It was 1999; before cell phones, before e-mail was something you checked more often than you showered. A blog was slang for the blood left on a log after draping a fresh, ropy tenderloin on it. We were clumsy carnivores, still peeling off the last layers of 1990s-era vegetarianism when my husband announced he wanted to start hunting.
During that first hunt, I stayed in town trolling the local bookstores for a butchering manual – one that explained where the brisket resided, how to remove it from the animal, and how to cook that particular hunk of meat. I bought Saran wrap and butcher paper, and stared up at the mountain yin yang of dark spruce/yellow aspen, my mind like a ball of yarn in the wind unraveling endless questions.
After upsetting an employee at Gardenswartz Sporting Goods by naively asking if the prized and tender elk backstraps would be good for stewing, I returned to four bloodstained game bags deposited into our freezer. There was a cryptic note reporting that the cow elk my husband shot should be “pretty good eating” and that he was back in the woods helping his buddy Dave get an elk. The stories lodged in those two sentences nagged at me for the next three days until the hunters returned, blood dried in the cracks of their hands.
That first elk, which turned out to be very good eating, was fourteen years and twice as many animals ago. These days, any animal under our sharpened knives is cause for celebration. We clear our weekend calendar and gather supplies and friends. The coffee hour easily blurs into the beer hour and we all get a pleasing little bit of butchering carpal-tunnel.
While my usual work is herding cats (children) and squeezing words out of a recalcitrant mind, butchering is blissfully straightforward. When you get down to the smooth, white plane of a scapula, you’ve finished a shoulder (front leg). Anything that isn’t pure ruby meat gets sliced away and returned to the woods (or fed to chickens or dogs). Backstraps and tenderloins become steaks, hind legs are roasts and the piece-work of sinewy shoulders goes to the pile to introduce to the meat grinder. When you shut the freezer door on a deep well of white packages, you are done. Bring on winter.
There are many competent meat processors who will turn your animal into tidy, ready-to-eat packages. For approximately 85 cents per pound, you can keep your hands and kitchen clean of blood and preserve your weekend. But what do you miss?
Matt Clark, backcountry coordinator for Trout Unlimited, who lives outside of Mancos, says that butchering the elk and deer he hunts offers a sense of completion and satisfaction to the whole cycle. And the weekend-long work that tastes like celebration doesn’t hurt.
“We play lots music, body parts all over the counter; everyone helps,” says Julie Ott, who butchers elk, hogs and chickens with her family.
Emily Reynolds, who processes the chickens she raises in Bayfield, says about killing and preparing her own birds for eating: “It’s my personal time to thank them for giving their life to us. Plus, it’s so easy,” she adds.
The work of home butchering, like many DIY projects, is a learn-as-you-go process, both forgiving and self correcting. If you’re chewing and chewing and still chewing a steak, it’s probably actually a roast, which requires a long cook on low heat. If your burger is threaded with silvery tendon that you feel compelled to spit surreptitiously into a napkin, someone needs to retake the class Meticulous Trimming 101.
Everyone agrees on a few salient points. How the animal is treated after the kill (get that meat cooling; remove entrails with the precision of a surgeon, keeping bladders, intestines and other “loaded” viscera away from meat) is a large predictor of future culinary success. An ultra sharp knife is imperative (spending $3 on professional knife sharpening is the best $3 you’ve ever spent). When slicing steaks, cut against the grain for maximum tenderness. Remove all dirt, spruce needles and hair from the surface of the meat. Mind your colors: trim the white (fat) and silver (connective tissue), preserve the red (muscle). Keep your work space cleaner than clean.
Beyond these rules, meat processors follow their own individual tributaries to the ocean of good eating. The Otts, a ranching family living in the Animas Valley, turn most of an elk into sausage, with four different flavor profiles. The blend is 60% elk, 30% pork, 10% pork fat. And these amounts are not approximate.
David Lyen, retired hard rock miner living in Cortez who has hunted since he was fourteen (a mere 55 years ago), puts half his elk to hamburger, which stands pure. “I’m not going to contaminate my good wild meat with some cow fat,” Lyen says. Because elk and deer are naturally lean, for most people adding fat to burger enhances flavor and sizzle factor. (We’re partial to sausage with James Ranch pork fat and a lively spice mix.) And where a juicy roast is part of our every holiday meal, grind (sausage/burger) is essentially a “thaw and there’s dinner” option, which smoothes out the wrinkles of a busy weekday night.
For some hunters, aging their meat is the holy grail of grass-fed meat (grass-fed meaning every succulent green plant an ungulate can get its mouth on). David Lyen asserts that hanging elk and deer creates wild meat more succulent “than a New York steak.” While some of us (read: our family) see the hind legs of an elk or deer as a series of roasts, tenderness unlocked by the cooking tempo of slow and low, David Lyen sees properly-aged hind legs as steaks waiting for the sizzle of the grill.
Matt Clark concurs. “I can cut almost any roast out of an elk [that has been hanged] and it’s nearly as tender as a tenderloin.” Clark hangs his elk and deer in a friend’s meat locker (at 39F) for 2-3 weeks, until “there’s a polka dot-like bloom of mold on the surface of the meat.” (This you cut off completely; though if you hang with the hide on, the spoiling takes place within the hide, which you simply strip off, losing less meat).
Clark explains that the enzymes naturally present in the animal begin breaking down the muscle, effectively tenderizing it. Aging meat was once a standard practice in the beef industry. Now that most cattle are corn-fed and raised in crowded feed lots (less movement = more tender meat) coupled with the American belief that food should be cheap (hanging = time, time = money), this practice is mostly obsolete. Clark adds, “Hanging meat also improves the flavor, toning down what people consider the gamey taste of wild meat.”
Alternatively, a wise wild game chef can “age” a cut of meat in the fridge for several days after defrosting, or in a long marinade which tenderizes and flavors the meat.
David Lyen hangs his meat for a minimum of fourteen days in his root cellar turned “meat house” at 50F. “The meat does not spoil,” he says, though he does keep watch for hatches of maggot eggs laid by flies out in the field.
Maggots and spurting entrails and blooms of mold? On the new reality show, You Think You Can Butcher?, the squeamish get eliminated first. Gunther Ott, 20 years old, who grew up raising, killing, butchering and eating farm animals, says this practice has helped him appreciate what it takes to put meat on the table. Incidentally, when he eats out, he chooses vegetarian. For Emily Reynolds, who dispatches approximately fifteen chickens each year, killing and processing her own meat helps her “have a deeper respect and understanding of life, from living and breathing to sharing it at the dinner table with friends.”
My own children, who literally cut their teeth on wild meat, know that if we’re lucky, a couple weekends each fall are spent elbow-deep in a carcass. My daughter Rose’s job at 2 years old was to bring cast-off scraps to our chickens (who, despite some impressive 21st-century marketing, are not herbivores. Not even close). And my son Col got more tangible writing practice labeling meat packages one fall than in a year of kindergarten. For us, the whittling of meat off a bone while autumn seasons the air with crispness is as much an annual celebration as any national holiday.
This fall, we hope to star in, once again, the Salvador Dali surrealist painting Butchering Family. Here you see whimsical bodies holding knives, beers and enormous mammal haunches. Children come in and out of focus, sometimes helping, sometimes simply absorbing life lessons which will be apparent many years later. Musical notes swirl and bounce. Sweet tender niblets fly off the grill into ready mouths. Everyone is smiling, their hands busy.