July 09, 2020

Hungry hunters game for annual debate: to hang or not to hang?

Coastal folks claim that everything in the sea is edible. I don’t quibble with that a bit and have learned over the years that just about anything’s game if you’re hungry enough. As an old friend down South used to say, his mother fed the family “whatever ran across the yard.”

And that might include chicken, coon, wild turkey, possum, squirrel, rabbit, quail, goose and deer.

In this neck of the woods, similar game abounds. Venison, squirrel and rabbit have been staple fare since Colonial times, as have been game birds – pheasant, woodcock or partridge – served from the spit, encased in luscious pies or swimming in gravy.

Pheasant and partridge may be more popular, but woodcock is said to be rich and tender, tasting of the seeds and berries of the forests where they live. One thing about these small birds, however, opens up another subject altogether. Recipes for preparing woodcock call for hanging the birds for a day or two before plucking and cleaning them.

And that brings up the annual debate from Fort Kent to Kittery during the month of November: whether to hang or not to hang your deer.

Some say the weather has to be just right – say, 40 degrees – to hang the deer in a tree and let it bleed outside. The time varies, but some hunters leave their buck hanging two to three weeks. Maybe they’re taking bows for the large carcass strung up in their yards. Or, maybe they believe venison can be made more tender through aging.

After all, it’s the king of game – man’s meat – a delicacy and a trophy at the same time. And the handling of venison, from the woods when it’s first field-dressed to the table, is key to the taste of the meat.

One of the best arguments against hanging your deer comes from a Vermonter who collaborated with a hunter friend to write a book on venison. That was in 1957, but the common-sense approach is as true today as then:

“The view that venison must always be hung in order to take away the gamy flavor is nonsense,” says Audrey Alley Gorton. The reasoning is, if the carcass is hung for a prolonged period, the hide contributes to that strong taste. “If you don’t believe me,” Gorton writes, “taste a mouthful of hair from the next deer you get. If you leave the hide on, the oil – or whatever it is which contains this disagreeable flavor – can diffuse through the skin into the meat. Yet, if you hang it with the hide removed, the outside of the meat tends to turn black and unappetizing.”

Hide on or hide off is not something I wish to think about, nor what the venison went through en route to the freezer. All I want to see is neatly folded butcher paper on which is printed the word “tenderloin.” Admittedly, I’m just not game for much else.

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