Sunday, March 28, 2010

so deer to my heart

If mom was the cautious cook, then dad was the unabashed daredevil of our kitchen. What he lacked in culinary prowess, he made up for in gusto. His enthusiasm, although occasionally dampened by mom's reserve, was contagious. Luckily for dad, I served as the willing antidote to mom's reluctance to try new foods.  

Living in Alaska was undeniably different from life 'in the lower 48' or 'down South' as Alaskans like to refer to the rest of the United States. This was further defined by my growing up on a small island with a population that hovers around 8,000.   The town has a span of fourteen miles of driving road, from end to end, and boasts a rich history involving the Tlingit Indians and Russian royalty duking it out long before the Alaskan territory was known as a state. Above all else, my island hometown is breathtaking in its scope of natural beauty.
Life on a remote island with a Northern climate meant limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  Fortunately, this was offset by the plentiful bounty of both land and sea.  It was unheard of to pay for fish or game yet we were up to our eyeballs in salmon, halibut, prawns, crab legs, and venison.  When dad wasn’t fishing or hunting himself, family friends generously shared their abundance of glistening filets of salmon and halibut, buckets of salty mussels or five pound bags filled with jumbo spot prawns. 
Three of  my most memorable childhood meals, if you can call them meals, were prepared by dad, employing little more than a single frying pan and a healthy pat of butter. Each consisted of seafood or game, caught or hunted by my dad or someone he knew.  The memories of those meals are unparalleled in my mind, just as they should be. 
The most memorable meal is no doubt the first time I tried abalone. If you have never seen an abalone shell, the visual itself is worth a mention. Once all of the meat has been removed, the silvery, rainbow-streaked shells are a sight to behold, with a curved single row of perforations.  Think Orion's belt against a backdrop of Aurora Borealis

Dad knew just what to do with abalone. He reached in the bucket, lifted out a living mollusk and carefully, deliberately pried the the apricot-hued flesh from inside its oval shell. He cleaned it well and used a mallet to tenderize the meat before lightly dredging it with flour and browning it in a pan of sizzling butter.

I sat down at the table, feeling as though I had stepped out of Lewis Carroll’s, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and was presented with a surprisingly small reward for my patience.  My teeth sunk into the crisp exterior of that cloud-shaped morsel and I was transported.  Nothing in my memory can surpass the butter-laced, delicate sweetness of that taste. Two decades later, on our honeymoon in Kauai, Hawaii, I tried to replicate the experience by ordering abalone at a well established, local seafood restaurant.  The results were a far cry from the delicacy my dad had prepared with love so many years ago.
Once, after a successful fishing trip, dad brought home a good-sized rainbow trout. Back then in Alaska, we didn't have to call it 'wild'. It was an assumed trait, the way French fries in France are simply 'pommes frites' (which is French for fried potatoes).  Nowadays, it is widely acknowledged that farmed fish threatens the livelihood of commercial fishermen and that 'wild' is undoubtedly the safer, healthier choice.   As they say in Alaska, ‘Friends don’t let friends eat farmed fish’.

Dad didn't stray far from simplicity when dealing with fresh fish. He let the food do the talking. As with the abalone, he lightly coated the trout in flour and fried it in butter.  After placing the plate before me, he cut a wedge of lemon and trickled the juice over the length of the trout .  Forks simultaneously poised, we dove in. The skin was crispy on the outside giving way to bright and buttery tender flesh.  Its texture was moist with a delicate firmness. It was the quintessential pan fried wild trout and I have never eaten it since. Whenever I come across trout on a restaurant menu, it is undoubtedly farmed. I came very close to replicating that delectable trout on a visit to Paris, a few years ago.  I ordered Sole Meuniere at the legendary bistro, Allard and it was my 'Julia Child moment'. Dad's trout it was not; but this sophisticated city counterpart was akin to that humble yet memorable meal of my childhood.  

The last of the three most memorable is one that hasn't exactly taken off in culinary circles. In fact, I am not certain that I would enjoy it as much now as I did then. I know I was very young because I could see the frying pan hovering over the burner, although I had no view of its contents. Dad had just returned from a hunting trip which meant two things. It meant that Mom had gone into hiding until the carnage subsided and it meant that we would be eating venison. I watched as dad cut the meat into small strips then heard the familiar sizzle as it made contact with hot butter in the pan. I smelled the juices emitting from the fragrant meat as it seared. My mouth watered.  My brother stood beside me, the two of us waiting, poised like hungry wolves, licking our chops.  
Dad had scarcely removed the pan from the flame when his fork made contact with those tendrils of meat, curled up like corkscrews.  I popped a piece into my mouth.  It was chewy, salty, concentrated in flavor and not at all gamey.  Between the three of us, that meat was gone in mere seconds.  I demanded more but there was none to be had. I can’t recall whether it was before or after the fact when dad informed us that we had eaten a deer's heart, but it didn’t matter. What I do recall is how proud I felt to embrace my father’s adventurous palate and I knew that I would be telling this story years from that moment.

Mom, with her weak stomach for blood and all things gory, had good reason to hide from the deer slaughtering action. When dad returned from hunting trips, mom would take me somewhere on an 'errand' while he skinned and butchered the deer, which hung from the rafters of our carport. By the time we returned, dad would have cleaned up and all that remained was the faint scent of blood and the smell of fresh venison in the cold air. Not a big fan of cooking or eating wild game, mom tolerated dad's hunting as best she could.

After dad’s return from a successful hunting trip, mom warily approached the driveway, peering over the dash to make sure that the garage was no longer a meat locker.  She would pull in only when the coast was clear.   On one such occasion, we entered the house and found that all was quiet.  I retreated to my bedroom while mom headed for the kitchen to start dinner. Moments later, I was startled by the piercing shriek of a bloodcurdling scream. I rushed to the kitchen where I found mom on the verge of tears, her eyes angrily flashing.  Also on the scene were my dad and brother, feigning looks of surprise, which soon gave way to peals of side-aching laughter. In the tall kitchen garbage can, dad had strategically placed a deer's head and legs so that it appeared to be reaching out its hooves and staring straight up at mom when she lifted the lid.  

I take great pleasure in passing on dad’s sense of adventure to my six-year-old daughter.  Any time that she tries something new or out of the ordinary, we celebrate her efforts by calling grandpa and sharing the good news.  Her most adventurous food to date:  On our last trip to Paris, we shot this sequence of photos detailing Annabelle’s initial apprehension leading up to her first taste of escargots.

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  1. I remember heading out with Dad & Phil to get the abalone - I was pretty young and we went by 18' skiff. It was powered by an oversized outboard motor, and we were airborne off the top of each swell - Phil was yelling 'yee-haw!!' while I was half-terrified and half-thrilled. We cruised up to rocks that were alternating from being visible to awash with ocean swells. I sat in the bobbing skiff near the rocks while Dad and Phil jumped out and started popping the abalone off the rock like magnets off a fridge. All the while they were hanging on to whatever they could each time a wave came rolling through. You have to be very quick harvesting abalone because if you disturb them, they will lock down on the rock, making it incredibly difficult to remove them without damaging the shell or meat.

    I never did like abalone very much - the taste was pretty good, but I always thought the texture was likely similar to shoe leather. Deer meat, on the other hand, is excellent. I was on a successful hunt near Petersburg last fall and we brought home several roasts and some backstrap. The backstrap, cut into little medallions then fried with flour, is better than any meat I’ve ever had anywhere. Mom used to like venison, but she developed an intolerance for it after dad brought home a really gamey deer that uncle dick had maimed with a poor shot. The deer's meat was ruined because it ran after it was shot, pumping adrenaline through its whole nervous system. The cooked meat from that deer had an awful aroma that I still recall when cooking venison, so I know how Mom felt. But Sitka black tail deer are an excellent source of meat. They are much leaner than beef, and very heart-healthy.

    The trout did not go over well with me because of the bones. Dad always said to just eat the bones because they were soft. That is just not my cup of tea.

    One correction to your text, Sitka is about 14 miles from one end to the other, but it has lots of road- miles in between, including a dirt road to the 2000’ level of Harbor Mountain, and a classic suspension bridge to Japonski Island, connecting Sitka’s residents to the airport, regional hospital, University of Alaska Campus, U.S. Coast Guard air and sea bases, a large boat harbor, and the state run Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Sitka is actually the largest city in the United States by area (unless you count Yakutat, which is hardly a city).

  2. I had never heard about the harvesting of the abalone. What a great addition to the story! It's like piecing together a puzzle. I vaguely recall your shoe leather comparison but I was probably just happy that there was more for me.

    I don't recall the trout bones. I probably ate them. Sole is different in that the bone is removed in one piece after cooking. If you ever get the chance to try Sole Meuniere, I hope you will. It is by far the most delicious thing I have ever tasted.

    I have eaten unpalatable venison on more than one occasion. I've been told that it is related to improper hanging time or aging of the meat. The best venison I've eaten in recent years was at a nearby Basque restaurant, Harvest Vine. They served the seared medallions with wild mushrooms (your favorite!) and it was superb.

    Thank you pointing out my factual error about Sitka. Duly noted. I meant to reference the 14 miles from end to end but it came out wrong.

    I love hearing your side of the story and your corrections are greatly appreciated!