The Gift of Game

Central Pennsylvanian ladies know what the smell of juniper berries means. Some are more keen on it than others. 

A new tradition fuels year-long motivation 

by Teresa Mull

I’m not sure if there’s an official rule for how many times something must happen for it to be considered a tradition, but I’ll lobby for twice. This Christmas, you see, was the second consecutive holiday get-together (the first being this past Easter) that involved two of my brothers preparing as a feast for our family the venison I collected the season before. I’ve experienced similar satisfaction and delight when people I love have enjoyed food my mother and I grew in our shared garden, but the gift of game is different. 

For one thing, it isn’t readily available in most grocery stores; and for another, retelling in dramatic detail at the dinner table the spellbinding story of how you spotted the big buck, strategized, tracked, waited, aimed, and in my case, missed the first time, only to stalk him the next day and pull off the perfect shot, never gets old (for the teller, anyway).  A tale of plucking an inert pepper from a plant ages more quickly. 

Last Easter, the brothers conspired to create a traditional Scottish venison pie with a hunk of shoulder meat. They’re culinary types who like to research recipes and track down special ingredients—a practice I don’t partake in unless asked to look for juniper berries or some other peculiar item when I’m at the store. Yet being peripherally aware of the planning and preparation, especially as it gets more involved (who knows how to measure in millimeters? should we buy a tub of lard or just use butter?), adds to the suspense and significance of the meal.

Sharing the gift of game with others is not only good manners, but also tactical where terriers are concerned. 

By the time this year’s Yuletide rolled around, we’d eaten all but the ground venison, and so my imaginative brothers compared shepherd’s pie recipes and crafted an entrée that made me understand why Robin Hood and his merry men would risk death to shoot the king’s deer. Though I had almost nothing to do with the chopping, measuring, mixing, sautéing, simmering, or baking the boys did in the kitchen (I did keep them company!), I felt more a part of this dinner than dozens of others in the past. My siblings ribbed me about the freezer running low on venison (I had a harried and unsuccessful couple of days hunting this year) and about certain “artistic liberties” that may have cropped up since last year in the re-re-telling of the big buck story. I teased them back, of course, for having to rely on their little sister to bring home the bacon (or perhaps in this case, the tenderloin). 

Terriers know better than most that things taste better when they’re wild and caught. 

This Christmas also brought to our family deliveries of canned venison and venison jerky from hunter friends happy to share their bounty. Sharing game, I’ve found, is a way of gifting a piece of the adventure and also the sacrifice of the hunt—the bleary-eyed early mornings and long, freezing-cold, silent sitting, the pain of which fades when the meat is on the table and the mount is on the wall. All that remains is the memory of pulsing adrenaline, the pride in a task well executed, and the pleasure of being able to impart a delicious portion of the exhilaration with those you love.  

Passing the time in a Pennsylvania hunting blind requires gallons of hot, strong coffee, and for the unarmed, reading material. 

The memorable meals are what have made the hunting experience most meaningful to me so far, and I feel motivated in the coming year to keep this young tradition going. And who knows? Perhaps one of these days I’ll even take on a more central role in the cooking than that of taste-tester, though I’m of the mind that stories are the best seasoning for any dish. 

As Teresa Mull strives to become a more accomplished hunter-gatherer, she’s also plotting what sort of game will challenge her brothers’ gastronomic talents the most.