feature By: Bob DeMott | October, 21
Food preparation – defrosting, seasoning, trimming, marinating, stuffing, simmering – ramped up exponentially in the days just prior to the event. Some guests arrived at the door with entrées ready to be served or warmed in the sideboard chafing dishes; others prepared their dishes or finished their final flourishes in my kitchen, already crowded to bursting on the appointed night. But that was the fun of it, the intimacy and camaraderie of the event, the back-and-forth banter that follows a call to all-hands-on-deck. Together we chopped, diced, filleted, tossed, braised, roasted, baked, broiled, sautéed, poached and fried as if we had just invented cooking. The stovetop burners were ablaze, the oven was cranked up; outside on the patio or deck, the charcoal grill cast its scarlet glow, waiting for some chef’s next cut of meat or, in my case, whole woodcock roasted quickly over live flames or the latest iteration of a charcoal-fired quail recipe.
As the years drew on, however, the reduced number of birds in the bag required expedient measures of parceling them out to the assembled diners: halved grouse glazed with apricot, honey and rum grilled over coals, for example; halved grouse doused in Frangelica and rolled in hazelnuts and dried cherries; and split grouse breasts blanketed in puff pastry, à la Wellington-style. The latter was the most challenging offering of all, and despite its labor intensiveness, somewhat disappointing because the pastry shell never attained the airy lightness I had hoped for. Instructions for that dish are pasted in one of my hunt journals as a reminder of what not to do and to remind myself I am, after all, but an amateur chef and to think otherwise is folly. I am the first to admit that not every dish measures up to the epicurean yardstick of Jean Brillat-Savarin, Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters, Hank Shaw or Gordon Hamersley.
We went full bore into the bounty of the moment, gave full reign to our appetites and ate and drank with a gusto not normally seen in our work-a-day existence. It was a moment away from our ho-hum daily lives, our nine-to-five routines, our domestic intrigues and dramas and a culmination of months of activity and planning.
Guests enhanced the celebration. Alaska writer John Haines, a longtime friend and occasional teaching colleague, always brought wild-caught Copper River salmon and regaled us with stories of his homesteading days in the northern wilderness when he had to hunt to survive. (In an essay, “On Hunting,” from his 1996 book Fables and Distances, he wrote warmly of our game dinner tradition.) Another friend, a poet and musician who fished more than he hunted, always brought Lake Erie walleye and white perch fillets breaded and baked perfectly and now and then a scrumptious walleye gumbo that drew its share of raves on cold winter evenings. Another pal contributed a generous platter of dove breasts and sautéed chanterelle mushrooms in an Alfredo sauce over homemade egg noodles. At other times, we were warmed by a guest’s morel and barley soup in a sherry-infused broth and another year by hearty snapping turtle chowder.
One regular, who was a gifted road kill specialist, contributed rattlesnake medallions, without question the most unusual dish of all and surprisingly delicious, though there was strenuous debate whether they tasted “like chicken.” Other nights we were treated to hors d’oeuvres of spicy, cornmeal-coated wild pheasant fillets from a recent Iowa hunt, a silky smooth bluefish pâté from a fall trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and several ample tins of caviar smuggled through customs from a trip to Moscow. My thinly sliced woodcock breast and trail sautéed in Worcestershire or Pickapeppa sauce with capers and spread on toast points was a perennial favorite as a prelude to our main courses.
One memorable evening, a hunt companion’s pan-seared wild turkey breast, basted in farm butter, extra virgin olive oil and fresh sage was so exquisite, so perfect in its utter simplicity and acorn-fed plumpness, that it immediately went to the top of my all-time list of greatest entrées. Another dish that gained enthusiastic adherents was my roasted quail, each stuffed with a Spanish Rabitose Royale chocolate fig bonbon and basted with fig balsamic vinegar. Even the “too gamey” contingent found the latter two offerings delectable and the source of pleasurable epicurean effects.
I never hunted big game and instead have depended on the good offices of friends and acquaintances for that kind of provender. One guest, a university colleague of mine and a poet of some repute, invited his sporting buddy from Maine, a giant of a man, who cradled a large cast-iron Dutch oven wrapped in burlap on his lap during the flight from Bangor to Columbus. The pot contained his moose stew, and it was a glorious, one-of-a-kind exotic hit. One of my lifelong friends and hunting companions, a man I have known since we were grade school students in Connecticut, contributed caribou backstraps from his Canadian outing. Of local venison there was always plenty to be had, either by barter or by gift. Via FedEx, a Montana friend overnighted numerous cuts of elk; another pal in Nebraska sent antelope sausage and antelope chops and loins from his successful hunts. To my taste, the latter are the sweetest of all wild meats and the simplest to cook: salt, pepper, butter, extra virgin olive oil and a hot cast-iron skillet create unadorned sublimity. His antelope gift became the centerpiece of a small game dinner I hosted for Jim Harrison when he visited in 2002, and we were celebrating the publication of our interview book, Conversations with Jim Harrison, toasting heartily and often with several bottles of Lulu Peyraud’s “blessed” Domaine Tempier Bandol, one of Jim’s favorites.
Cuts of elk lent themselves to a variety of presentations – accompanied by a warmed sauce of Stilton cheese and chopped walnuts or a blackberry sauce made with fresh fruit and Chambord. Other times I used elk steaks to make braciola, one of my favorites, based on my grandmother Philomena’s beef recipe: thinly pounded and tenderized elk steaks layered with a mix of ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses, parsley, pine nuts, coarse ground pepper, the meat then rolled and tied with butcher twine, seared in a cast-iron skillet, then steeped until tender in homemade San Marzano-style tomato sauce with fresh basil and Italian parsley. Served with a side of risotto or polenta, it always drew compliments. One spring, when I had several grouse left over from a successful season, I entertained novelist and sportsman Richard Ford, a visitor at my university’s annual spring literary festival, with a grouse dinner. He later wrote the foreword to Afield: American Writers on Bird Dogs (2010) that I co-edited with my longtime friend Dave Smith. I like to think Ford’s agreeing to do so had something to do with the unexpected wild bird dinner, not the usual fare visiting writers expect at straight-laced literary confabs.
When the nature of my seasonal bird hunting in Ohio shifted from ruffed grouse to woodcock, so did the game dinner. It has morphed into a more measured, less raucous affair, partly because all its principal actors have entered their golden years. Now I think of it – informally anyway – as “the woodcock dinner,” even though a couple of dozen woodcock are not the only fare and are augmented by catch-all game pies and slow-cooked, brown ale game stews. The current menus include Madeira-infused woodcock pâté and whole roasted woodcock without the head (as some hardcore Europhile gourmands demand) but with skin on (to take advantage of the succulent, tiny legs). Also, woodcock baked in a covered dish on a bed of fresh fennel and chestnuts, whole woodcock flambéed in cognac and – simplest of all – whole woodcock cooked a few minutes under the broiler, unadorned except for a pinch of salt and pepper. Accompanied by a Lirac or a Côtes-du-Rhône from Domaine de la Mordorée, the result is exquisite. (Mordorée is the southern Rhone Valley’s local poetic nickname for woodcock, which the winery’s founder loved to hunt.)
The guest list, too, has changed. My lineup of reliable hunt companions has dwindled over the decades, and only a few of the long-standing veteran attendees – Mark, John, Lars, Ron and their wives – still show up to share the spread with my partner, Kate Fox, and me. Now, with fewer hunters in my home circle, there are fewer hands adding to the pot, and it is less of a joint-stock undertaking than it once was. Now and then, one or two casual hunters throw in, and several years ago a couple of my university colleagues joined the roster. Neither one hunts, but both are superb food writers and skilled gourmands who appreciate the rarity of our hunted and gathered dishes. Both they and their wives are deliriously fond of woodcock and understand – as we all do – that wild birds rooted ineluctably in their geographical terrior are a delectable rarity, a precious commodity, because they are untouched by genetic engineering and cannot be farmed or pen raised, cannot be planted for harvesting on pay-to-shoot game preserves, cannot be purchased at whatever cost at the trendiest market or restaurant in America. Woodcock, birds of dank earth and ambient sky, deserve to be lifted from the plate and eaten by hand, “without knife or fork,” as Audubon once suggested, in order to savor the full succulent flavor of their soulful richness.
That’s the unique, one-of-a-kind, labor-intensive bottom line, the moment of consummate appreciation, toward which hunting has led me and many others as well during the past half-century. “The primacy of killing,” the incomparable Guy de la Valdène says in The Fragrance of Grass (2011), “has been replaced by a love of the process and all its intricacies.”
Bringing game home from field to table plugs us all into the larger motions of the self-sufficient locavore movement. Sitting down at table together to share our bounty and our memories from days afield creates a respite from and a counter-balance to the homogeneity, artificiality and banality of some aspects of contemporary existence. That in itself is worth the effort and reason enough to praise the wild table, then and now.