This time of year, thousands of natural-food enthusiasts are prowling through New Hampshire’s forests, rifles in hand, hoping to obtain the most ecologically-sound meal possible.
What meal is that? Wild venison: the muscle and fat from a deer you’ve recently killed and hauled out of the woods.
There is no food you can eat in New Hampshire which is better for our environment – not mushrooms plucked from the forest floor, or soup made from your backyard chickens, or the applesauce my family and friends create every year from our own apple trees using a hand-cranked strainer with the delightful brand name of SqueezO.
All those meals do little or no damage to the environment. But eating wild venison does them one better: It actively helps the environment.
Deer have become a blight on our landscape. There are too many of these hosta-devouring quadrupeds in most of New Hampshire which is bad for our forests (the understory has been altered because all the tree seedlings get eaten), bad for our driving (everybody knows somebody who has hit a deer with their car), bad for human health (Lyme disease ticks, need I say more?) and bad for my garden.
So killing and eating a wild deer or two makes things better than they were before. Not even the SqueezO strainer can say that. (ADDENDUM: After this column ran in the Monitor, a reader pointed to Hanover’s efforts to get people to limit deer damage, including invitations to hunters.)
If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post food columnist and author of “To Boldly Grow,” a delightful romp through the pleasures and perils of growing, killing and gathering your own food. I encountered her through a Post column titled “Venison is the most eco-friendly food on the planet if you hunt the deer yourself.”
Haspel and her husband began hunting as adults solely to get food rather than for sport. Haspel argues in her writing that it’s not only good for the planet but is good for us because it restores connections that have been hidden by the plastic-wrapped processing of supermarket life.
“That distance can harden us. From not seeing, it’s just a hop, skip and jump to not caring,” she wrote in that column. “Killing an animal closes the distance. I can no longer eat meat without thinking about its animal of origin and the life it led — and that makes me selective about the animals I eat and careful to waste as little as possible.”
The column led to an invitation for Haspel and her husband, who live in Cape Cod, to come hunting on my property. They visited last month to scope out good locations and eventually decided that a stand-alone apple tree was the perfect natural deer lure.
Alas, work got in the way and they had to cancel. Since I’m not a hunter, my eco-terrorist herbivores are safe.
Their brethren aren’t, however, since New Hampshire’s firearm season for deer – by far the most popular of hunting seasons – started last week. It runs through early December, marking the end of three months of deer hunting in New Hampshire that started with bows and arrows.
Last year, hunters using all types of weaponry killed 8,103 male deer (bucks) and 4,448 females (does), a total take that’s on par with recent years. That’s a lot of deer but it probably won’t keep the herd from increasing.
Most deer hunters eat at least some of their kill, although finding somebody to butcher and prepare the meat can be tricky. One of those processors is Joe Lloyd of Hopkinton, who can take a deer brought in by a hunter after they’ve registered it at a check station and turn it into food within an hour or so.
“I think most people are very excited about getting the meat, from snacks and jerky (to) cuts of meat. It’s basically taking the place of whatever they’re buying at the grocery store,” he said.
Lloyd, a licensed supermarket butcher who does deer on the side at his own facility, said he can usually turn 45% to 50% of a carcass into various cuts. The guts should be left in the woods as a source of nutrients to other beasts.
Lloyd adds a proviso that the yield requires the hunter to have properly removed the deer from the woods and carted it to the butcher in time.
“They have to be diligent about getting it cooled down, and haven’t dragged it through swamps and puckerbrush,” he said. Shot placement is also important: “Every time you pull that trigger, you’ve spoiled part of it.”
Venison is lean, since deer are not corn-engorged cows who spend life standing in a barn, and cooks have to compensate for modern tastes that are used to fatty meat (a lot of venison recipes sneak in some bacon). It can be done, however, as is shown by the popularity of Wild Game Dinners and the fact that New Hampshire Fish & Game sells a cookbook called “New Hamshire’s Wild Eats.”
It is illegal as a general rule to buy wild venison because of long-standing health and safety rules, made more important by the chronic wasting disease that keeps edging closer to New Hampshire’s deer herd. Killing farm-raised deer doesn’t have the same environmental benefit so if you want the blue ribbon for eco-beneficial red meat you’ve pretty much got to be a hunter.
As for me, I write about deer hunting every year and every year I feel guilty that I don’t participate. Haspel describes people like me this way: “Understanding that venison is the single most responsible food you can eat will take you only so far in the decision to pick up a weapon and shoot Bambi.”
Maybe 2023 will be the year I’ll finally take hunter safety classes and get my license. Then I can head out in a frosty pre-dawn to the overgrown field where Haspel found more deer trails than there are Class 6 roads in Concord, and try to do my bit to improve the Granite State.