Long ago, our forefathers—George Washington, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and so many others—could not conceive of the idea of a grocery store. A trading post was the closest they would ever come, but at that time the wheels of socioeconomic evolution were hardly set for supermarkets that allow us to buy everything from meat to butter. Today, we can still live off the land to a certain extent, though many, myself included, are spoiled by the ability to just ordering pizza when cooking seems too arduous a task.
I hardly remember cleaning my first deer, though I know it was around the age my father grew tired of getting his hands bloody every time I pulled the trigger. I have an older cousin, someone I’ve long looked up to, who I link to the memory of cleaning the first one by myself. It was one of those rare mornings in southern Tennessee when snow rested freshly upon the ground. If I recall correctly, Robbie was in from Monterey, California, where he was stationed in the Army. He’d killed a large doe shortly after daylight.
He said he couldn’t remember how—I missed the smirk on his face—and asked whether I would mind just getting it started. In my youthful eagerness I dove right in, ready to impress anyone who cared to watch and listen, much like a surgeon being examined by medical students. “Cut out the anus, run your knife along the belly, tip-up, unless you have a gut hook. That’s the heart, those are the lungs, how about those tenderloins?!” You know the process.
By the time I’d gotten the skin peeled back, and the carcass was just a few cuts from being emptied, I realized I’d been had. Everyone had left me alone without my realizing it and there wasn’t anything left to do but finish. From inside the warm cabin came faint laughter and only after my anger subsided did I complete the job. With quiet satisfaction, I peeled out the tenderloins to have for myself at a later date. A lesson learned (perhaps for both of us), albeit a necessary one. It’s times like these when a boy moves just a little bit closer to manhood.
Many of us have even started processing our own meat—burger, cubed steaks, sausage. I’ve made all our burger for the last several years and it turns out delicious. Of course, I can control the addition of beef and/or pork fat and bacon ends. I think it makes some of the finest grilled burgers I’ve ever had. Grinders are relatively cheap and most butchers can’t get rid of their excess fat quickly enough. Store the meat in vacuum-packed, plastic freezer bags. Paper is a thing of the past. Be leery of any processor who still uses that ancient technique.
Even in modern times it’s not such a bad thing to rely on other aspects of the land for sustenance. Does my garden grow gluten? I’m not sure, but when was the last time you picked and ate a tomato right off the vine? Today, tomatoes are a staple in my daily diet—in salads (aprese!), on sandwiches, salsa, bruschetta, or just sliced with a little salt and olive oil. I’m not sure I would eat tomatoes like I do were there not a garden right outside of my back door.
Preparation isn’t so bad—like a slightly scaled-down food plot—if you don’t mind sweating a bit, perhaps some back pain the next morning. Working topsoil and fertilizer into the earth, creating furrows and working on hands and knees, praying for rain and watching the plants grow and sprout make eating the vegetables all that much better. Seed is rather inexpensive. Buy them once, harvest from your vegetables to dry, store, and reuse—or get them from a neighbor.
At the end of the day, the work all done and nothing left to do but enjoy the evening, a couple of backstraps sizzling on the grill, I can’t help but think how lucky I am to have been raised an outdoorsman. I honestly hope we never witness the day when we must rely entirely upon the land to survive. That would be going backwards. But should it ever come down to it, long after grocery stores have closed their doors for good, I can bet that you and me won’t do so bad.
Image by Josh Wolfe