About this time of year, as the major hunting seasons have come to a close, and ice shelters are popping up on our lakes like mushrooms after a rain, I have more than once heard my wife ask: “How long has this duck been in the freezer?!” Based on how her words are delivered, this might also mean: “When were you planning to eat this duck?”
Labels and dates on game or fish packets in the freezer are a good thing, for obvious reasons. But they can also betray you by revealing how long—sometimes too long—a duck breast or other game has been there. If you think the critique is over, the initial questioning might be followed by an unwelcome observation: “I’ll bet by now it’s freezer-burned.”
Then too, there is the unspoken accusation: “You killed it; why haven’t you eaten it.” When this happens, I have no other plea than guilty-as-charged. There is no adequate excuse for not properly caring for and consuming a wild creature whose life I’ve taken.
Hunters certainly have motives beyond putting food on the table. There are trophy-minded hunters who seek a bragging-rights buck for a “rack” to hang over the fireplace. I have shot ducks that are near the bottom of my gourmet list for their unique feathers that I use in making fishing lures. I’ll eat them reluctantly, leaning on seasonings to mask the fact that it was a bird that fed on fish and snails, rather than wild rice.
And there is always that hard-to-explain reason: some hunt in response to an instinct as old as human evolution. Survival does not hang in the balance for most of us, but an instinct this powerful is not lost over a mere several hundred years of modern civilization.
Despite my good intentions to consume any game or fish that I have harvested in a timely manner, once in a while something gets overlooked in the depths of our freezer, has reached a stage well past its prime, and it takes the nagging of a pesky conscience—or another person in my life—to prompt its preparation and consumption.
One obstacle some hunters face—me, for instance—is being the only member of the family who is enthusiastic about eating some wild game. Over many years I found it much easier to put ruffed grouse on the menu—hearing comments that “It tastes a lot like chicken”—than duck or venison—at those times receiving comments like: “It has a wild taste.” Sometimes diplomacy would fail me, and I would answer “Of course it tastes wild: it is wild!
Even when there were more diners at family meals, when our son and daughter were still living at home, the voting outcome was the same, and I was even more solidly in the minority. That might lead to ala carte dining—just like in a restaurant—with me preparing my wild meal while others dined on a more traditional entrée. Sometimes you have to pick your battles.
Appreciation for the game we harvest should be the rule, rather than the exception. It’s a popular belief that Native American hunters would offer thanks and homage to the spirit of a deer or a buffalo or a prairie chicken that had given its life for their survival. I know I never did that when quick reflexes and a well-placed shot brought down a ruffed grouse or a woodcock, or I dropped an incoming duck into my decoys. But it’s hard to deny the appropriateness of that kind of gratitude.
It’s even less likely—with the possible exception of Thanksgiving celebrations—that we consider the lives of the domesticated creatures that sustain most of us. Who ever thought of thanking the spirit of a Butterball turkey? Or an Angus steer, like the one that gave its life so I could inhale the aroma and salivate while a ribeye steak sizzled on my grill? In our modern world we are distanced from the sources of our food, pushing our grocery carts down the meat aisle while giving little—if any—thought to the connection between the plate and the pasture.
Contrast that with a hunter or angler who participates in-person—even if ritually—in the link between source and survival. We intercept with a hook and line a walleye in a lake’s depths foraging for perch, or waylay with an arrow or bullet a whitetail ambling long a trail to feed in an oak grove on fallen acorns.
In these encounters with wild game or fish we have no surrogate or intermediary who transforms the wild creature into fillets or venison chops. We “do the dirty work,” not only administering the coup de grace, but also the gutting and the butchery.
We’re on the most intimate terms with the life we take, even if we sometimes—and some more than others—may become cavalier about it. We’ve heard that ringneck’s cackle as it bursts out of cattail cover, seen that canvasback’s speed skirting the decoys, or watched a whitetail bound gracefully and effortlessly over a deadfall.
The best way to be worthy of the game or fish we harvest is to care for them properly, prepare them artfully and enjoy them fully. And make sure when you reach for a freezer-wrapped package, you find the one with the oldest date on it!