By Aaron Prater
I enjoy hunting game, and look forward to it every Fall. Although I am a hunter, that doesn’t mean I’m an evangelist trying to convince everybody to adopt hunting as a way of life. Nor am I such a dedicated enthusiast that I would douse myself in animal urine to hide my scent from my prey. Instead, every November I am just a guy in the woods with a gun, taking in and enjoying the flora and fauna around me. And that is the main appeal about hunting for me: being outside and communing with nature.
I got back into game hunting about six years ago, and wouldn’t really consider myself a veteran of the woods since I choose to hunt only whitetail deer. I am, however, a part of a recent upswing in the purchase of hunting licenses; an increase I see amongst my friends, stories I have read, and out in the field. When I started hunting again there was only one other hunter and I on the land we use, but for the past three years we have had to create a schedule of alternate weekends because more and more people want to participate. It is a novelty to many of the new faces, some are there for the delicious and sustainably acquired meat hunting provides, and for others like me it is a culture I grew up with.
For my 12th birthday, I was given a shotgun to hunt squirrel and rabbit, but at some point during high school I lost my taste for it. After serving a stint in the military, hunting still didn’t seem all that exciting or appealing. What brought me back to the desire to hunt was the food. I don’t like killing simply for the sake of killing, for a trophy to show off. That kind of hunting is something I have never liked, but using the entire animal shows my respect for that animal and that I value its sacrifice. I honor it by enjoying its taste and by hunting sustainably; without taking more than I need or will use, and preserving the environment around me. I find the act of field-dressing my hunt to be rewarding and the opportunity to enjoy a meal knowing exactly where each part came from is immensely satisfying.
As a chef, I try to use every part of the animal. The hide is even donated to a local artisan who tans his own leather. I make stews and dry cured sausages and keep the bones to make venison stocks and consomme. I love the taste of venison, particularly from those animals which graze on farmers’ grains and have a very mild flavor without gaminess typically associated with venison. My wife has even declared it to be her favorite red meat and was very disappointed when I didn’t come home with a deer last year. Hunting season has also become a time that I’m able share and trade with friends; there are several folks in my circle who have neither the desire nor the opportunity to hunt, but are curious to try food that isn’t typically available.
Wild game is honest and without pretense. It has no hormones or antibiotics, no coloring added, and no adverse impact on the environment due to the animals’ rearing. My personal feeling is that sustainable food is very important and, while it is becoming more prevalent in our city, we are still a long way from widespread good-eating using this method. Hunting is one path that can provide affordable, high quality protein for many of those looking to reduce their reliance on factory farmed meats and other processed products. Hunting is a clear reminder of what it means to have fresh meat on the table. Meat hasn’t always come perfectly portioned in little black Styrofoam trays, wrapped in cling film. Meat wasn’t even always around: animals are seasonal, and hunting out-of-season can have deleterious effects on both the health of the species hunted and on the species doing the hunting. A cut of your own game was, and can still be, an occasion for pride and enjoyment shared with those you care about.
If you don’t like cutting up the whole rotisserie chickens on sale at the supermarket, then hunting an animal may not be for you. I don’t expect everyone to hunt and I am still not going to douse myself in urine or dress up like a tree, but I do look forward to the falling of leaves and the brisk mornings of November, and the taste of food that I have gotten for myself and others.
With more than a decade in the hospitality industry, Chef Aaron Prater has specialized in both food and beverage. He currently teaches culinary arts at Johnson County Community College. When not eating or drinking, he is planning to.