From Michigan’s famous Deerfoot Lodge to one of Maine’s oldest deer camps, the Skulkers of Seboeis, the annual game dinner always prevails as the intended high point of any legendary deer camp. The game dinner is both a celebration of the harvest of wild meat and a friendly, but intense, culinary contest: who can outdo the other guy in conjuring the tastiest and most savory preparation of a wild dish.
Over the years, the Skulkers of Seboeis, which celebrated an amazing 51 years this fall, have at their game dinners eaten just about any wild meat available in the state of Maine. Frankly, there are gustatory highs and lows when a man, who really has no place in the kitchen, tries to fake it as a cook. No matter how much butter he uses.
The least appealing wild dishes for me have been pan-fried beaver burger, sauteed gray squirrel and the most dreadful of all: a vile turtle soup that was the pride and joy of Maine’s fabled outdoor newspaper columnist, the late Ralph “Bud” Leavitt.
Surprisingly tasty wild dishes were raccoon pie and deep-fried frog legs.
During the 51 years of sampling these wild dishes, two stand out above all the rest, for my taste. A number of years back, one of our fellow Skulkers, Dana Young, formerly of Hampden and a schooled chef, created a bear meat loaf that was truly awesome. And this year, a Skulker recruit, Josh Cottrell, smoked a venison shoulder that was memorable, a prize winner in any game-dinner contest. After applying a dry rub, and dry smoking in his electric cooker with game-blend wood pellets for three hours, he placed the roast in a covered platter with water and assorted veggies and slow smoked for another four hours.
Talk about tasty, tender and moist! The meat had the texture of pulled pork and was every bit as tasty as pan-fried back strap, if not more so! Looking back over the years, I regret making deer burger of venison front shoulders rather than smoking them. No longer will I underestimate the advantages of smoking wild meat.
John Cartier, in his book on cooking wild venison, writes: “Smoking is a time-honored cooking method. Wild meat is smoked to impart flavor from local species of wood. Smoking is also a valuable technique in the fight against fat. Like steaming and grilling, it is a no-added fat cooking method.”
My late grandmother, a superb cook, had a habit of always washing her cookware as she cooked, to avoid the Awful Pile, the post-meal collection of dirty dishes and food-encrusted oven pans. The weekend chefs among Skulkerdom, in more than 50 years of game-dinner productions, have never been similarly disposed.
Dish duty on game dinner day is a deer-camp sacrifice like no other.
But once the dishes are done, those who have partaken are reminded that the annual game dinner is a special, time-honored ritual and an integral part of Maine’s historic hunting heritage.
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]