What’s for Dinner? Wild Game Now Chic

When I was a kid, my family ate a lot of wild game. My father was both an avid hunter and a crack shot, so he hauled home a cornucopia of wild critters, which my mother dutifully cooked.

Mostly we ate venison, rabbit, grouse, and squirrel. Occasionally, unhappily, we dined on groundhog and raccoon, which, unfortunately, were more plentiful than the other more palatable animals.

As the late comic Buddy Hackett once said, our dinner options were “take it or leave it.”

I didn’t think there was anything odd about our table fare until the question, “What did you have for dinner last night?” came up on the elementary school playground. “Groundhog,” I answered, honestly.

Suddenly, I found myself the object of ridicule from my classmates, who teased me mercilessly, calling me Woodchuck Chuck. I had discovered that groundhog was not an acceptable main dinner course in respectable households. Secretly, I was thankful I didn’t tell them about the raccoon we had dined on the week before.

Fast forward to the new millennium and my, how times have changed. Wild game is now considered chic, and safer and more nutritious than commercially raised livestock. Professional chefs seek it out, picky eaters of wealth and taste pay high prices for it, and various wild animal dishes now appear on the menus of upscale restaurants.

On a recent trip to Pittsburgh’s Strip District, I encountered ground venison offered for sale at $10 per pound, and a trimmed rack of deer chops for a whopping $30 a pound. The meat was labeled “wild caught”-whatever that means. My venison is “wild shot,” or, more precisely, “shot in the wild.” And it is free range, indeed.

Years ago, Americans often viewed hunting with greater hostility. Some attribute this to what was called the “Bambi Syndrome” from the Walt Disney movie. Hunters like me were the murderers of Bambi’s mother, and scorned. On top of that, deer were scarce in these parts during my childhood in the 1960s.

Then we witnessed the Great Game Comeback. Shrewd wildlife management techniques and reforestation helped animal populations rebound, and then they exploded. Game species invaded suburbia and now routinely live in town, causing a number of problems, mainly car accidents.

People who used to be bleeding-hearts opposed to hunting watched their gardens and landscaping disappear down Bambi’s mother’s gullet, and they didn’t love her nearly so much. They liked her even less when she jumped out in front of them on the highway and wrecked their automobiles. Hunting is now encouraged, game populations are high, and we hunters find ourselves in a golden age.

Reader, allow me a bit of immodesty. I am an adventurous chef of vaulting ambitions. My parents generally cooked wild game with the old salt, pepper and flour prep, followed by frying it in bacon grease.

Some especially tough critters had to endure a heroic steaming in the pressure cooker to loosen them up. When I came home from school, the hissing and percolation of the pressure cooker sounded like a locomotive pulling into a train station. The pervasive smell didn’t exactly whet our appetites. My sisters and I remained physically lean throughout our youth.

But I give my wild game the gourmet treatment, and I even eat the organ meats. Good readers, hearken to me! My deer liver with pancetta and shallots in a wine reduction is to die for (and the deer thought so too). My grilled wild turkey breast marinated in apricot balsamic vinegar and fresh tarragon will curl your toes and make you howl at the moon. And my braised fox squirrel in brandy and prosciutto is the ambrosia of the gods. Funny how a plateful of squirrel always leaves me with a gnawing urge to climb trees.

Oh, there were a few culinary disasters along the way. My broiled mallard breast wrapped in bacon was tough as a hockey puck. My creamed deer kidneys could not transcend the tang of their excretory function.

But my real culinary Waterloo involved a baked raccoon with prunes and mango chutney. When I served it, my wife ran from the dinner table with her hand over her mouth. It nearly gagged me. Even the neighbor’s dog turned his nose up at it.

Oh well, as the saying goes, you never know how much is enough until you know how much is too much.

After spending a couple of nights sleeping on the couch, I gave up on coon. My wife and I are still wrangling over groundhog, but so far I refuse to budge. I think I see one now in my garden. Where are the keys to the gun cabinet? Heat up the iron skillet.

Rogerson, of Wheeling, is a professor of English at West Virginia Northern Community College.