Some years back our local church was cleaning out the basement of their vestry and salvaged a few dozen copies of The Charlotte Country Cookery. This collection of recipes, with its pink softcover and amateur artwork, was compiled by a group of church ladies in 1973. I grabbed more than one copy off the “free” pile because to me this thing is gold. It’s the type of relic I imagine food anthropologists of the future would have a field day studying because of what it says about local flavor and traditions. Among the recipes like “Maple Memory Cookies,” “Father Jerome’s Pancakes,” and “The Fish Thing,” one stands out from all the rest. It’s simply called “Raccoon.” The directions? Basic: skin the animal, cut it up into small pieces, removing as much fat as possible, then parboil and put into a pie. (I love how the author assumes you already know how to make pie crust.)
Wilderness-to-table is not a phrase you hear being touted as part of the current Vermont food scene. Which is a shame because, even though wild game doesn’t get as much airtime as farm-to-table or foraging practices, it’s a foundation of Vermont’s food heritage. For generations, folks from the state’s rural communities have gathered in churches and town halls to share their gains from the great outdoors before winter sets in. While you might be hard-pressed to find such a dinner anywhere in Chittenden County, Hotel Vermont hosts their own version, the popular Wild About Vermont Fish & Game Dinner, every year. Chef Doug Paine reinvents traditional game recipes and presents them in a high-end setting all to raise money for two local organizations: Lake Champlain International and Vermont Fish and Wildlife. That medley of good food and a good cause brings hunters and foodies to the same table.
When my husband and I were invited to attend the event, we jumped at the opportunity. It would be more than an excuse to dress up for a night on the town; I’d get to learn more about the place we call home and this tradition of wild-game cuisine that has somewhat eluded me. So on the eve of deer-hunting season, I sat in the middle of a long banquet table at Hotel Vermont with that giddy feeling I have before any special meal. But as I scanned the dinner menu, my eyes widened (insert deer-in-headlights emoticon).
Smoked moose-chuck sliders, beaver empanada, black-bear tourtiere, bobcat ragout…
From the ambient chatter in the dining room, the word “roadkill” kept jumping out at me, spurring recollections of unpleasant sightings on Route 7. Suddenly I didn't feel like a very adventurous eater. I’ve always prided myself on being culinarily courageous having been raised on hummus and stinky cheese before these were common items in American refrigerators. Rarely was there a dish that made me recoil, except perhaps the unidentified organ meat that my dad would sauté and try to disguise in pita bread. I’ve told my own kids countless times that they should try something at least once, and I try to live by example. And that’s easy to do when most of the foods I consume come from the grocery store or farmers market. But bobcat ragout? Is that really a thing?
Prior to the meal, a number of speakers came out to introduce themselves and the work their organizations do for the Vermont community and wildlife. The over-arching message was clear: by partaking in this feast we were showing our support for conservation in our state. When the three uniformed fish and game wardens were introduced, it was apparent by the surge of applause these were the rockstars in the room. I learned that it’s common practice among the wardens to take carcasses of animals still suitable for consumption—roadkill, or others confiscated by illegal hunting and trapping—and donate them to Vermonters in need. Just one of these animals can often provide a family with meat for months, maybe even a whole year. “Better to be used than tossed in a landfill,” explained the woman seated across from me, who happened to be a skilled angler. I was also very surprised to hear that most of the animals on the menu that now live abundantly in surrounding forests and waters were all nearly wiped out from the area one hundred years ago. Thanks to the efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Department and the participation of informed hunters, Vermont wildlife has become a true success story. These insights (along with the effects of the strong cocktail made with local gin) were beginning to butter me up for the meal… I was going to eat it graciously.
The food was passed family-style on huge platters among the conscientious diners seated at my table. Each dish was rich, satisfying, and beautifully prepared. My favorites were the moose sliders, the fish stew with local flint corn, and the mixed game stroganoff with wild mushrooms. My husband enjoyed the bobcat ragout best, which was surprising to him because he loves cats, just usually not on his plate. We left overwhelmed by our fullness and humbled by the amount of respect there was in that room.
The next morning, I’ll admit, we were nervous about telling our children about the animals we had eaten the previous evening. Which is why, as my kids spooned cereal, we went to great lengths of putting the meal in context. There was talk about the importance of natural resources, of not wasting food, and honoring animals that give us so much: sustenance, fiber, a sense of wonder, and sometimes simply companionship. It was then we confessed to having eaten deer, bear, and bobcat. The kids’ eyes widened, but not in the way we had expected. Suddenly, we we had become the rockstars in the room.
Photograph courtesy of Vermont Fish and Wildlife.