Fun with Venison

November 28, 2007
Outdoor Abbatoir, Otis-Brandt home
9 AM

I got the message yesterday afternoon – “yo Lisa – you wanna help me break down a deer tomorrow morning? Bright and early; need you at 9 AM, gimme a call”. When we spoke later in the day, Otis asked me to bring newspapers (as many as you can get), gallon ziplok bags, and a sharp knife. Mentally I constructed the list of the other items to add to my standard kit of Sharpie, pocketknife, digital camera and baseball hat: old clothes and long underwear, incense (I have heard that death smells bad), masking tape, twine, boom box. I also grab two bags of old salad greens for the biddies, and a travel mug of coffee.

When I arrive (just 2 blocks away from my house) Otis has set the scene; the doe is hung from her hind legs on an oversized hanger (which I have learned is called a gambrel) underneath their open-sided carport; there is a blanket hanging to shield her from street view, and a milk crate is lined with a trash bag for the discarded ‘dog’ parts. She has makeshift meathooks through her rear legs, and one front leg is spread akimbo due to a shattered scapula; that’s where the bullet went in.

Otis explains the hunt; he took a tree stand out at Lydia’s parents’ home in Crozet. He waited and watched for about 2 hours; there was a large herd of deer, which startled as he slowly raised his gun to shoot. He dragged the carcass back through the creek and closer to the house before field dressing her – he slit her belly open from beneath the ribcage all the way to beneath the white tail, removing the anus, scooping the guts, and pulling out the edible organs. His estimate is 140 pounds without the innards; that is precisely my weight (including innards).

Otis pulls out his buck knife and starts working at her rear ankles, cutting and sawing at the skin to begin pulling it away from the bones. He explains the importance of keeping the hair off the meat; I watch and snap photos as her toned muscle groups emerge from under the pelt. All the muscles are long, lean and gently rounded, bulging a bit underneath the translucent elastin (which binds muscle to muscle); this layer of tissue makes the meat appear pink, although in my experience fresh venison has a vivid purple color. Her hindquarters emerge, then her gorgeous arching bone-striped ribcage, then her front shoulders (looking markedly different because of the entrance wound on one side – that flank is bloody and a bit torn up, with small bits of bone and tissue obviously out of place). When the Sawzall comes out to relieve her of her head, I busy myself setting up our prep table.

I set up two large plastic cutting boards and bleach the hell out of them; we have a stack of weeklies for wrapping each cut for the freezer. Otis’s carbon steel 10” and sharpening steel are on the table, and at his request I go inside to fetch his great grandfather’s wooden handled meat cleaver. It is the heaviest knife I have ever lifted and probably weighs over 15 pounds. I tie on an apron and expect to get bloody.

There’s half a deer on the prep table and cool jazz on WTJU. I finish my coffee and snap a few photos of Otis handling the carcass and getting ready to rumble. While I can make sense of the parts, and they look vaguely familiar, I am not ready to dive in. The carcass most closely resembles illustration of lamb that I have seen in textbooks and butcher shops; it is markedly different from a beef carcass because of the lean athletic build of the deer and the lack of noticeable fat. Otis has a lot more experience in processing proteins than I do, and I want to watch him and ask questions the first time around.

He cuts the side of deer into two pieces and starts with the front, discarding most of the front leg and focusing on the ribcage, loin and tenderloin. “The ribs really do it for me,” he says as he cleaves them down to a length of about four inches. He hacks through the chine bone that connects the ribcage to the spinal column. He cleans the ribs in much the same way I have seen lamb chops cleaned, although the meat seems to offer more resistance in this mature animal than I recall in little lambs. “Front rack,” he says as he tosses it on the stack of newspaper for me to wrap and label; “Back rack. Loin. Don’t wrap that yet – we’ll put the other one with it”. Deer seem to have 16 ribs; he divides the racks into 6 ribs each and trims off the last two ribs to make it look real pretty. “Dinner for three,” he says on the first one, and I grin because often I am their third.

The back leg is beautiful, and the lifestyle of the deer is very evident in the three distinct bulging muscle groups in the rump. Otis carves out the Butcher’s Heart, which is essentially the top thigh and happens to be the cut that he gifted me last year. I remember the day he showed up at feast! in his chef’s whites on the way to Duners; he carried a lump wrapped in butcher paper and put it into my hand after a hug. In January we ate it, braised and seasoned with juniper, with roasted root vegetables. Today we don’t really have names for the other two muscle groups, so I label them “TGP – The Good Parts”. Good name for a band or perhaps for a supper club. We start on the other side, pressed now for time as Otis is due at work in an hour. I clean up the hind leg as he works the ribs and loin; then he debones the entire back leg and I label it “Party Roast”. It is the size and shape of a round bread boule, and requires some creative wrapping, tying and bagging.

I pull the two macabre rear legs off of the hanger and stack them on the ground; I know from experience that dogs find discarded deer legs just irresistible. I turn on the hose and use the bleach bucket to clean the knives, cutting boards and Sawzall blades. The sun is out and the neighborhood dogs are raising a ruckus; kneeling in the grass in the backyard, I feel as though I am cleaning up the scene of a murder as I wash bits of gristle, blood and fat off of everything. Surprisingly my apron is clean; Otis did most of the butchering and is lightly smeared with blood, but there was none of the violent spurting I was expecting. Also, there was no unpleasant smell; in fact, I would argue that this process was better smelling than trimming out beef tenderloin at Hamiltons’, which was at that time cryovac-ed and smelled like rancid farts when opened. The slight mineral tang of blood was noticeable, and the gamey smell of venison was apparent as well, but nothing unpleasant or off-putting. I go home with a large insulated bag full of fresh venison; Otis goes to work to break down more animals for dinner.

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~ by a local notion on December 10, 2007.

One Response to “Fun with Venison”

  1. What kind and size of blade do you find must useful in the sawzall?

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