Into the gory throat-hole went six chopped-up deer.
I had never participated in the processing of animals, so I jumped at the opportunity when I learned that my father- and brother-in-law would be cranking out several pounds of venison on January 2nd. I didn’t kill any of the deer, but for my assistance, I was paid in as much meat as my family and I can eat. That’s a pretty good deal.
Still, I first had to deal with all the grinding, cutting, burbling and spewing of fresh, bloody deer meat, a conversion known as “processing” that’s normally handled by a third party. The Taylors, however, who are nothing if not do-it-yourselfers, bought their own processing equipment a few years ago, and for a day each year transform their kitchen into the equivalent of a butcher shop.
As an outsider to the whole world of deer hunting, I thought it would be interesting, at the very least, to lend the boys a hand. My background as a journalist enabled me to step into this unfamiliar scene, take it all in and figure out what was going on. This time, however, I was made a full participant, and what began for me as an experiment ended about seven hours later, after I’d put in what amounted to a full day’s work. I didn’t mind. I’d learned how the “sausage is made.”
I have to admit, I sort of invited myself to the party. Larry and his son, Larry Jess, were rounding up volunteers – sons and grandsons – for the project. I stuck my hand up and they gladly accepted, though there was an air of wariness … to be honest, I had bailed out on them a couple years ago, and I think they wanted to see if I’d stick to my end this time around. I did.
I couldn’t imagine what to expect, but the whole thing turned out to be quite straightforward. The Taylors had stored their meat for the past couple of months in various coolers and fridges and now had it ready to be processed. Larry, my father-in-law, had purchased a medium-sized grinder, along with a scale and several professional knives and other stainless-steel accoutrements, to render the meat into A) hamburger, B) sausage or C) steaks. This is what is known as “venison,” but in our neck of the woods it is called merely “deer meat,” and so that is the term I will use.
First item on the day’s agenda was to find the dildo necessary to force bloody chunks of meat down into the grinder. I say “dildo” because that is exactly what the instrument in question resembles; indeed, its use is similar. (I’m sure the item has a proper name, like “the stobber” or something, but hey, for all purposes, the thing is a dildo.)
Because the missing item was vital to stuffing meat in a hole (ha), a replacement was needed, prompting a quick trip to the local sporting goods store. As such pieces are not sold separately, a dildo was taken from a box on the shelf and loaned to us for the day. We all wondered whether the meat-tainted tool would actually be returned to the store – “don’t they know we used that?” – but we indeed returned the dildo, slightly damaged but thoroughly sterilized. That’s what you call service.
Raw deer meat was dumped into a tray atop the grinder, and, using the dildo, I fed the meat one clump at a time into the “throat” of the machine. It would jam and clog or develop air bubbles that would occasionally spew blood and/or fleshy rivulets in my direction. Twice I had to stop and clean my glasses or wipe detritus off my face. The floor would later require a good mopping.
Stringy threads of meat resembling red angel hair pasta issued from the blade-end of the grinder to fill a large bowl. I stood my post, mentally zoned out as my arm performed the necessary stuffing motion. I tried not to think of Bambi hopping innocently through the woods, its flesh soon to become this bubbling pile of carnage, its blood to drip and run and ooze. I soon learned I had no problem dealing with this aspect of food production … that meat doesn’t magically materialize like manna, that the clean and blameless, cellophane-wrapped packages at Walmart require someone on this end of the business, brainlessly plunging a dildo into a hole.
Once the bowl was full – containing to 12-14 pounds of deer – the meat was dumped into an ice chest. Once that was full, we began grinding a different kind of animal by-product: beef and pork fat. The fat was then dumped into the deer burger and mixed by hand – by me – so that it could all be reprocessed, resulting in the ultimate desired outcome: ground deer, perfect for hamburger patties.
The project required, of course, the wearing of latex gloves, lending the proceedings a very NCIS-type atmosphere. (“Bucky, do we have any A-1?”) I can’t help but think the health department would have approved … maybe. I certainly used enough hot, soapy water to sear away any bugs.
Three times, the ice chest used to temporarily hold our ground meat, required cleansing, and three times, I trekked off to the bathroom shower to get the thing clean. I quickly discovered that my father-in-law has THE HOTTEST tap water in all of Magnolia. As I bent over the rim of the tub, aiming the gushing shower head into the cooler, I could feel the rising heat. There was enough steam coming out of that sprayer to keep clean my pores for a month. Any water that contacted my skin got a holler out of me. I told Larry how hot his water could get, and he gave a little smile and said, “Yeah!” (As in: Duh!)
It took about four hours to accomplish all the grinding. Three of Larry Jess’s sons sat at the kitchen table, wrapping the burger meat into packages to freeze. We had a regular Mad Butcher shop going. (Mad Butcher, by the way, was an actual franchise in Arkansas back in the mid-1970s; it made an indelible impression on me, with its commercial images of a fat guy holding a butcher’s knife, a crazy grin on his chubby face.) Several times, we had to stop and disassemble the machinery, which would become clogged with meat. I should have been more disgusted than I was – the sight of all that ground meat pouring out of that grinder was more than a little unsettling – but I kept thinking, if you like food, this is a necessary link in the supply chain.
Probably my least favorite chore was mixing in the fat (necessary to hold the patty together during cooking – venison is particularly healthful in that it is one of the leanest meats you can eat). I would plunge my hands into the cooler and rotate 30-40 pounds of ground meat, working in the fat, blending the pink in with the red until it was all more or less one blob. Then this would be fed one clump at a time into the grinder. You could have reassembled one whole deer with the amount of meat that rolled out of that machine.
Next were the steaks, made from the backstrap of the deer, which required converting the grinder into a slicer. This produced about 20 pounds of steak, which was also hand-packaged by the kids and stashed in Larry’s deep freezer. I was surprised to learn that venison, properly wrapped and stored, can last up to three years. I don’t know that I’d want to eat three-year-old venison, but year-old? I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Wine also ages well.
There was enough deer left for about 10-15 pounds of sausage, which Larry made by simply adding seasoning to taste. As his unofficial sampler, I got to make the call on the amount of seasoning, and I have to say the stuff tasted great. My payment at the end of the day: two pounds of ground meat, three or four packs of sausage and a couple of steaks. Not bad at all.
We scrubbed and mopped the kitchen when we were done, and I left with visions of deer chili in my head. I’ve got a hell of a two-alarm recipe that includes red wine (for the meat), honey barbecue sauce, bell peppers and chopped onions. I wouldn’t mind processing again next year … though once a year is enough.