Deer: Part of every stew, every salad, every stir-fry

Photo courtesy of NBII

Venison, a forester friend tells me, is the best way he knows to eat trees. He points out that whitetails do a dandy job of converting cellulose into protein.

When Cath and I sit down to a bowl of venison stew, we are eating more than potato, carrot, and deer. We are also eating maple seedlings and cedar twigs. We are eating clover from a nearby meadow and corn from the edge of a farm field. We might even be eating hosta leaves and daylily buds from our own flower gardens.

If we lived thirty miles south of here, the whitetails—and thus we—we would be eating many more acorns.

If we lived where soy crops were common, they and we would be eating many more soybeans. (Given deer’s fondness for soy, I think it’s fair to consider Illinois venison a highly metabolized form of tofu.)

In a sense, though, the flip side is also true.

In my latter days as a vegan, I was shocked to learn how many whitetails are killed by farmers. Considering that deer were being shot to bring us tofu, how vegetarian were our stir-fries? Considering that they were even being shot to bring us greens and strawberries from the organic farm just down the road, how vegetarian were any of our meals?

I was also fascinated to learn about the role that agriculture played in the politics of early deer management.

Take Vermont, for instance: In 1897, when the state legislature allowed deer hunting for the first time in three decades, the move was made largely in response to farmers’ complaints about crop losses as the nearly exterminated whitetail began to recover. Up through 1920, the regulation of deer hunting in Vermont—for both bucks and does—was largely determined by agricultural interests and was aimed at keeping deer numbers low.

By 1920, though, hunting was becoming popular. The political tide had begun to turn and the Vermont legislature established bucks-only regulations that allowed the whitetail population to grow.

As a vegan, I could have argued that hunters themselves created the present situation—in which the successful cultivation of just about every American crop depends on killing deer. I could have pointed out that deer would still be scarce today if farmers had had their way.

But what would I have been advocating for? More intensive hunting in the past, to relieve me of a moral quandary in the present?

No matter how I sliced it, deer would always accompany me at the dinner table.

Note: I got thinking about this post after reading a recent piece by Al Cambronne, wherein I learned one more thing I didn’t want to know about the U.S. beef industry. If chicken droppings don’t strike you as a taste treat, you might not want to know either.

© 2011 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Al Cambronne says:

    Glad I could be a source of inspiration. Personally, after researching that story, I was similarly inspired to eat more venison and less cow meat. You know what they say… “You are what you eat!”

  2. I’m told that some of our national wildlife refuges here in California were established specifically to give waterfowl a place to go besides farmers’ fields. But LOL, I know I’m eating a lot of rice when we eat our ducks…

  3. Fionnula says:

    Brilliant. I never considered that part of the equation – not now, and certainly not when I was vegetarian, because I honestly had no idea that part of the equation existed.

    Thank you for making me think a bit today.

  4. Tovar says:

    SoCal: Thanks! I’ll be interested to hear any further thoughts you may have.

    Al: And I almost built the title of this post around that old phrase, “You are what you eat.”

    NorCal: Okay, so here’s my challenge to you and Hank. Can you tell what varieties of rice you’re eating? Fine duck-tasting. It’s like wine-tasting, but different.

    Fionnula: Thanks. Glad it sparked a new thought or two. 🙂

  5. Arthur says:

    Tovar, this post is awesome. Though I’ve been eating venison my entire life, I never really looked at venison the way you described it in this post – as a product of the leaves, crops, etc. I love it.

    And it’s always interesting to read your posts and get to hear both sides of the hunting equation.

    It’s great stuff, and it’s why I keep coming back.

  6. Lieing wolf says:

    Isn’t it nice to bounce on “both” “Web’s” and watch what moves! Can we call it “Natural electricity?!” Nature goes siber, more great stew!

  7. Fascinating post. You had me laughing out loud at “Illinois venison a highly metabolized form of tofu”, I learned a great deal, thank you. Although I often see deer here in Florida, I’ve never had Florida venison and don’t know if people are allowed to hunt them here. Wild Boar yes, deer still a question.

  8. doug thorburn says:

    This kind of thinking is part of my initial reason for taking up hunting. In our climate and topography, only the prime valley bottom sites are suitable for fruit and vegetables. The bulk of the landscape is coniferous (and mixed broadleaf/coniferous forest). If one wishes to forage for a significant portion of their diet from the natural world, venison becomes an obvious component. Our white-tail and mule deer convert fireweed, falsebox, ceanothus etc…into an immensely palatable source of protein.

  9. Tovar says:

    Arthur: Thanks! It’s always great to hear your thoughts here, my friend.

    LW: Indeed.

    Lael: Thanks for stopping by. I’m glad you got a laugh out of that. 🙂 Folks do hunt deer in Florida, as you can see on the Fish and Wildlife website:

    Doug: Bingo! If one wants to eat off the land — especially in a landscape like that — deer do come to mind quickly, don’t they?

  10. Eric Nuse says:

    A few thoughts ;
    As a game warden I was always impressed at how few deer farmers shot doing damage to their crops and when they did, it was rarely enough to make much difference. When I would ask about it they would grumble a bit and say something about “they gotta live to” or how they would rather get one during the season. But maybe northern VT is different than other places.
    I heard a presenter at a wildlife conference say that the land area of the earth is about 1/3 is arable, 1/3 is grassland or timbered and 1/3 ice or desert. If people are only going to eat crops they are giving up 1/3 of the protean available from critters like deer that convert brush into meat. doesn’t seem like a very good strategy for survival

    • Tovar says:

      Interesting, Eric. Yes, I think the numbers in Vermont are relatively low. The need for farmers to shoot deer — and for hunting seasons to result in significant deer kills — is much higher in, say, lower NY State and the Midwest.

  11. Tovar, I read this post on the heels of one at that tallied up the costs of raising two pigs. It’s here, and worth reading:

    They concluded that it took 6 grain calories to make one pork calorie — the age-old problem with raising meat on food humans could eat directly.

    For me, your point about venison’s being trees, and clover, and even hostas, was what hit home. One of the reasons I took up hunting is that is seems to make sense to eat an overpopulated species that’s eating things humans can’t eat (until the deer break into your soybean field or vegetable garden, of course).

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for the link to the Farm Folly post, Tamar. An interesting analysis. You definitely run into that issue when grain is the primary feed source for your animals, as it is for the chickens I buy locally.

      It’s another reason I’m glad to have wild venison in my diet. Fingers crossed that it continues to be part of my diet, and becomes a larger part of yours, too!

    • doug thorburn says:

      The inefficiency of grain feeding animals to produce meat was the central premise of the old standard “Diet for a Small Planet”. It was certainly central to my convictions concerning living off a vegetarian diet for years. I haven’t seen a copy for years, but it was right there on the shelf beside “Moosewood Cookbook” for many vegetarians of a certain age.

      • Tovar says:

        Both of those cookbooks are STILL on the shelf in this house, right alongside “Wild Game Cookery” and “Eat Like a Wild Man.” Part of the eclectic mix. 😉

  12. Jen says:

    Tovar – Another fascinating post. You have a unique perspective from your vegetarian reading, and it always gives me something to ponder.

    We swapped beef for venison because it’s so available and the deer feed on things that are inedible to us. No farming, no grain inputs (except what they steal from farmers’ fields). And by culling out a certain number, the rest of the population is healthier and has enough territory for food and reproduction. It really feels like ‘free meat’ and more importantly, like decent meat. We even use the offal to top up our dogs’ meals.

  13. Hoosierbuck says:

    I have often wondered about a taste-testing of whitetails taken from different food-source areas. Say one form the corn/bean fields, one from coniferous forest, one from deciduous forest, Western plains, Southern swamp, etc. and doing blind tasting to determine how much impact the diet has on the food quality of the animal. In order to make it as scientific as possible we have to each shoot similar animals-say a yearling doe, at the same time of year, in a similar fashion-heart/lung shot, butcher the animals within the same period of time and get them frozen within the same period of time, then thaw and prepare them the same. It would be interesting to see the results, I think.

    • We did a similar mallard taste-test at our house a few years ago, and it was awesome. We had four mallards: grass fed, rice fed, corn fed and acorn fed (this based on the regions where we shot them, or what we found in their crops). My boyfriend seared the breasts of these four ducks identically, with fat on. Then we asked friends to judge. The results?

      No. 1 – grass fed, by a nose. (Think not just green grass, but grass seed.)

      No. 2 – acorn fed – interesting flavor (in a good way)

      No. 3 – rice fed (this is our staple in Northern California -lotsa rice fields)

      No. 4 – corn fed – BOOOOORING! Ya know why? Because pretty much every domestic meat animal in America is corn fed. It has become the schwa ( of our palate.

      • Hoosierbuck says:

        That’s why I wonder what a whitie that lives on a sage flat would taste like. Around here our whities eat a ton of corn and soybeans and acorns. They are great table fare, but I wonder about a more exotic diet…say juniper? Mmmmmmmm. Meat.
        I really want to try this, but logistically there are issues.

        • LOL, there are no whitetails where I live, but I have heard from people who hunt in sage territory that animals there taste very … distinctive. I remember one conversation in particular with someone who was astonished that I hunt and eat jack rabbits – the only ones he’d ever eaten were sage-eating jacks, which he said were inedible.

        • Tovar says:

          Folks have told me that mule deer who live in sage country have quite pungent meat. No need to add sage to the stew, for sure.

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