considered an inferior meat, with a flavor that needed to be masked and buried. Most “recipes” were really just hand-me-downs about how to soak deer meat in milk and beer and then drench it in canned soup and barbecue sauce and overcook it. Recipes, that is to say, designed to make their main ingredient go away.
Even venison chile, that long-standing favorite of hunting cabins everywhere, can be seen as a way to make something palatable out of a flavor you don’t really enjoy.
Every once in a while, I still find an old timer who will ask if I actually meant to say that “I like venison,” as if I were saying that I enjoy eating mud. But the trend now finally seems to be heading in the other direction.
Deer season has just ended, which means venison season is in full swing. The world of hunting and game cookery has gone through a sea change: Venison has recently gone haute.
To understand this change, I called Jonathan Miles, a longtime columnist for Field & Stream and author of cookbook, The Wild Chef, which includes many standards that wouldn’t be out of place in a mid-century L. L. Bean cookbook as well as recipes for braised and barbecued venison ribs with homemade pickles, and seared venison liver with bacon and caramelized onions.
Without missing a beat, he suggested that there were two components driving this renaissance.
“Game cookery is keeping up with American cookery and the quantum leaps of the last twenty years,” said Miles. “Even recently, venison was considered inferior to beef.”
Flavorful venison had no place on the deracinated suburban menu of late-twentieth-century convenience food. “This is the work of people who grew up in the age where margarine was better than butter, Tang instead of orange juice, potato flakes in a box.”
Miles pointed out that the last generation of hunters was the same group of folks for whom a steak wasn’t done until the A.1. Sauce was pooling on top of it. Our tastes have changed, and that, of course, includes the way we prepare the food we’ve hunted for ourselves.
“So there’s a new population of hunters: Culinary hunters,” said Miles. “They aren’t stereotypical outdoorsman, they’re foodies. At some point people realized that you can’t get more organic and free range than wild.”
These folks don’t come from a tradition of subsistence hunting. They have different goals. They have ethical considerations and culinary influences. There’s a parallel here to gardening: people once gardened to stay alive. If you weren’t growing rows of cabbage or field peas, you weren’t going to have anything to eat. Now, gardens are filled with specialty items. You’re just as likely to find someone growing romanesco broccoli as you are tomatoes.
“Hunting,” said Miles, “has become an element of a food-based lifestyle.”
He has found himself consistently surprised by how adventurous his readers have gotten since he started the column. Things that would not have flown fourteen years ago are now met with enthusiasm.
I agree. I’ve seen dry-aged venison and subtle sausages on the tables of friends. I’ve been served platters of delicately grilled venison backstrap, nicely sliced, surrounded by wild mushrooms and finished with a glaze of fortified wine. And I’m looking forward to enjoying more dishes like this all winter long!