Full Hearts and Full Coolers
With Fall in full swing, my mind keeps drifting back to deer camp. Every year for the week after Thanksgiving, I join my dad and a handful of our friends in Central Pennsylvania to hunt white-tailed deer. Last year, I killed a nice one, and cooked some memorable meals from it around a fire in the woods. Here is the story of my trip...
...There wasn't much time to weigh my options. A group of five deer had charged into valley I was looking down into, and two of them were large-bodied bucks. They slowed to a trot as they approached my treestand and then split up, one buck and two doe went up the hill to my right, and the other buck and doe went up the hill to my left. I raised my rifle and swung left, finding the buck's front shoulder in the scope.
"Braaappp!" I'd seen countless hunting TV shows where the hunter makes this vocalization meant to mimic a buck grunt, in hopes that the animal will stop moving just long enough for a clean shot. This was the first time I'd ever tried the move myself, and just like on TV, the deer stopped and looked in my direction.
I squeezed the trigger and the buck jumped and ran about 20 yards as I quickly racked another round into the chamber. When he paused a second time, I fired another shot just behind his shoulder. I was confident the first round made a good hit, but I didn't want to take any chances. After the second report rang out, I watched the buck stagger some 15 yards further and crash hard into the ground. He was down.
The next breath I released was a very shaky one. The surge of adrenaline that comes when you're about to harvest a big game animal often causes full-body shakes in people, known among hunters as "buck fever". After a few more deep breaths, I unloaded my rifle and climbed down out of the stand. The deer was lying about 90 yards away, peacefully still. It was clear that he was dead. I walked slowly over to him, processing the events of the last several minutes. Before tagging the animal, I knelt beside him, laid my hand on his fur, and thanked him. He was beautiful. His antlers were wide, three points on his right side, two on the left. I felt an immense wave of gratitude for the animal, for the woods where he lived out his days, and for the many meals that would come as a result of his death. I would soon have a very full freezer.
I texted my dad, who was hunting further up the mountain, to let them know I'd had a good morning and could use some help to get my deer out of the woods. Soon I could hear him motoring down a trail headed my way as I busied myself gutting the deer. I separated the heart, liver, and the caul fat from the rest of the internal organs I'd removed, and placed them in Zip-Loc bags. I was already planning meals out in my head as I dragged the heavy animal toward the trail and the waiting ATV. The three of us then took a long, careful ride down the mountain to where the trucks were parked. My dad drove, I rode behind him, and the deer rode up front, splayed across the cargo rack. When we got to where the trucks were parked, we hoisted him into the bed of the truck and headed for The Butcher Block Custom Meat Company, where owner and butcher Ben Rojik and I went over all of the different cuts that I wanted, including roasts, shanks, and whole backstraps.
Once the arrangements were finalized, we headed back to the deer woods. I still had a tag to hunt black bear my pocket, but I was much more concerned with preparing a lunch of fresh venison heart over the campfire than I was with finding a bear. After all, I wasn't entirely sure my mini freezer in my apartment back in New York could even accommodate all the meat from my deer, let alone another hundred or so pounds of bear meat!
I love cooking over an open fire. There's something primal that awakens in you when you're preparing a hunk of meat to cook over the coals. This lunch was my first time cooking venison this way, and it did not disappoint. I trimmed and sliced the heart the way Danielle Prewett from Wild and Whole demonstrates here, and did a simple sear in my cast-iron skillet with some salt and pepper in butter. While the meat was resting, I sautéd some chopped onions.
Once trimmed, heart flattens out and can be cooked just like a steak.
My dad and I shared the meal together by the fire, eating it with our knives, as I'd forgotten to pack forks. We talked about life, about how lucky we were to be there together having this meal. He was scheduled to have a very risky operation the following week, and I couldn't shake the feeling that this might be some of the last time we got to spend together. If that would have been the case, there isn't another thing in the world I'd have rather been doing than passing the time around that fire with him.
It's a little gruesome, but roasting your deer's head is a great
way to use up parts of the animal that are often discarded.
The following day, I had more ambitious plans for our campfire lunch. Ever since seeing my hero Steven Rinella cook a mule deer head in the ground covered in coals, I knew that I had to try doing the same. So after I got a rip-roaring fire going, I set to work carefully skinning the head of the deer. There's a shocking amount of meat on a larger deer's head that is perfectly edible, but typically doesn't ever meet a fork and knife. I intended to honor this beast by eating every edible part of it, and cooking the head like this seemed like a great way to do so. After wrapping the head in foil, and then in an old t-shirt that I soaked with water, I laid the head in a pit over a bed of coals, and covered it in dirt. Lunch would be ready in about three hours, but I had two small appetizers that I had to tend to in the meantime.
I figured I would be on my own for this one, but I somehow I talked my dad and our hunting buddy Junior into trying a bite of testicle with me. If there are entire festivals dedicated to eating these delicate orbs from cattle, then surely these Pennsylvania Mountain Oysters wouldn't be that bad. And they weren't! In fact I'd even call them tasty. The texture was spongy, which I wasn't expecting, and that was apparently the factor that caused both my dad and Junior to both spit theirs out. Fried in butter, they have a sort of bacon-like flavor. A bit nutty, even! (Sorry, I had to.)
When it was finally time to dig up and unwrap the main course, I was hungry and excited. It felt like opening a present on Christmas, I had an idea of what was inside, but in terms of the cooking, I wasn't quite sure what we were going to get. The meat on the head smelled delicious, and the first few bites were incredibly smoky, albeit just a little chewy. In hindsight I should have let it cook a bit longer, and kept the fire going a little hotter above the pit, as the tongue and the inner meat was a bit rare even for my liking. But this wasn't a problem, as I simply sliced and cooked it a while longer in the skillet. It's the woods-equivalent of microwaving your undercooked chicken.
As I rode the bus back to Manhattan with my two coolers chock full of frozen venison on the seat beside me, I reflected back on the week with a full heart. I wouldn't trade the the time I spend in the woods with my dad and our buddies every year for anything. While I'm sure it's probably a lot of fun to chase after Dall Sheep in Alaska, for me, hunting white-tails on a farm a few states over from home is about as good as it gets. I only see most of the guys I hunt with here once a year, at camp, but when we see each other it's like no time at all has passed. I can't wait to get back there again this season and see everyone. And it's a good that time of year is coming up soon, as I'm almost out of venison. Hopefully not for too long.