Killing What You Eat
The other night I made the best meat loaf I’ve ever had. It took just a few simple ingredients: ground venison, tomato sauce, onions, eggs, several pinches of salt—all of it mashed together by hand, then baked for an hour in a pan. The flavor that emerged was rich, complex and wild.
It took me five years to make this meat loaf. That’s how long I’d been trying to kill a white-tailed deer. For a few days every year, I’d head out before daybreak with a shotgun or a bow. I was Elmer Fudd—clumsy, obsessive, always outwitted by the animals and the elements.
I had never killed an animal that large. Years ago I occasionally worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and Long Island, so I’ve killed thousands of salmon, crabs and bottomfish. I’ve killed rats, too. Plenty of them. When I was 19 and 20, I worked in a carpentry shop, and at one point, we had an infestation. Those gray devils darted around like they owned the place, and I was assigned to pour rodenticide around the room. But until recently I had never deliberately hunted a magnificent animal on its own turf. That’s something that has always been appealing to me.
I grappled with my motivations: Why kill a deer? Partly, it’s that I love the woods, and this was a good excuse to get out there, a bow in hand, to enjoy the silence of sunrise. Hunting, too, somehow seemed to like a supreme way to demonstrate competence and survival.
I also wanted to understand more about my relationship with the food I feed my family. Whatever you think about hunting, to eat beef, pigs or chicken is to participate in a form of industrial agriculture that’s cruel and mechanical. From birth to death, the animals experience little beyond gruesome fear. As a farmer once told me, his job was just “to turn vegetable protein into animal protein.” It made him sick.
The politics of hunting deer are, of course, complicated. There are more deer in the U.S. now than ever, in part due to conservation efforts. As Time magazine’s David Von Drehle put it in a recent cover story: “The same environmental sensitivity that brought Bambi back from the brink over the last century now makes it painfully controversial to do what experts say must be done: a bunch of these critters need to be killed.”
And yet here in Washington, D.C., some of my neighbors are so awed by the grace of these animals that they’ve gone all the way to federal appeals court to stop the Park Service from culling the growing herd in Rock Creek Park. About 20 miles away, in the city of Fairfax, where there’s also an overabundance of deer, the city council has banned hunting. Instead it hired a company that will capture and sterilize deer, at a cost of $1,000 a head. (The fees are donated by a nonprofit group.)
As I set out to hunt, I told myself that at least deer get to live in the wild their whole lives, unlike the animals killed in factory farms. And when I shoot one, it would simply be over. And yet a part of me wondered whether this was just a cold rationalization; whether I was really motivated by curiosity and bloodlust.
Hunting in any state requires a license, and to get one, the first thing I had to do was take a hunting safety class. These classes came about because of the number of hunters who shoot one another or kill themselves by falling out of trees. It’s not just old men like Dick Cheney, who once peppered his hunting partner with a No. 8 bird shot. A husband in Michigan recently shot his wife during a hunting trip. Not long thereafter, a 50-year-old man was fatally shot as he tried to climb a tree in Alabama. In Virginia last year, another man was found hanging from his tree stand, a device that helps hunters climb as high as 25 feet to avoid detection. The list can go on.
Much of the hunting class, which I took in Charles County, Maryland, was contemplative—almost philosophical. “The mind,” one of my instructors mused, “can make you see what it wants you to see.” It’s not hard to imagine what he meant. After hours of hoping to see a deer, the brain tends to identify bushes, shrubs and people as prey. In the dawn hours, numerous hunters have blasted away at what they thought was a deer, but was really a hiker, another hunter or a tree. John Steinbeck, in his travelogue, Travels with Charley, wrote about a man he knew who profited from hunters’ mistakes, collecting lead from a tree stump that looked a bit like a deer. “He nailed a pair of horns to one end and then retired to his cabin until deer season was over,” Steinbeck writes. “Then he harvested the lead from the old tree trunk.”
The bulk of the class was about the ethics and responsibilities of hunting—something that may surprise those who’ve never trekked around in the woods with a rifle. In my class, an instructor explained that the ethics of hunting dictate that if you shoot a deer and there’s blood on the ground, you have to track down the animal and put it out of its misery. This wasn’t some stricture to be winked at. There was no penalty for ignoring it—but failing to do so, the instructor implied, would simply make you less of a human being.
The first time I went hunting, I didn’t know what I was doing. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been out there with a gun. It was December 2008, and I was in woods in King William County, Virginia. I had paid about $125 to a guide—an old-school hunter with a pack of beagles, which would, in theory at least, chase the deer my way.
For most of the day, I sat on a knoll in a hardwood forest with a shotgun on my lap. Watching. Waiting. I couldn’t stop fantasizing about how I would roast the tenderloin. Would I wrap it in bacon, perhaps? Or maybe cook it with mushrooms? In between daydreaming and checking my Blackberry, I suddenly heard the delicate sound of hooves crunching over dried leaves. I turned, and about 80 yards away, right at the creek, I saw a doe. But by the time I lifted my gun to my shoulder, she was gone. She was the only deer I saw that day.
Gradually, my shooting improved. I practiced whenever I had the chance. Modern compound bows, with their system of pulleys, are extraordinary. They have trigger releases, unlike traditional bows that require you to pull the bowstring back with your fingers. They also have a sophisticated aiming system with front and rear sights, and stabilizers to keep the bow steady as the arrow flies off the arrow rest. “If the Indians had had compound bow technology,” a hunting instructor quipped during my class, “American history would have been something entirely different.”
As I became more accurate, I scouted deer trails that looked like good hunting spots. I also bought a hunting stand. Unfortunately, I never got close enough to kill a deer. Most of the time, I never even saw one. I waited for hours. I saw foxes and squirrels, wrens and chickadees. Even a wandering hiker, who probably scared away the magnificent animals I was trying to kill.
One recent morning, I sat in my hunting stand as the tree swayed in the wind, and I felt like I was sitting high up in the mainmast of a large ship. I was freezing, and fantasizing about being in bed with my wife under the covers, when suddenly I heard something rustling nearby. I turned and saw a massive buck, rubbing a sapling with his antlers. He seemed calm, but his stride was powerful. He nibbled at some undergrowth, pawed the earth. Urinated.
He was about 80 yards away, too far for me to shoot with a bow. I just watched. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes that while hunting for wild boar, he experienced a high similar to the one he felt while smoking pot. “The mind,” he writes, “seems to forget everything outside the scope of its present focus, including physical discomfort and the passing of time.”
I never felt that way when I smoked pot. Mostly, I just get tired. But what’s true is that after you’re cold and shivering and tired, and you finally hear or see a deer, your aches disappear and your focus is complete.
As much as I enjoyed the calm, cold mornings in the woods, my failures as a hunter continued. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I compensated in a very urban way: by shopping for hunting paraphernalia. The deer hunting industry is a consumerist paradise. It starts with the camouflage gear. Under Armour, the sporting goods line that makes pricey spandex, is one of the juggernauts of the hunting market; it sells high-end hunting pants, jackets and face masks.
There’s also a huge trade in ScentLok clothing, which uses carbon to allegedly reduce body odor so deer can’t detect it. ScentLok overalls can sell for as much as $329 a pair. The same for a parka. A camouflage head cover adds $39.99 to your tab. Add it all up, and it can be more expensive to buy hunting clothes than a Hugo Boss suit.
The gear—I brought some deer calls and scents that purportedly hide human odor—didn’t make me a better hunter. I saw more of the animals, but I never got close enough for a kill.
That is, until December. Micah Meadows, an experienced hunter who works in law enforcement, took me to his favorite spot, a large clearing ringed by hardwood trees. We arrived at daybreak, the night after a storm. And we waited, our rifles ready, as the sun rose across the forest.
At first, things went badly. Micah spotted some deer some 300 yards away to the east. It was a hell of a long shot for a novice like me. I fired and missed, and the deer darted away.
Later that afternoon we got lucky. We saw a group of deer about 100 yards away, and they hadn’t caught our scent. I sunk to my knees and watched a few does nibble on the grass poking through a thin crust of ice near a scraggly evergreen.
Before long, they stopped grazing and stared in our direction, their heads held high like a family of meerkats. I lifted the rifle to my shoulder and nuzzled my cheek against the cold wood of the stock. I kept my elbow tight to my knee, and I remember thinking my sight was too shaky. Soon, however, my breathing slowed, I held the crosshairs steady and knew I would make the shot. I had chosen a doe out of the group at random. She had huge comical ears, a big black nose and delicate legs. She was looking in my direction, ready to bolt.
I squeezed the trigger so slowly that the rifle surprised me when it kicked, and for a moment, I lost sight of the deer. When I looked again, I saw she was down. She flopped back and forth for a few seconds like a flounder, then died on the spot.
I paused. My friend held out his hand out to shake mine. He’s an experienced hunter and he knew this was my first deer. “I’ll often say a prayer when I kill one,” he told me, as if making a suggestion. I shook my head. “I’m not religious,” I said.
They say killing is a powerful thing. An experienced hunter once told me that he’s always calm and collected as he draws his bow. Once he releases, however, his whole body shakes almost uncontrollably.
A few months prior, Micah’s 11-year-old son killed his first deer. The animal died immediately, and the boy stood and wept.
I distinctly tried to parse out what I felt as the deer lay there. But there was no remorse, no sense of doubt or regret. Nothing but a sense of victory, satisfaction. And a feeling that something irrevocable had happened. Perhaps five years of unsuccessful hunting made me more ruthless. “It’s primal,” Micah said. “Providing meat for your family. It’s the most primal thing we can do.”
As anyone can imagine, the term “field dressing” a white-tailed deer is a euphemism. What it really means is gutting a carcass as quickly as possible, right there in the woods, so the meat doesn’t rot.
After I made my shot, I stood over the dead deer, surprised at how much blood had gushed from the wound. As a journalist, I’ve seen plenty of people who’ve been shot to death, but rarely any animals. I could smell the rank fur, and it was a smell like nothing I had ever smelled before. It wasn’t an offensive smell, but the bitter odor of an untamed animal.
As I turned the doe onto her back, her body was still warm and floppy as a puppet. With one hand I probed awkwardly for the breastbone, and with the other, I used a knife to cut through the course white underbelly.
“Try starting right here,” Micah told me, pointing to the udder. “Cut deeper.” I sawed away, grabbing a big pinch of it in my fingers. “Deeper,” he said. The trick is to cut through the skin but not into the stomach or the intestines.
By the time I cut the deer open from the breastbone to the anus, I finally got a sense of her anatomy. The rib cage was like a bowl full of rich hot blood. It was confusing at first, to understand what was what. Everything was held in place with membranes. Eventually I found the liver, the heart and the lungs, which had been cut through by the bullet.
“You OK?” Micah asked, perhaps wondering if I was nauseous.
“I’m fine,” I said.
The process didn’t repulse me, which surprised me. It felt normal, somehow.
I didn’t actually butcher the deer myself; I didn’t know how. Instead I dropped it off at Gadell’s, a shop that specializes in “processing” deer, in a tiny rural town called Catlett, Virginia.
A couple of weeks later, for a fee of $75, Gadell’s returned the deer to me, transformed into little two pound packages wrapped in white paper, labeled “tenderloin,” “backstrap,” “roast” and “burger.” I took them, almost giddy with anticipation, and stacked them in my freezer, cramming it full.
The meat loaf, which I made from the burger, was the first feast. A few weeks after that, I broiled the tenderloin and some of the backstraps, which are cuts from along the spine. I cooked them in the oven with nothing but salt, pepper, and some olive oil. It’s even more tender then lamb, with no fat and a rich, earthy flavor. Some friends brought over two bottles of Argentine Malbec.
My freezer was still stocked full of venison about two weeks ago when I saw a large doe crossing New Mexico Avenue right here in Washington, D.C. I was driving in the falling snow, and the deer stopped right at the edge of Rock Creek Park. I pulled over to look.
It struck me that these deer were here, coexisting but living separately—that they somehow transformed the city. At the same time, it bothered me that my eyes narrowed, and almost subconsciously, I focused on the deer’s rib cage, on the kill zone, that spot right behind her shoulder where her heart and lungs are located.