Hiding in forested darkness armed with a .30-06 rifle is new to me. As I sit, gun on my lap, snuggled in the roots of a white pine, stars overhead fade into daylight. Chickadees mark the change with buzzing arcs. I wait. I listen. I look. Nothing happens. I think, so, this is hunting.
When we moved to rural Vermont from New York City, we landed next to a house that also had kids. One day the boy came by asking us our names, and if our kids wanted to play. Then he said, out of the blue and much to my surprise, “Do you hunt?” I thought, “No man, I go to the store.” But here I sit, a couple years later, freezing my ass off at my buddy Chuck’s farm, looking for deer.
My path to this spot, just off the intersection of two logging roads, began in the spring of this year. My three kids and I went to help Chuck at Sunrise Farm for the annual shearing of sheep. Our job was straight forward. After the shearer cut their wool off, I was to hold them steady while my kids delivered a thick squirt of permethrin (a deworming product) to each neck. After the medicine, we pushed them to Chuck, the farmer, for a hoof pedicure. Hens perched on the corral rail followed our progress with vapid chicken stares.
Sunrise Farm sits on a grassy flat, bordered by quartzite outcroppings and hilly hardwood forests. The morning sun arcs overhead, greeting the fields, warming meat birds, egg-laying hens, sheep, bees, and organic vegetables. Things rise, things set; and in between, food choices are out in the open, sprouting in lines or strutting and wallowing. Everything here, vegetable and animal, is headed to plates.
My fourteen year old daughter, Anthem, is my chicken-whisperer, a natural, she knows food’s path from field to table. As we wrestled our way through the flock, she asked, “Will the lambs be killed?” She knew the answer. Her question was used to emphasize her vote that killing these sweet animals is wrong. But it’s not that simple. We eat meat.
I am a baker by trade. The cycles of food, the connection between field and table, lambs and sausage, and flour and loaf, resonates with my own daily work of hand-shaped loaves, in-house milling and new interest in sourcing. We are not alone in this movement. Brewers, cheesemakers, butchers, distillers, even coffee roasters–are increasingly interested in the relationship between the source and products of our craft. But killing a deer, sheep, pig, or chicken is not like pulling carrots or grinding wheat.
With meat, moving towards the source is complicated. But I decided, if push came to shove, that I would feel better seeing the reality for what it was–no hidden harvest. So, I decided to hunt. Over the summer I bought a hunting rifle. No background check, no questions, pick one and pay. “That was easy,” I thought as I added a box of ammo to a gallon of milk on the counter at the general store. I passed hunter’s education and was on my way, if not entirely prepared.
So here I was, freezing. After two hours of sitting in ferns, I move to a south-facing slope above the Ottauquechee River. I sit, oblivious to almost everything except the ache of my thawing hands. Then, between bites of a frozen energy bar, I hear movement above me. A sneezing sound (a deer?), and then, more movement, and a doe moving downhill. It’s illegal to shoot a doe during rifle season in Vermont. Another animal follows, but I can’t make it out.What was it?
Quiet returns. I lean against the steep slope, basking in my boredom on a bed of leaves. But then, a rustling movement from below, over the nose of a rise where I can’t see. The sounds continues and get closer, and I see the doe, moving directly toward me, forty yards away. Behind her, I see antlers and confirm it is a legal buck and position myself to shoot (while hyperventilating). The doe makes a right turn and the buck follows, putting him in perfect broadside position. I point the crosshairs of my scope on him. He pauses, I pull the trigger. Dammit. I have the safety on.
Heart-pounding against my ribs, I quickly release it, shoulder the gun, find him in the scope and pull the trigger. A deafening explosion, animals scatter. As the smoke cleared, I was sure I missed.. But, in a matter of seconds, he raises on hind legs and then drops, dead on the steep slope.
I sit, shaking, breathless, overwhelmed, shocked. What the hell have I done? I wait for a bit, confirming that he’s dead, and then climb down to him. I sit on the ground with no sense of accomplishment–no fist pump, no joy whatsoever. I run my fingers through his thick fur, grey- and tan-flecked with snow-white belly, and look into his glassy eyes. I speak something under my breath–an apology, a homily, a love poem.
I text Chuck, and he makes his way toward me from his look-out. We set about the business of field dressing–removing the heart, stomach, and intestines, via a long cut from the base of the sternum to the tail. We can see where the shot entered the chest wall, penetrated the lungs, and exited between the front legs. We leave entrails and organs for the coyotes and short-rope our kill out of the woods. My mood is sober, sad, yet full of adrenaline, but also wide awake, eyes open to the complicated reality. “This is what it takes,” I think.
We hang him on a gambrel in the barn overnight and return the next morning for the first of three days of processing. After pulling off the hide, we use bone saws to divide him into manageable sections. Then we cut steaks, portion stew meat, package roasts. Opting for a cured venison ham, I inject one of the legs with salt brine and pack it in brown sugar, salt and pepper, then wrap it in a pillowcase and tie it tightly with twine to hang. I take buckets of trimmings home to grind in my kitchen.
As the ham hangs, it loses moisture. In early spring I cut off the pillowcase–a slice into the leg reveals a color that has changed from deep red to purple black. The flavor is strong and salty, a departure from the water-added, honey-cured ham available at the deli counter.
We eat the meat slowly. While we like it sliced paper-thin and served on my sour German vollkornbrot, a sturdy rye loaf, with strong mustard, the favorite for all of us, including Anthem, is to use it in a dish of butter beans.
To make the beans I add smashed garlic cloves from Chuck’s farm, butter, a handful of the venison ham, and many twists of fresh pepper to a hot cast iron pan that has its own parking spot on our stove. When the ham begins to color little angels in heaven peek down to see what the hell smells so good. I add cooked butter beans, a little stock, and a splash of apple cider vinegar. Then I set about making biscuits–there will be no beans without biscuits for this Arkansas boy. Like my mother, eyeballing teaspoons in the crease of her palm, I move through the ritual with the familiarity of a catechism and combine cold flour, baking powder, salt, and butter. I slowly add buttermilk to the bowl and mix with my hand, moving in its gentlest gear.
At twenty minutes the biscuits emerge risen from the oven–flaky with golden tops, ready for a dunk into beans or soft butter and molasses. For once the children sit quietly. Our meal–this moment–is our communion. Spoons rise, silence settles.