This past weekend we stocked our small city garden with friends and an old enamel washbasin filled with ice and good Philadelphia beers – Dogfish and Yards – and then we grilled a pile of burgers. Not beefburgers, and certainly not turkey burgers: ours were venison burgers. I love this purple-red meat and its winy flavour. But there is, perhaps, no food that more insistently reveals the divide between the country of my birth, and the country I now live in. Venison, in other words, means very differently here and there, and it always has. In England, venison is iconically bound to the brutalities of the hunting class. Poaching used to be punished with deportation and sometimes even death, and many ancient ballads follow the adventures and ultimate tragic fate of the bold poacher. Jonathan Swift got the association just right when he wrote, in that timelessly horrible and hilarious tract, “A Modest Proposal,” that English landowners who had squandered their herds would be happy to dine instead on the tender flesh of Irish children: “A very worthy person, a true lover of his country, and whose virtues I highly esteem, was lately pleased in discoursing on this matter to offer a refinement upon my scheme. He said that many gentlemen of this kingdom, having of late destroyed their deer, he conceived that the want of venison might be well supplied by the bodies of young lads and maidens, not exceeding fourteen years of age nor under twelve; so great a number of both sexes in every country being now ready to starve for want of work and service.”
When the English came to the Americas, they were so used to hunting being a sporting pastime of the leisured class, that they entirely misunderstood Native hunting practices. Indian men, whose unsurpassed hunting skills were essential to the survival of their people, were seen as lazy by English settlers who thought the Indians were enjoying one big holiday. But then again, part of the great lure of the New World for the English poor – whose poaching derring-do is most satisfyingly portrayed in Roald Dahl’s Danny Champion of the World– was the promise that wild meat was not only plentiful, but legally his who killed it. Thus the chapter-long description in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers of how the young hero refuses to sell his deer to the wealthy landowner. The young man explains that the profound relationship between the animal and the hunter proves the hunter’s personhood, a personhood that cannot be overridden by niggling objections regarding ownership of land or readiness of cash.
Perhaps my own emigration was motivated by the same fantasy. I certainly remember a strange surge of feeling the first time I held a piece of wild American venison, wrapped in wax paper, in my hand. I had been fed, in undergraduate days in England, upon the deer who clustered, fenced, behind the college. But then, in Vermont, my neighbour John and his son, Johnny, brought me a venison roast they’d bagged just over there, on our property line. John told the tale of how they’d both fallen asleep on their tummies on the granite rock overlooking the hill, waking to find the animal staring at them, not fifteen feet away. As I received that package and the story that accompanied it, I knew that I was not, so to speak, in Kansas anymore. Not only was the venison free to the hunter, but the hunter felt free to make a gift of it to me. Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free! I will shower venison steaks upon them!
My association of venison with ancient English property laws was finally fully severed for me this year, when I was given so much venison I had no idea what to do with it. A former student, Shannon, had taken several classes with me and across the course of teaching her about literature I had somehow betrayed myself as a glutton. She wrote to me at the beginning of semester offering me venison that she’d salvaged before her mother “literally fed it to the dogs.” I practically strapped an emergency siren to the top of my little red car, and sped to the pick-up point. There stood Shannon. She opened the trunk of her car to reveal the biggest cooler in the universe, chock full of packaged deer meat. It felt more like a scene from The Sopranos than a tender moment in Dead Poets Society, that’s for sure.
Shannon, an Iowa lass and a farmer’s daughter, explained that deer are so overpopulated in her state, that hunting quotas are high. All the men in her family hunt, and the meat was too plentiful for her family to enjoy it indefinitely. I was ecstatic. In the US, you cannot buy good venison because you can’t purchase the meat of wild animals killed by hunters: this meat can only be gifted. A hunting friend from my time in Vermont explained that even when you find commercial venison, too often it has been badly butchered. Venison fat is unpleasantly gamey and has the consistency of tallow. Any trace of it left on the meat will stick to your teeth and the roof of your mouth as if you’d chewed on an old candle. So to eat good venison in this country you have to be part of or close to hunting culture: to generations-old skills of tracking, killing and butchering. US venison, like so little other US meat, is self-sourced, plentiful sustenance.
My venison, if not exactly self-sourced, was so plentiful that I had to summon all my own native foraging skills and . . . buy a freezer. I had long planned the snagging of a full freezer, and had been blocked every time by B., who closely monitors the proliferation of kitchen paraphernalia in our house. A gleeful side-effect of the venison windfall was that now there could be no objection to my plan. No more stuffing things into the glorified icecube-compartment of my fridge. I hopped onto the internet and ordered up a life-sized full-on freezer, which arrived one short day later and the nice delivery men hobbled it down the basement stairs. It had barely had time to crank up its freon, when I surprised it with package upon package of venison, some of it steaks, some of it summer sausage, but much of it ground.
Since so much of it was ground I have experimented with using venison in ways I would not have credited. I have tried meatballs, both Swedish and Italian, and Bolognese sauces, and Shepherd-turned-Huntsman Pies, and sausages too. Often I sought out recipes that asked for veal and replaced it with venison, savouring the foresty flavour it contributed. When it comes to meat, I am used to searching out flavour through its fat – deliberately choosing cuts of beef that show marbling, and refusing to trim the luxurious fat and skin away from pork. But venison is different – although insistently flavourful, it is earnestly lean. It comes from an animal that has spent its life leaping and zig-zagging through landscapes, and this lithe a beast provides, of course, the leanest of meats.
Because it is not rich in its own fat, making a burger from venison requires the addition of other fat. Fatback is one option, mixing the meat with some ground beef is another. This time, I used just a few hefty slices of Pennsylvania smoked bacon that I found at the Fair Foods stand – enough to hint at smoky flavour but not enough to dominate. With its deep ribbons of white fat cut into small dice, it helped ease the dry, compact venison into burger form. For seasoning, I chose the flavours that feature in more formal venison recipes: some juniper berries, some rosemary needles, garlic and thyme. All of this chopped or ground fine, I mixed it into almost 5 pounds of meat in a large bowl, throwing in an egg to help bind it. These ingredients I sourced from my garden, or Fair Foods, but for salt, I went further afield and used some of my much-prized Halen Môn sea salt. Halen Môn produces organic salt from the clean, cold seawaters around the Isle of Anglesey, Wales. They sell a version of this beautiful white salt that is smoked until it is slate gray over Welsh oak chippings, and it is divine. I usually use this salt with pork or fish – they recommend eating it with gull and quail eggs and someday I will do that too. It was not going to show up as distinctly in these burgers, given that I was already using smoked bacon, but nevertheless I felt it was the right salt with which to honor the meat.
I bought some Pennsylvania Noble cheese – a muscular, aged cheddar from around here. Tomatoes – big, red beefsteak tomatoes with a classic air to them - came from the Amish farmers at the market, and would be accompanied by green frills of local lettuce and rings of red onion. I whisked up some mayonnaise from bright orange egg yolks, starting with a dab of Dijon mustard in the bottom of my bowl and watching for the emulsifying moment, holding that thick gloss firm with a steady combination of whisking and drizzling. I’ve never had any luck making mayonnaise in a food processor – the blades seem to turn it bitter – so this is another of those jobs for which I adopt a Luddite stance. A few days earlier, I had made jars of pickles from the stout, skittle-sized cucumbers grown in my neighbour Michele’s garden. I’d never tried making pickles before, and Michele made it easy, giving me a complete pickle kit in the form of the requisite vegetable, her recipe, half a bag of pickling spice and the tip to eat them earlier than the recipe says, so that they are still more cucumbery than pickley.
Condiments are one thing, but then there was the question of the bun. A burger needs a good one. And it was within the bun that the mystical limit – the point of obsession - lurked. A bun must yield to its burger, but also reassure it. It must be the cushion under the burger’s bottom and the hat on its head. Although I do not oppose ways of getting fancy with burger buns - making them crusty, turning them into English muffins, etc. - there is also something fabulous about a classically soft and sweetish burger bun. The kind I ate at school bbqs under umbrellas or on crisp, black Fifth of November evenings when Britons gather around bonfires in mittens, lighting fireworks (taking off their mittens first) and immolating effigies of a brave man who tried to blow up a king. Remember, remember the Fifth of November – and pass the ketchup! But the kind of burger bun I want to raise in honor of Guy Fawkes or anybody else for that matter, has to be torn from its friends in the batch, soft shreds of comradeship marking its sides. It has to be giving enough to leave fingertip impressions from your two-handed grasp and willing enough to sop up your condiments.
Luckily, my bread guru, Nancy Silverton, understands all these needs and expresses them fully in the introduction to her hamburger bun recipe. Made with both sourdough starter and yeast, this buttery, eggy dough takes three days and is worth every minute. The buns round and puff deliciously, but also turn out flat enough that you can stuff heaps of accompaniments in along with your burger without having to then unhinge your jaw to eat the thing.
Our evening rounded out nicely too. We lit oil lamps, stuck our feet up on chairs and one guest nestled in the hammock. We followed the burgers with two kinds of ice-cream made from local fruit: a rosy peach and a conspiratorially purple blackberry. Each ice-cream had just a touch of liqueur in it to keep it soft and to remind us that the nip of autumn – and hunting season – is just around the corner.