Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Deer Butchering Ordeal or Another Thing We Won't Be Doing Again Soon

Sometimes I have bad ideas. When Jess shot the deer this fall and I thought we should cut it up ourselves, that was one of them.

It wasn't just any old deer, it was the mythical Monster Buck of the Brook Road and it dressed out at 168 pounds, second biggest to check in at Coburn's Store all season.

I had first seen The Monster Buck four years earlier when he and a girlfriend ran across the road on the last afternoon of rifle season. We were on our way to the hardware store, but I threw it in reverse, bundled baby Harley in the backpack (the older boys were with my folks) and Earl hatched the plan. I would walk the ridge line on the far side of Field B and try to give the buck a reason to turn left into the thicker woods. Earl would get his gun and take the truck to the end of the road and head in on the snowmobile trail. We were out the door in less than a minute, all oranged and excited, but all we found were hoofprints that were so far apart they must have been made by a mock-speed deer who crested the ridge before we took a step in his direction.

We'd seen him a few times since then, with his distinctive curved rack, standing in the road the day after hunting season, proud and defiant. In the middle of Field 19 in the middle of the summer, enjoying the alfalfa we grew just for him. Under the apple trees on the hill, feasting unafraid. The rest of the Brook Road hunting community had seen him too, and talked about him in the guarded, give-nothing-away manner of hunters, mushroom gatherers and bargain shoppers everywhere. He was the deer that was too smart to get shot and everyone wanted to be the one who was just a little bit smarter.

Well, not everyone. I might walk a ridgeline on a little mission to help Earl, but when it comes to actually seeing a deer in the woods, I'm thinking Bambi more than supper. It would have been fine with me if the monster buck continued to entice and thwart the hunters for the next decade. The thing is, though, that the La Fleurs were after him too, in force, and it got to be important that that buck end up hanging in our rafters, not theirs. I'm not so keen on the La Fleurs because the patriarch once, inexplicably, called Earl lazy for taking a nap at the end of a 100-hour work week and because they drive on our fields and road hunt.

My sister, KJ, and her husband, Jess, live in Shelburne but they spent ten years in Jackson, Wyoming and Jess spent a lot of his time fishing and elk hunting around Teton County. Now they have 9-acres and see the occasional deer in their woods, but it's not the sort of place you could have a Hunting Adventure, so they've come down to the farm for the first weekend of hunting season since they moved back East. I make what I think are hunter comfort foods and KJ and I discuss the great issues of the day while kids run around. Jess and Earl don't usually hunt together, but they make plans and compare notes and share what they see.

The first day of hunting season was wet and miserable, but they went out anyway, to no avail. The second morning started with a deluge, but then they thought it was starting to taper off and Earl and Jess went into the woods to be between where they thought a deer might want to spend two days of rain and where they thought he might want to go when it let up. And Jess was right.

I heard the pop around seven-thirty and got the kids up and dressed in case there was hauling to be done. Earl came back when he heard the shot from Jess' direction. By eight they were on their way to pick up the deer on the Ranger, Cliffy and Jackson squeezed in the middle of the bench seat. They gutted it in the woods and brought it back to hang in the heifer barn.

The rest of the story should have been that we bled it out, loaded it into the truck and brought it to Hill's Meat Cutting to be picked up week or so later, cut and wrapped. But the Hills didn't answer the phone and we were hesitant to drive all the way to Fairlee with my not-unproblematic pickup.

So I suggested we cut it up ourselves. I have this new kitchen in the slab (this area in the house that in a house that wasn't built by hippies in the 70s would have been a garage, except that it's never had any cars parked in it and for the previous ten years was mostly a home for chest freezers and spiders). It's not fancy or anything, but it has a big 3 X 6 worktable, an electric knife sharpener and an industrial meat grinder left over from when Earl's mom butchered all their meat when he was a kid. I'm a girl who gets excited about having the right tools for a job and I like to use them. Come on, I told them, we can do it! Isn't it part of the primal experience? How long could it take? With three of us working? (Three of us meant me and Earl and Jess. It's pushing KJ's comfort zone to take a chicken out of its package and extract the little bag of innards.) They weren't convinced and still thought the Hills would call back, so Jess and KJ went home and the deer hung from the rafters. Turned out later that the Hills' plan for not getting too much work in a year when Clint has a new baby was to not answer the phone for a few weeks and only take drop-bys.

So six very cold days later Jess drove down and we had a cutting-up party. Sort of. The problem was that the deer was frozen, so Earl thought maybe if he put it in the unfinished outer room on the slab that the radiant cement floor would thaw it.

And so the deer hair entered the house.

For three hours, the boys rolled the deer every twenty minutes, to almost no effect. When Jess and Earl went to skin it, the task involved vice grips and much swearing. They tried to be really careful, but when the big hunks of meat came off the deer, they had hair on them, and what should have been a fifty-minute job of slicing steaks and grinding burger instead became a four-hour hair-removal project. Earl seemed to think that the hair would dissolve into its essential proteins in the meat grinder, but I was dubious. I know my little sister and one deer hair would be a deal breaker for her, so I dutifully pulled the multiplying-under-my-eyes strands off every bit of the wet meat that passed before my eyes and intercepted several batches that Earl had deemed good enough for the grinder.

There's not much more to say about it. It sucked. And it sucked for a long time. Earl left to do chores and I had to put Oliver down for a nap and Jess was so demoralized by the project that he was unable to carry on in my absence. Finally, at almost six, Jess loaded his measly beer box of meat and the still-frozen deer head (for possible taxidermic mounting if my sister relents) into the back of the truck and headed out, no doubt hoping he wouldn't have anything to do with me or my great ideas for quite some time.

Later that week, I took the car to get its oil changed. As I did my best to keep Oliver and Harley amused and out of trouble, I happened to see a flier taped on the door. "Got a Deer?" it asked, and listed the prices for cut and wrap services on different-sized animals. 155-170 lbs. was seventy-five dollars. Seventy-five dollars? Jess bought lard, freezer paper, and freezer tape and drove about 170 miles in a big truck back when diesel was through the roof. I just started to do the math, but I had to stop when I got to us having paid thirteen dollars for the privilege, never mind the other work that didn't get done.

And then there's the deer hair. It's February now, and I'm still finding hairs. In the venison jerky we made. On my sweaters. In the bottom of the toy box. Between the couch cushions. In Oliver's diaper.

Our beef supply is getting low and soon it will be time to put one of the steers in the freezer. When I mentioned to Earl that maybe we ought to do this ourselves, he looked at me like I was crazy. But you know, I'm a terminal optimist, which Earl defines as persistence in the face of overwhelming evidence that success is unlikely. But I've got this great table, a knife sharpener and an industrial meat grinder. And I figure we've learned a few things. The cowhide, for example, would not enter the house.


Michelle said...

I'm sooo glad I was eating nothing to do with animals while I read this entry. It had everything: neighborhood intrigue and competition, blood and guts, "terminal optimism" and tools. Sounds like Vermont to me!

Loved it!

Anonymous said...

This is a delightful story!
I'm in the neighboring town of Chelsea, I know about home- butchering and how the first round can be real difficult. Gotta say, I applaud your effort.
Most folks never exercise what it's like to live as if they are qualified to live on the planet. They've never been midwife for a person, or an animal. That's part of being qualified... They've never grown a garden, harvested it and put it by. That's part of being qualified.... And they don't know what it's like to kill a big animal, get it home, and transform it into food. That's part of being qualified, too (if you decide to be omnivorous).
Hey I think you ought to wear that deer hair like a badge; maybe not the stuff in the diaper....