I’ve been following Jack Landers’ blog for quite a while now, enjoying his mix of politics, firearms and hunting. The last article I read that he wrote was a hunting review of flashlight, which is a special hunting device that gives the best visibility for night hunters like me. Last fall he started offering a class for locals in Charlottesville about locavore hunting: those who want to get their food locally in a sustainable manner. The ultimate in free-range, no hormone or CAFO-raised meat? Well, in this part of the country, that would be whitetail deer. And that’s what the hunting class is set up to discuss. Two jam packed days of deer history, anatomy, ecology, gun safety, field butchering, cooking and more.
I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy venison or be able to handle the butchering. Could I actually take the responsibility of a start-to-finish approach to the meat that I eat? Walking into Wegmans or Whole Foods or Giant and picking up a steak is easy. It’s clean. It’s prepared. You don’t even see the old style butcher shop half cow hanging as they worked on it. Would this push me towards a closer relationship with the food I eat or turn me into a vegetarian-biased eater?
The goal was to leave Charlottesville after these two days confident that I could go out and actually harvest a deer with my new Thermo Gears and take responsibility for it at some point next hunting season. So after my gig at the 9:30 Club on Friday night, I packed up my car with my clothes, camera and Winchester Model 70 rifle and headed down to Charlottesville.
(Warning: some of the photos inside show the butchering process)
The class was a mix of people from all walks of life. There was the cinematographer and cooking aficionado from Brooklyn, the marine from DC, The orthopaedic surgeon from Richmond and his son (a student at Brown), the anthropology student from GWU and a local guy from Albemarle county whose occupation I did not catch. Starting at 9am we reviewed a year in the life of a whitetail deer in the Virginia area and also discussed their massive population boom since the 1970s. Most predators of deer in the eastern woodlands have been removed since then and now we have the problem of too large a herd of deer. This means one thing in a bad winter: starvation. There simply isn’t enough vegetable matter that contains the nutrients (protein and calcium) they need to survive the winter in those numbers.
The First Day
Jack started hunting and eating venison for simple economics: he needed to feed his family consisting of his wife and two children. Having grown up in a partially vegetarian household, he wanted to confront eating meat head on and take responsibility for his actions as a meat eater.
After going over extensive information about our quarry, we turned to firearms and firearms safety. Most people in the class had some experience with a firearm, but I was the only one who owned and brought a hunting rifle along. We packed up the van and headed out to the George Washington National Forest rifle range for lunch and some target practice.
Jack’s friend Paul joined us at the entrance to the Forest and shuttled us up the almost impassable road in his Jeep. We started with everyone shooting ten rounds through a .22LR Marlin. .22LR (for Long Rifle) is a small bullet, not capable of taking a deer (nor legal to do so) and has very little recoil. It’s a perfect round for everyone to get accustomed to the concepts of shooting. We fired five rounds from a bench rest and five standing offhand.
After that we moved over to the larger caliber rifles, they’re also using scope leveling tools for better accuracy. Most were either chambered in .308 or .30-’06, which are both significant rifle calibers capable of taking almost any game east of the Mississippi. Everyone got a chance to see how well they could do at 100 yards and 150 yards on standard targets and life sized deer targets. The important thing is to ensure that you hit the right part of the deer as to avoid any undue suffering and ensure a quick kill. After a long (and cold) afternoon out at the range, we headed back into town for a night of relaxation.
The Second Day
The next day started with more class time, discussing tactics, tracking, public land hunting, and things that can go wrong in the hunt, as well as contingency plans to handle those events. We then headed out to a nearby location to participate in the butchering of a deer that had been shot that morning. Instead of relying on the luck of a hunt or for roadkill from the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the class worked on a deer from a local deer farm in Charlottesville.
This was where I believed I would probably lose my lunch, but instead it was not difficult at all. The smell was no worse than a barn or the zoo and we each took turns skinning and butchering the animal. Jack teaches a method to actually harvest the entire deer in the field, and not have to carry back a whole carcass. We harvested the entire deer, taking some of the meat that was not ideal for human consumption to turn into dog food.
One of the class participants took a small piece and tried it raw, and most of the class (not this guy) followed suit. Jack stated that was a first for his teaching career and also declined to partake. Note: When the guy running the class says “no thanks”, I follow suit. You can see more extensive photos of the butchering process in my Flickr set for the weekend.
We returned to Charlottesville and went up to a commercial kitchen to prepare dinner of that day’s harvest.
The only other time I’ve eaten Venison in the past was on a Boy Scout campout years ago. It was over cooked, tough, and tasted funny. The taste was explained by Jack as lazy butchering. If you leave the deer hanging for a few days in your garage, it will not taste good. This meat that we harvested that afternoon was delicious and sweet and very similar to roast beef in texture. It exhibited none of the taste that I associated with “gaminess” in the last venison I tried.
After a nice shared meal everyone cleaned up and then headed back to their respective place of origin to become another of the hunters who want to be responsible for their own food. This was not about “Trophy Bucks” or things of that nature, but simply of getting closer to the harvesting and processing of the meat that we eat.
Jack is looking at offering future classes, and you can follow his blog, read more about hunting and contact him at rule-303.blogspot.com/.