The moose steak sat on the kitchen counter in a steel bowl, thawing.
Having just completed the state hunter education course, I was contemplating the prospect of going after meat on the hoof. Though I didn’t have any plans to hunt until the following year, I did have a question to answer: How would it feel to cook and eat the flesh of a wild mammal?
Two years earlier, for health reasons, Cath and I had given up veganism. We had started eating chicken and fish, foods that seemed strange after so many years.
Eating them was, for me, unsettling. It was also grounding, bringing with it an unexpected sense of embodiment, of fully inhabiting the world, of coming to terms with the inevitable impacts of living.
Handling the flesh of birds and fish, I was quite aware of their origins as living beings. Some of the chickens were ones I had seen pecking away in a friend’s grassy yard. Some of the fish were ones I had caught and killed. Yet, once they had been reduced to food, I didn’t dwell on them as individual creatures.
Moose was different.
The steak was a gift from a local hunter. Under my hand, the cool, firm muscle felt strange as I sliced. Lightly sautéed and served with a stroganoff-style sauce, it tasted even more alien than chicken and fish had.
With a piece of moose between my teeth, the huge, dark animal stood there, vivid in my imagination. Perhaps my awareness of the individual creature stemmed from his sheer size. Perhaps it stemmed from my categorization of moose as part of the local landscape, but—unlike cows or pigs—not part of the modern American diet. Perhaps it stemmed from the simple redness of the meat; Cath and I had not been cooking and eating the flesh of fellow mammals.
With the moose in mind, I took his body into mine uneasily.
Yet, by the time I sat down to the leftovers a night or two later, the texture and flavor seemed more familiar, the idea more palatable.
Eating this creature, whose individuality I pictured, was more potent than eating chickens, whom I imagined less specifically. I was in nutritional relationship not just with mammals in general, but with this one in particular. I felt the gap between me and my food closing even more.
I was, of course, still one step removed. That winter I bought a deer rifle.
© 2010 Tovar Cerulli
What a great post.
I find it very interesting that the things which you originally had reservations about – the individual connection to the animal, cutting its flesh, etc – are the things, for me anyway, that I have always viewed as a benefit of hunting.
I know that over time you’ve come to grips with those particular issues and feelings, it is just interesting that, at first, those were the things that made you uncomfortable.
And, if you don’t mind me asking, what kind of health issues caused the dietary switch? If that isn’t something you want to share, I completely understand, I’m just very curious.
Bloody Hell Tovar,
What a simple, revealing but damn fine post. Even though I’ve always classed my self as an omnivore (or garbage disposal according to Clare!), I’ve always had a slight unease within myself if I try to think about the meat on my platter and from whence it came. It’s never been enough to stop me eating the flesh of another animal but it’s always been enough to make me appreciate what nature has provided and enable me to feel part of the cycle. Thank you once again for putting your thoughts down with such outstanding prose.
Love how you expose the illogical distinctions we place on our food (of course they are logical to us while we are doing it). I would say we do it in other aspects of our lives without knowing it. I have never eaten moose (not found here). But I can imagine with their size one could feed my family for a year. your pal the Envirocapitalist.
Another great post.
I understand the singularity of the large mammals, for me it is because I come upon one so infrequently, but even for good hunters, I think there is more of a connectedness to the individual.
For example, my wife is pregnant, and I am comforted in the fact that he is made out of Maximus and Spork, two animals taken (and subsequently named) by Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook.
Arthur: Interesting point. I, too, view the killing, the individual connection, and the hands-on butchery as benefits of hunting. I’ll have to think on this more, but my sense is that those things have been (1) what made me uncomfortable, (2) what I wanted to confront, and (3) what I’ve ended up valuing. For you, too, though: the killing and the butchering you value also bring with them some discomfort, in the form of grief or sadness, yes?
When my wife and I gave up veganism, neither of us was facing any dire health issues. It was more a case of heeding the advice of holistic healthcare professionals, including a number of ex-vegetarians and a naturopathic doctor who had seen an analysis of my blood chemistry. My health definitely improved with the dietary change—allergies diminished, energy increased, etc; my wife’s health may have improved some, but not as significantly.
(Incidentally, as you and other visitors to my blog probably realize, I’m not on any crusade against veganism or vegetarianism, on either nutritional or moral grounds. This path, away from them and into hunting, is just the one that has been right for me.)
John: Bloody Hello! “Simple, revealing but damn fine” nicely sums up my aims as a writer, so thanks! I’m glad to hear that my words continue to provide you with food for thought. It’s always a pleasure to read your responses. I feel that appreciating “what nature has provided” and feeling ourselves to be “part of the cycle” are among the very best things humans can do.
Envirocapitalist: I agree that we make similar distinctions—and comfort ourselves with similar illusions—in arenas other than food. And, you bet: a moose is like six deer in one body. I’ve never hunted Alces alces myself, but they are immense.
Josh: In the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, closer to Canada and New Hampshire, there are many hundreds of moose. Here, closer to the middle of the state, they are less common, and encounters in nearby woods remain singular and infrequent.
Congratulations on your child-on-the-way! Your mention of him being “made out of Maximus and Spork” reminds me of how Richard Nelson wrote of his son as “a boy made of deer.”
It is exactly this connection that I am trying to develop and instill in my kids. I took up bow hunting a few years ago and have had some incredible experiences. We also have worked, for some time, at raising some of our food, including rabbits and chickens for meat and growing gardens. This year we are trying to expand our foraging knowledge. We frequent local farms and often know the animal’s name when we eat the meat. As homeschoolers, we have always focused a bit on showing the kids “where their food comes from”.
It seems funny when others do not have this connection. I received a gift of a deer that was hit by a car in March. My son-in-law was on hand to assist with the cleaning as I had never cleaned such a large animal. During the whole process of cleaning and butchering, we took some meat and cooked it on the fire where we were also boiling down maple sap. He prides himself on being an outdoors man and hunts and fishes as often as possible. He got squeamish while eating a bit of the venison while watching me continue the butchering – for me, it was part of the process of honoring, respecting, and connecting with this animal who gave its life to sustain me.
A great set of connections and experiences to be exposing your kids to, DEM!
Butchering an animal your own size really is quite an experience, isn’t it? I agree that it can be an immensely valuable part of the process of “honoring, respecting, and connecting,” as you aptly put it.
For sure hunting brings some discomfort in the form of grief and sadness. I think most hunters feel the same thing – and the ones that don’t I’m a little leery of.
I was just curious about what health issues you were experiencing. And I do realize that you were not on a crusade against veganism or vegetarianism. I have no problem with those lifestyles either – if that is what you believe, and it is part of your convictions, I completely understand, and have no problem with that.
The only reason I asked is because I’ve heard from a few different former vegetarians that they started including meat in their diet again, because of health issues – and I was wondering if yours were along the same lines.
Another great post, and another great conversation that is happening over here. I love it!
Thanks for your follow-up comment, Arthur. I always appreciate hearing your thoughts.
To be sure, some vegans and vegetarians do end up with serious health problems. Then again, the standard American diet—full not only of meat, but also of processed foods, hydrogenated oils, and high fructose corn syrup—is arguably a lot worse for most folks than well-balanced vegetarian fare!
Thankfully, my health has only encountered minor bumps in the road so far. Having chicken, fish, and wild game in my diet over the past 9 or so years has definitely made me feel healthier.
Interesting. My perspective on meat also changed when I started eating the animals I had killed; the only difference is that I’d been a meat eater all along.
But there is something about the relationship with the meat – it is a consummation of our relationship with the planet. Not in the sexual/dominance vein that PETA so loves to highlight, but in a far more spiritual sense.
Yes, I agree that it is about relationship, of various kinds.
I know you grew up around domestic meat animals, Holly, and have—on your blog—written about your perceptions of domesticated-vs-wild animals. Did you ever have a hand in killing before you started hunting?
No. As the baby in the family, I was always left out of that work, even when I’d really gotten old enough to help – it was just habit for the family by then.
I once beheaded a gopher witih a shovel to protect our garden and trees, but that’s it.
Interesting. I know folks who don’t hunt, but do raise and slaughter livestock, and they express a similar feeling of relationship.
There are, of course, differences, most readily spoken to by those who both hunt/fish and raise meat animals. Which is the gist of the new post I just put up…
Great post, Tovar!
I think you’re hitting on something here that I have sort of started taking for granted… but I get it every time I eat a piece of wild game (which is almost every home-cooked meal). You kinda go there in a different way in your “Accidental trophy” post, by the way…
The meat is as much a “trophy” of the hunt to me as any set of antlers or tusks, in that I relive the hunt and the experience when I eat it. I remember the individual animal, something I could never know from a piece of meat raised, slaughtered, and butchered in some factory farm. I also remember the hunt, the experiences of the day I killed the animal… sometimes it even stirs memories of the things that were going on in my life at the time… things well beyond the hunt itself.
I’ve lived in farm communities and experienced the slaughter of cattle and pigs, but never raised and killed my own. I don’t know if it would carry the same weight as my wild game… but since I’m not much of a farmer anyway, I’m not sure that it would.
Anyway, I’m completely enjoying your posts as they show me an aspect of hunting and even of eating meat that I’d never seen or really considered.
Thanks, Phillip. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog and finding value in my odd perspective!
Those are great words you’ve chosen, “reliving” and “remembering,” in describing the kind of specific, intense relationship with food and nature that you experience when you eat wild game. The experience is precious and, I think, relatively rare among modern folks.
From where I’ve been and from the folks I’ve known, I’d say it’s a significant part of what adult would-be hunters yearn for.
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