When Venison Isn't So Rare

By Walsh, Robb | Natural History, October 1997 | Go to article overview

When Venison Isn't So Rare


Walsh, Robb, Natural History


It seemed odd to be eating venison in July, but Marc Haeberlin, the chef at the Auberge de 1'I11, a three-star French restaurant in the Alsatian countryside, explained that the deer season in Alsace begins in the summer. This worked out fine for my purposes. Because the deer season in the United States is in the late fall and early winter, I was trying to gather as many venison recipes as possible before my brother, an avid deer hunter, filled my freezer. I may not be able to pull off Haeberlin's elaborate presentation of venison tenderloin with wild mushrooms and berry compote, but I'm sure my slightly messier version will still make an impressive dinner.

Venison is a special challenge for American home cooks. In Europe, wild game is no longer a part of traditional home cookery; deer hunters customarily sell or trade their venison to restaurants so that professional chefs can properly transform it into gourmet dishes. European chefs also buy imported farm-raised venison from New Zealand and other countries nowadays, because there are so few deer left in Europe. In the United States, we have the opposite problem: the whitetailed deer population now numbers some 25 million-more than when the Pilgrims landed in 1620.

The term venison (from the Latin venatus, meaning "chase") describes the meat of any animal from the family Cervidae. The deer species we know today were present during the Quaternary Period, which also provides an abundant archeological record of humans.

Archeological finds from sites throughout Europe indicate that deer were hunted there well over 100,000 years ago. Animal bones found at Paleolithic sites incidate that venison might have been the most important food in the region by the last ice age, 20,000 years ago. But the animals were mostly cold-adapted reindeer, not the smaller forest deer. In the preRoman era, the ancient Gauls rode to hounds in pursuit of deer after performing sacrificial ceremonies. These ritualized stag hunts began a tradition that endured in Europe for more than two thousand years.

In North America, European settlers approached hunting not as a sport but as a matter of survival. The colonists depleted the deer population so severely that as early as 1696, Massachusetts had already begun to restrict deer hunting. By the time of the Revolution, most of the other American colonies had similar game laws in place. Still, by the end of the nineteenth century, the North American deer population had been nearly wiped out.

The loss of so much of our wildlife resuited in tougher hunting regulations in the 1930s and gave rise in part to modern antihunting sentiments. These attitudes were reinforced with the release of the animated 1942 Disney classic Bambi, which one critic called, "the most effective piece of antihunting propaganda ever made." Thanks to a new conservation ethic and the wave of sentimentalism that this film set in motion, many Americans came to see wild animals as "little innocent people in bunny suits" romping through the forest (see "The Bambi Syndrome," Natural History, June 1993). By the early 1990s, one-third of the American public been persuaded that sport hunting should be outlawed.

Game laws and antihunting sentiments have had some curious effects on our food habits. In the late 1980s, I began to see venison on the menus of first-rate American restaurants. It turned out that this venison wasn't wild game, but a product of the rapidly expanding game farm industry. American game farms are satisfying our cravings for vension by importing nonnative species such as axis and fallow deer from Asia, breeding the animals as livestock, and selling the meat to restaurants. This process not only sidesteps game regulations; it also makes it possible for those who oppose hunting to enjoy guilt-free venison dinners.

The antihunting movement was triggered in part by the rapid depletion of wildlife a century ago, but the whitetailed deer population has since grown out of control in many parts of the United States, and now public sentiment appears to support culling the herds.

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