It’s Spring Break!
It’s Spring Break!
Saturday, March 18, was what the song refers to as a “beautiful day,” and so with nothing else on the household agenda, I decided to get out and collect some safari images from around Magnolia.
I was pleased to find in the mail today a book I ordered online, one I haven’t read in years. Cave Passages: Roaming the Underground Wilderness is by my friend and journalism mentor Mike Taylor, who teaches JOU and a variety of other writing courses (as well as advises the campus newspaper) at my alma mater, Henderson State University. Mike is one of the most talented and skilled writers I know, and he’s also that rarest kind of writer: the published kind, as his two books, Cave Passages (1996) and Dark Life (1999) can attest.
I first met Mike in 1991, the first day of class in … Mass Media, I believe it was. It was my first day at Henderson and Mike’s, too. I was seated on the front row of class; I didn’t really know anybody. I’d moved into a house my uncle had generously loaned me, rent-free, for the school year, and I was … well, on my own. I’d spent two years as a general assignments reporter at the newspaper in Hope, Ark., I’d won a couple of statewide newspaper prizes, and I thought I was pretty big shit. What I needed, though, was more than a co-worker and more than a friend. I needed a mentor. Enter Mike.
He swept into class wearing a gray blazer and tan slacks, his hair slicked back yet windblown, as mine often is. He had a stack of books under his arm and a cup of coffee in his hand. (“Coffee” quickly became his nickname among us Gen-X punks in the newsroom.) I instantly knew, in that strange way that happens only once or twice a decade, that he would become one of the most influential people in my life.
I decided to walk up and introduce myself at the end of class. (I had a rather high opinion of myself.) Mike had just finished lecturing on inverted pyramids and such like, and how they should be avoided in writing. I, having just completed two tours of duty in what they call the “real world,” knew better – the inverted pyramid was indispensable for getting one’s point across without bogging an article down in … so-forth and so-on. We had a debate right there after class, then agreed to go to lunch and talk about it some more. I don’t think a day went by for at least the next three years that I didn’t have a conversation with Mike about writing, art, journalism, newspapers, magazines, travel, adventure, movies, music, or women.
Mike quickly became mentor, pal and father-figure to a bunch of us mere boys who wrote and edited the student paper. We’d have late-night bull sessions while putting out the weekly paper, hang out at lunch, etc. Mike owned (as he still does) a vast library of books on travel, caving, etc., and he did his best to share these with me and inspire an even deeper love of literature (fiction and non-) than I already possessed. He had no interest in seeing me continue my career in newspapers – he wanted me to become a freelancer for magazines.
I could understand why, though I never followed through. The money was (generally) better (if spottier), and the travel and writing opportunities were spectacular. He’d been to China, Jamaica, Asia, Hawaii, and written about all these places. Even after he started teaching at Henderson, he continued his writing career on the side, generating these two books less than 10 years into his tenure. He was more than a teacher, more than a storyteller. He was, and is, a craftsman and an artist – if you don’t have the patience to fashion a story, what good is there in having one to tell? He understands nuance and style, pacing and tone, and to read one of his stories is to plunge into a master class in the nuts-and-bolts of writing.
Mike always says to add a human touch to the most technically difficult of stories, and so in Cave Passages we get a paragraph where he and some photographers tour a remote cave in China and then climb out, singing a Monty Python tune. They trek to a nearby village for some pepper omelets. What kind of omelets? Pepper omelets. It’s the little details that sell a story.
He can also tie a physical description together with a scene of deep personal reflection, describing even a handful of pebbles with such precision that, well, you’re there, looking at those pebbles right alongside him. That is a hallmark of Mike’s: you forget you’re reading.
I’ve been trying to recapture or re-gather books that were lost to me over the years by relocation or other nefarious means. This is actually the third or fourth copy of Cave Passages I’ve owned, but I’m determined not to have to buy any more. This one hits too close to home; I was around when Mike was writing it, and it’s a huge part of my personal connection with Henderson State.
Dark Life, his second book, means even more to me, because I’m named in it. During the spring of 1999, Mike asked me, incredibly, to proof his manuscript of the book while it was in draft stage. He was making corrections and sending them off to his editor at Scribner. It was a great privilege helping him, and I got not only one but two mentions in the acknowledgements.
I reordered Cave Passages via Amazon, but Dark Life (my first copy of which I sold to a book store in Dallas about 15 years ago) came back to me a different route. My wife, a biology professor at Southern Arkansas University, inherited a copy of the book from a retiring mentor of hers. I showed her my name in the book, which was on her shelf, and we marveled over the coincidence. Today it sits on my shelf in Communications, next to its brother. I have no plans to part with them.
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.
I’ve made images of the bridge quite frequently this past fall, and each time, there’s something a little different about it. I took this one on a winter afternoon, when most of the leaves had fallen off the trees, and I like the stark yet still colorful look of the scene. Almost any time of year, this is a lovely spot.