Meditation with meat and knife

by Tovar on April 16, 2010 · 14 comments

My fingers slide under the muscle, separating it from the layer below. My knife snips tendons and traces the curvature of bone.

I add the slab of venison to one of the 13×9 pans on the kitchen counter.

Hours ago, this leg was a deer. In the early morning light, the animal was moving somewhere in the cool, damp forest. Then pausing to listen and test the breeze. Then walking or trotting on again, toward the gentle slope where I sat waiting among the hemlocks.

Much of my time in the woods is quiet, contemplative. Afternoons spent scouting in late summer and early fall, looking for tracks and other sign. Hours, days, or entire seasons spent listening and watching, seeing no deer.

If I get the chance for a clean shot, the killing is over in a flash.

When I crouch beside the fallen animal and whisper thanks, I am both grateful and unsettled. There in the woods, though, there is work to be done—gutting the deer and dragging the body home.

It’s at the kitchen counter that I make my peace with the killing. There, with a leg on the cutting board, contemplation returns. Separating flesh from bone, I marvel at the power these muscles held, to launch the buck in great leaps.

There is a quiet rhythm to the task, like canning, my wife Cath suggests: a small repetitive act done by these hands, a pattern within the larger rhythmic patterns of the seasons, the patterns of all things that live and eat and die and feed one another.

Inexperienced as I am, it takes me a long while to get from skinning the animal to grinding the last pounds of burger. Someday, caught between my slowness and my schedule, I may have to pay a local butcher to do the work. But not soon, I hope.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli

Meditation with meat and knife

My fingers slide under the muscle, separating it from the layer below. My knife snips tendons and traces the curvature of bone.

I add the slab of venison to one of the 13×9 pans on the kitchen counter.

Hours ago, this leg was a deer. In the early morning light, the animal was moving somewhere in the cool, damp forest. Then pausing to listen and test the breeze. Then walking or trotting on again, toward the gentle slope where I sat waiting among the hemlocks.

Much of my time in the woods is quiet, contemplative. Afternoons spent scouting in late summer and early fall, looking for tracks and other sign. Hours, days, or entire seasons spent listening and watching, seeing no deer.

If I get the chance for a clean shot, the killing is over in a flash.

When I crouch beside the fallen animal and whisper my thanks, I am both grateful and unsettled. There in the woods, though, there is work to be done—gutting the deer and dragging the body from the woods.

It’s at the kitchen counter that I make my peace with the killing. There, with a leg on the cutting board, contemplation returns. Separating flesh from bone, I marvel at the power these muscles held, to launch the buck in great leaps.

There is a quiet rhythm to the task, like canning, my wife Cath suggests: a small repetitive act done by these hands, a pattern within the larger rhythmic patterns of the seasons, the patterns of all things that live and eat and die and feed one another.

Inexperienced as I am, it takes me a long while to get from skinning the animal to grinding the last pounds of burger. Someday, caught between my slowness and my schedule, I’ll have to pay a local butcher to do the work. But not soon, I hope.

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NorCal Cazadora April 16, 2010 at 11:39 am

What I love about that process is that it reminds me how similar all of us mammals – and even birds, to an extent, are underneath the skin. It’s an important reminder.

Arthur April 16, 2010 at 6:06 pm

I do love the whole process, and I lose myself in it every time I go through it. It’s a very unique experience, and a big part of the whole thing we call hunting.

I will admit, though, that there have been a few very successful years where we did pay to have a few deer butchered. Honestly, though, it still doesn’t take away from a big part of the experience – knowing that the food on the table was provided and acquired by yours truly.

It’s awesome.

Casey Harn April 16, 2010 at 7:24 pm

There is a feeling I get when I’m slicing and dicing, mixing and preparing whatever food for my family – even if it is from the grocery store. The “cooking” with love feel that you don’t get when you order out.

Everything comes full circle, and almost too big for words, when the meal is prepared from a critter whose life I took. It gets down to the bones of the biggest part of my well-being.

Eric Nuse April 17, 2010 at 7:55 am

Tovar,
Your post brought back memories of a wilderness canoe trip several years ago in the Algonquian Provincial Park. We had been out for 5 days and most of our fresh food was gone. Except for the first day, fishing had not been productive and most of our two families had given up. It was a drought year and water levels were low and temperatures high. The morning of my memory, I got up at dawn and started to troll deep for lake trout, and as my neighboring warden used to say, “Even a blind bear finds an acorn every once in awhile”. Paddling in to camp I held the trophy high. Everyone cheered. Home from the hill was the hunter. After the trout was sketched and carefully cleaned, we had the best meal of the whole trip. A true celebration of life, nature, and of the life that feeds life.

Tovar April 17, 2010 at 10:00 am

NorCal: I find the similarities—and the reminder—particularly potent when the animal is roughly the same size I am.

Arthur: I’m glad to hear that having deer butchered by someone else hasn’t diminished the experience for you much. I can certainly see circumstances, including time constraints and really warm weather, that would make me go that route. This past fall, I was sure I’d have to do that. I was just too busy. Then again, I didn’t really think I’d get a deer. But I did. And with a friend’s help I was able to get the knife work done.

Casey: Our engagement with food is so vital, isn’t it? And yes, often too big for words.

Eric: Thanks for sharing that fine memory and celebration. I like your “blind bear” quote, too; I think it accounts for a number of my successes in the woods and on the water.

Josh April 21, 2010 at 2:00 pm

That is a great post.

It reminds me of “the Fish” by Mary Oliver.

Tovar April 22, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Thanks, Josh!

Langdon Cook April 22, 2010 at 12:17 pm

Mammal butchery is something I think about as I prepare to go down the hunting path. It seems like the only way to get experience in this area, short of knowing a real butcher, is through a successful hunt. I’ve heard that some of these newfangled hunting clubs have convinced their local fish & wildlife authorities to give them roadkill animals on which to practice. Do you feel competent in this area yet?

Tovar April 22, 2010 at 12:45 pm

Hey, Lang, thanks for stopping by.

“Marginally competent” is about as far as I’d go in describing my butchering skills. I’m not fast or highly skilled, but I do end up with a lot of cleanly trimmed, well-packaged meat in the freezer.

If you connect with a hunter who does his or her own butchering, that might be a good way to learn something before you’ve suddenly got a large mammal to handle all by yourself.

I got my first experience by helping someone else (my uncle) butcher a deer he shot. Of course then it took another three years for me to kill my first deer. By then, I’d half-forgotten what he showed me!

Eric Nuse, whose link is in his comment above, recently reviewed what looks to be a fine how-to book on the subject, which I’m thinking of buying.

I’ve never butchered roadkill myself. From what I hear, though, that can be good practice and can yield good meat…if the animal was killed very recently, field-dressed promptly, and not banged up too badly. If those three conditions are not met—especially in warm weather—then the experience can be nasty.

NorCal Cazadora April 22, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Lang, I’ll bet Hank can help you with this…

Josh April 22, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Also, “the Complete Guide to Bowhunting Deer” by Chuck Adams has a great chapter on butchering. I highly recommend it.

Ryan April 22, 2010 at 3:05 pm

This was the first year that I butchered my own deer. I have butchered birds and rabbits but my hunting partners often spring for the professional butchering of large game. This year however I wanted to butcher my own. And I am glad I did. Spending hours with my animal and truly seeing the process from kill to table was something I look forward to doing again this year. It gives me more time to say “thank you” with every cut. It gave me an appreciation for the art of butchering and in the end the process really felt finished. I even enjoy unwrapping my meat from my own package with no label on it.

I am not saying I will never professionally butcher another animal. I am an Elk hunter and that is a much bigger job than a Mule Deer but I am saying that I enjoy the process from start to finish. And, if the day comes again that I do pay someone else to do it for me then I will certainly miss the time spent with my animal and having now done the work myself I will have a true appreciation for those that are doing the work for me.
Ryan

Ryan April 22, 2010 at 3:09 pm

One more note: Some recipes are almost impossible to make unless you do your own butchering. For instance just this week I made Venison Rib Baked Beans (Thanks Tovar!) and it is one of my favorites every year. The ribs arent a part of the animal you usually get back from a butcher because they cut the meat out for burger.

Tovar April 22, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Hey, Ryan, congrats again on your deer last fall. And on the butchering! I didn’t realize you’d done it yourself. Quite an experience, isn’t it? Like you said, “in the end the process really feels finished.”

I’m glad to hear you’re still enjoying Richard’s recipe. :-)

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