Proto-Man-Owl Bags a Deer

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Two hours before sun up, the stillness was broken occasionally by the call of some early bird or the waking shuffles of a grey squirrel. In the darkness, it seemed like I could hear the heartbeat of a sleeping vole. I was tuned more than on most mornings because like the squirrel, I was looking to put up some food for the winter. Based on the hoof prints and scraped ground in the fresh snow, I had reason to believe that a male deer would be passing through the field where grew the oak tree in which I was perched. Wrapped tightly in shaggy wool to keep out the cold and keep in my smell, I looked, I imagine, like some proto man-owl.

I’d been breathing slowly for some time and noticed sporadically the gentle thrum of my pulse, when the sound of hooves creeping through oak, maple, and beech leaves brought me out of my trance. In less than a beat, my heart suddenly accelerated the uncontrollable machinations of adrenaline. A healthy eight point buck cautiously stepped from the woods into the field. He was around a hundred yards from me in the tree and was totally unaware of my presence. My heart raced. “Easy there, this isn’t life or death. For you at least.” He was in range, but ambled closer.

That morning I had up in the tree with me the 50-year-old Hawthorne 30.06 caliber rifle that had belonged to my dad. It was through the dusty ten-power scope that I watched the buck as he came closer. A faint and barely noticeable breath of air flowed down the hill from the west, over the deer and towards me, and with it any chance of him catching my glaring scent. This would have caused him to stop, stiffen, snort, and disappear for another day.

Within 60 feet of me he paused broadside, and my reflexive mind ordered the seemingly subconscious squeezing of the trigger. The old cannon roared with the crosshairs locked just behind the shoulder blade. I think that this deer did not hear the report, for as he lurched forward I instinctively chambered another heavy round and put a second bullet into his chest. The first shot would have been enough, but I didn’t want to cause this animal undue suffering. The second shot ensured that as he fell to the ground, he was dead before impact.

With an impending winter in Maine, it made sense to fill the freezer with the healthy and delicious flesh of the eastern white tailed deer. So there was work to do. I’d had the act of field dressing described to me by a few friends with experience and figured the process would be self-evident and I began opening the deer with my small but sharp pocket knife. I’ll spare the specific details here, but this was far and away the most interesting and practical anatomy lesson. The goal is to get all the organs and intestines out of the cavity that neatly houses them before the meat begins to spoil.

A friend who’s a great chef, Luke Stone, joined me from Vermont. He brought bone saws, hotel pans, cutting boards, a professional meat grinder and sausage stuffer, high end pork casings, and all the myriad spices needed to create the three types of venison sausage we’d be making. We quartered the animal out in the shop and hauled in the parts to break down.

In seven hours, we made seven pounds of garlic and bay sausage; seven pounds of kielbasa, one massive and delicious six pound bologna (twice ground for fineness); five or six roasts tied and ready; 20 pounds of various steaks, a rack from the ribs, a deer porchetta; and ten pounds of stew and ground meat. With some leftover sausage mix we made a delectable meat pie, which could be served cold with whole grain mustard and pickles.

The freezer full of healthy meat and broth would last me well into the next fall, and provide some great dinners for friends and family. Having a rudimentary understanding of the steps involved in turning a large wild animal into food for a few seasons gives me a certain peace of mind. I am reminded how important good relationships are to passing along these agrarian traditions.

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