Thursday, November 19, 2009

A very Wisconsin ideal meal

Just over 10 years ago, I made up my mind to officially cut meat out of my diet. I had been toying with the idea for awhile before that, removing beef (easy, because I'd never been a fan) and then chicken (tricky, because so much has stock in it), and finally turkey (the most difficult--I love turkey).

The choice was based on a combination of factors: One, I have always been far more into my fruits and veggies, even from an early age, than any animal flesh. I distinctly remember taking a few token chews of steak at dinner and then hiding the mangled bits in my napkin so my parents would think I'd finished my meal. Second, I'd learned more and more about the inhumane and unhealthy process by which our country went about raising and processing much of its meat. I just couldn't ignore that any longer.

There was some small amount of empathy and the "oh but they're so cute" factor, but I've always understood how the food chain works. Human beings are, by nature, omnivores and I believe there's nothing inherently wrong with that. What is wrong is how we've come to mass produce and industrialize the process. Huge factory farms are bad for the environment, terrible for the animals, and often dangerous to the people who consume the meat that comes from them.

So I've been a pretty good vegetarian for over a decade now, even doing my best to get my dairy products from reputable, organic sources that treat the animals well and don't include artificial hormones or antibiotics in their products.

Then, over the last year, disaster struck. I developed a rather severe and debilitating case of lactose intolerance. It was the thing I'd always singled out as my worst dietary fear, something I swore could never happen to me, the girl who'd drank a glass of milk a day for pretty much her whole life. And yet, there was no denying it: I either needed to cut all sources of lactose out of my diet, or spend the rest of my life suffering (seriously suffering, I'm not joking when I say it's pretty severe).

I sucked it up and cut all of it out. No more milk, no more un-aged cheese, no more cream, no more butter. This has not been an easy task living in Wisconsin as I do, but slowly and surely I've been finding ways to deal.

In the midst of this tribulation, I also decided that my diet had been too thoroughly restricted by this change. Though I have deep love for the major advances in vegan cooking that have taken place in recent decades and rely on them every day, I could not bring myself to go fully without animal products. I decided to take back some control over what I could eat: I would start consuming flesh again.

The one caveat? I would only eat it sparingly, and only when it had been locally sourced from a place that raised and processed the beast as humanely as possible. Thankfully, this locavore trend has taken firm root in my area, and finding meat that falls under these guidelines is not as difficult as it once was.

So when I heard that the Underground Food Collective, now somewhat famous for their pre-industrial pig dinners, was helping to prepare a venison-centered meal in association with a lecture being given on the history of deer hunting in Wisconsin, I decided that it would be a great way for me to get back into the game.

Last night, me and The Boy headed out into the cold, drizzly November evening and over to the Wisconsin Historical Museum for the event. We were greeted by a room full of long tables and fellow diners who looked just as full of anticipation as we were. And after chatting up the people with whom we shared a table (who just so happened to be friends with the guys cooking the meal), it wasn't long before the first course was brought out.

We had a lovely salad of winter hoop-house grown spinach (from Snug Haven Farms) with pieces of low-key venison loin, dried squash seeds, red onions, and an unidentified but delicious dressing.

That was followed by a dish of three different kinds of squash all mixed together with good spices, something that pretty much screamed late autumn to my taste buds.

Finally, the main course: Extremely tender and expertly cooked strips of venison haunch with a light but very tastey almost barbeque-y sauce, with roasted parsnips and loads of yummy potatoes (the latter two coming from Driftless Organics). I'd never had venison before, and I'm told that it's the kind of meat that tends to reflect how it's cooked more than having a consistent flavor. In this case, it was delicious - not too gamey, nice and tender, with a good flavor infused, presumably, by the excellent sauce and cooking technique.

The cherry on top of this already amazing meal was the dessert, a perectly humble serving of apple crisp with vanilla ice cream. After everyone had finished and could speak coherently again, the cooks came out to tell us about the meal and take questions. Someone asked where the deer had come from, and after joking that they'd "hit it with their truck," we discovered that it had come from a farm raised operation in the area.

Another patron capped things off my declaring, "It was a helluva meal!" And I had to agree. It was good, too, to see all different sorts of people at the event--young and old, city and country. Following the meal, the group shuffled into a nearby lecture room for a talk by Robert Willging, author of On the Hunt: The History of Deer Hunting in Wisconsin. He gave us a run-down of what's in the book, which includes well-researched details about the tradition in the state dating back to the Paleo-Indians who lived here thousands of years ago.

And luck was with me, as I happened to sit in the chair with the raffle prize ticket taped to its bottom, so I got to take home a free copy of the book to cap off my night.

Great food, good company, some learnin', and a free book - couldn't ask for much more. Happily, my stomach accepted the new addition to its diet with grace, too. Like I said, I won't be eating meat very often, and certainly never from fast-food joints and the like, but I feel incredibly lucky to have access to the really good stuff right here in south-central Wisconsin for whenever I get the hankering.


Nadine said...

The fresh apple cider was good, too.

Emily said...

It was! I didn't know you were there, Nadine. You should have looked for my red mohawk and said hi! :)

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Anonymous said...

i know how you feel about dairy. I've been vegan for 8 years this thanksgiving, and the hardest thing for me to give up was cheese. i still have dreams of it!. honestly, everyone's body and nutritional needs are different, and some people take to true vegan diets and others struggle with it. i applaud your decision to consume only humanely treated animals. obviously, i believe that the world would be a better place if no one had to slaughter an animal just to sustain themselves, but realistically, it's not going to happen any time soon. the next best step is for folks like yourself to raise awareness of the terrible (and unsanitary) conditions that commercial animal by-products are raised and prepared in. I'm glad you liked your meal, even if the idea of venison brings back images of the deer heads that used to be mounted in my parents living room.

The Lost Albatross