It was certainly the best meal I’ve ever eaten while sitting in snow. Maybe one of the best meals I’ve eaten anywhere.
A friend and I had spent a January morning ice fishing, then an afternoon with shotguns slung across our backs, snowshoeing the cedar-lined shore of one of those Boundary Waters lakes that look like claw scratches along the Canadian border.
The day’s result: Zero fish. One snowshoe hare.
Back in camp we balanced a soup kettle on a teetering propane stove, melted some snow and slowly defrosted a frozen block of venison stew. By headlamp, in the late afternoon darkness, we scooped olive oil, turned gelatinous from the cold, into a camp skillet, browned the skinned and butchered hare, then added the thighs, shoulders and saddle to the bubbling, wine-rich stew.
An hour later, squatting outside a glowing tent, we improvised a table from an upside-down enamel pot in the snow, set the kettle of stew on top of it, and ladled out two steaming bowlfuls. Clouds of our own breath drifted through the cones of our headlamps, as we forked up gravy-glazed carrot and onion, and big, dripping cubes of venison shoulder, our forks clanking against the metal bowls with our shivering. We peeled fat shreds of glistening hare from the bones with our brittle fingers, and agreed that there was really nowhere else we’d rather be.
The dish failed every test of Food Styling 101. This was not fine dining.
But it was many other kinds of fine, seated as we were at a stockpot table, under a frozen dome of stars, as guests of that gruffly hospitable country, tasting meat that had been flavored by the willows and cedars rocking in the wind around us, before it had been flavored by garlic, red wine and a mirepoix.
It was a reminder, sometimes obscured by talk of gear, techniques and trophies, that hunting is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. And that end is the table — whether a turned-over cooking pot in a snowbank or candlelit white linen.
A reminder, as well, of what wild game can be when cleaned immediately, cooled quickly, butchered with care, and cooked with gratitude — not just lean and healthy, not just full of Omega-3s, not just ecologically sensible, but to many of us, quite simply, the best tasting meat in the world, and the most complete expression of our connection to wild places.
A local world-class gift
During a recent extended stay in rural France, I was able to observe the hunter-cook connection at its most intimate. One day our neighbor, Jean-Luc, came home with a double brace of snipe from an undisclosed local wetland. He spent 15 minutes in the middle of the street, describing every detail of how he would roast them en brochette, as their long necks swung loosely from his hand.
Another day, I found myself leaning against a truck after a morning’s mushroom forage with two hunter-farmers who would, in their way, fit seamlessly into a Stearns County bar. They were parsing the precise preparation of each type of mushroom in their baskets, arguing heatedly over whether lactaire mushrooms grilled over a vine-wood fire were best served with, or without, a persillade of finely chopped parsley and garlic.
That kind of thing doesn’t happen in the Midwest as often as our game deserves.
Well cared for, the game of Minnesota is a world-class gift. Even a brief tour among its species might lead a culinary traveler past such wonders as seared wood duck breast with foie gras, pheasant cacciatore, cottontail hasenpfeffer, squirrel pad Thai, roast wild turkey stuffed with Honeycrisp apples, sautéed woodcock with chanterelles, a daube of whitetail venison or minted grouse breasts with wild mushroom risotto.
I merely mention these things. Of course, boneless, skinless chicken breasts are fine, too.
From field to kitchen
But let’s be clear. “Well cared for” means you can’t heave a gutted four-point buck in the back of your pickup and drive for four hours through the slush of Interstate 35. You can’t walk trails all day with that morning’s grouse in your vest pocket. And you can’t leave a bag full of soggy mallards on the garage floor for very long and somehow expect to work a little Thomas Keller magic when you get to the kitchen.
Here, along those lines, are some very personal and noncomprehensive rules.
• Warmth in the field is the enemy of taste at the table. Put the gun down for just a minute, O Nimrod Son of Cush, and field-dress your animal right away. Meat lockers are cold for a reason.
• Save the heart and the liver. No, seriously, it’s all concentrated right there. If you just can’t bring yourself to eat them whole, mince them and add their rich flavor to a pan sauce.
• Use really short cooking times, or really long cooking times. Either medium-rare, or braised until it falls off the bone.
• Cook legs and thighs (furred or feathered) long, rich, wet and slow.
• Duck breast looks like steak. Cook it like steak.
• Venison looks like steak. Cook it like steak. That medium-well backstrap medallion that feels like a flexed quadricep and looks like a hockey puck? Yeah, it’s gonna taste like a hockey puck.
• Wine is good.
• Grilling is good (but it isn’t the only way).
Remember: They’ve been doing this for a long time in Italy and France.
They’ve been doing this for a long time in Mexico.
They’ve been doing this for a long time in the hills of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
We can all still learn a thing or two.
Back in the woods
About 400 years ago, a party of pretty quirky Brits, somewhat newly arrived, took matchlocks and fowling pieces and headed into the New England woods with their native hosts. I’d like to think it was a congenial hunt, with flat November light filtering down through the beeches and chestnuts. I’d like to think there were some jocular insults tossed back and forth, and taken the right way, and that there was time afterward to lean against whatever the 17th century had to offer in the direction of a pickup truck, in order to talk over the day’s events.
Such talk, I’m certain, would have been heavy with more or less accurate recountings of soft-footed stalking, sharp reflexes, misfires and cold toes.
But it’s worth noting that history has forgotten the particular exploits of the hunters on that occasion. It has not forgotten the work of the cooks.
Which leads me to the second best wild meal I’ve ever eaten — the tenderloin of a Michigan whitetail, grilled and served medium-rare on an ancient table in a white cedar cabin with no electricity. The chef was a Marquette hunter and friend, who cares to get things right.
There were six or eight of us at the table. Not a particularly sentimental crew. But we did know instinctively what word to use at the end of the meal.
It’s not a bad word to have in mind when thinking about good cooks. Or about the deer you’re eating. Or the snowshoe hare. Or their wild, native country. Or, for that matter, about olive oil and garlic. Or thyme and rosemary. Or chile peppers. Or lemon grass. Or the wanderers who brought such things with them from so far away, and then decided to stay and add their flavor to the communal pot.
At the end of the meal in Michigan, we turned to the cook and said, “Thanks.”
Steve Hoffman is a Twin Cities tax preparer, real estate broker and writer.