Deer Camp

My husband took these photos while waiting for dawn to arrive on the morning of deer firearms opener. At this moment I was at home sitting on a wooden stool in the kitchen, chaperoning the dripping coffee, ears peeled for shots.
 My husband’s deer stand sits on the edge of what we call the little field, a one-acre plot in the middle of our land. Fifteen years ago we had it plowed and disked for planting, but this field has foiled our every attempt to yield something harvestable from it. Potatoes, squash, plum trees—even horseradish and its taproot of steel—all have failed, probably because this is a high-traffic wildlife area. A couple of well-stamped deer trails feed into the field and a few others thread out of it. I imagine that the deer approached our fledgling crops with the same sense of entitlement you have when you walk up to a sample lady at the grocery store; that is, with the feeling that this tidbit is your due. With minimal thanks.
This explains why we now just mow the little field. And because we’ve given up on the hope of planting vegetables or fruit there, we figure that venison might be the only thing we’ll ever harvest from that space. So it seems to be a good place for a stand.
Around 10:00 on the morning of the opener my husband saw a large doe and immediately recognized it as our almost-pet driveway doe. She and her teen offspring have been standing next to the driveway and watching our comings and goings with extreme puzzlement since early summer. I’d slow the car and the mom would cock her head and lock her big doe eyes onto mine. Minutes would pass, seconds heavy with cross-species inquisitiveness. I’d roll down the back window and tell our four-year old, “Look! She’s staring at you! Talk to her!” He rarely bought it but would usually holler at her to please me. I would coo to her and she would stare back at me with a face that said, simply: “And who are you?”
This is all to explain why my husband couldn’t take a shot at her or her offspring. I was relieved to hear this, as I had been thinking about how she’d fare during the hunting season. My husband called his friend who was hunting the south side of our acreage and told him he saw Driveway Doe—and then his friend came and shot her. Hey, it’s firearms season, and no deer are safe, not even quizzical (possibly brilliant) does. Although I do think that in a pre-cell-phone era she probably would have made it out of there alive.
By the end of the day all four hunters had filled their tags, one for each, thus wrapping up the hunt but  just launching the meat fabrication process. Some people drop off their deer at a meat market to be cut and trimmed and made into sausages, but we like to do it ourselves so that we can control the quality of the meat from start to finish. Also, we enjoy suffering through the ritual of trimming cold meat on a cold board while standing in the saturating fall wind. This is part of it, too.
That evening while the boys strung up the deer, I held dinner and started to flip through my charcuterie books, dreaming of venison sausage.
I like this photo of my friend Luisa with Todd, one of the Bruse brothers. Oh, what shall we do with the livers and hearts? Trim and bag them of course. Deer liver (the bruisy looking thing in the foreground) is surprisingly delicious.
That evening we ate cubes of deer liver fried in a cast-iron pan with lardons, rosemary and sherry, duck saltimbocca, spice-rubbed venison tenderloin, rutabaga and almond souffle, green beans with caramelized onions, a green salad, and for dessert (as if we needed it) I tested a recipe for my upcoming book, a pie gifted to the project from two South Dakotan/now-Brooklyn pie-makers, a marvelous Black Bottom Oatmeal Pie. (Think pecan pie filling with a deep chocolate bottom and toasted oats in place of the pecans.) It earned a resounding thumbs-up from everyone at the table.
The next day our front yard was transformed into an abattoir. Thanks to my outdoor wok burner we could keep a simmering pot of hot water going, for sanitation and also for warming iced-through fingers.
They began at dawn. We all feasted on bear and bock stew for lunch, and chocolate chip cookies, and by nightfall the operation moved inside. Using Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s excellent Charcuterie as my guide I made 25 pounds of fresh sausage: 15 of Sweet Italian, 10 Merquez. I would have made more sausage but my supply of fresh fatback and pork butt was limited. Next year I’m stocking, though.
This looks chaotic, but we have stations: Cryovacking, Trimming, Sausage-making, Sausage-grinding, and KP.
Long after the roasts and loins and bulk sausages were bagged and cryovacked the grinding continued. Ground venison is extremely lean and a bit sweet, and I find that it goes very successfully anywhere that ground lamb goes: into kefte, moussaka, pilaf. Ground venison gives bolognese sauce an exceptional advantage, something dark and haunting and actually far better than the same sauce made with beef, pork or veal (or a combo), as is traditional. The Bruse boys, who will take much of this home, also tend to cook a lot with ground venison.
At the end of a very long day we have the great divide, aka, who gets what.
Aya, look at the bounty! I couldn’t fit the entire length of the meat-scape into one photo so you’ll just  have to trust me, there was more. We all dove on the sausage so it’s clear that we need to train our focus on that next year.

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