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Thursday, September 15, 2011

I had dinner in Idaho tonight

Most nights when you sit down to dinner you do so in your kitchen and enjoy the normal sights, sounds, and smells that you call “home”.  When you are a hunter you never eat dinner without being transported for at least a few moments back to the field.  Your mind goes back to the source of the meal.  I’ve never taken venison back-strap out of the freezer without thinking of that animal and how I took it as I prepared the meal. 
Usually this has my mind wandering to a cold, gray winter’s day in north-central Mississippi.  As I slice open the vacuum packed venison I can picture the view I had from the hasty ground blind I had assembled, or I can feel the strain in my legs as I slowly stalked an animal until I could get a shot.  This type of eating is way better than the stuff you buy at the store.  I’ve never, ever, opened a package of ground beef and had my mind transport me back to Aisle 5.  “So there I was…right between the pickles and the canned corn when I knew I had to make my move.  The butcher quartered away from me and before he could react I snatched up this cellophane wrapped rectangle of ground beef and I ran.”  Even if it did happen like that I wouldn’t be very excited about reliving it. 
I have a good friend in Idaho.  He’s like a redneck pen-pal of sorts.  We see each other every now and then but we talk and write a lot.  We both love to hunt and fish so there is no end to the stuff we can talk about.
My friend being the high tech redneck sort used a whole host of technological advances to transport me to the mountains of Idaho tonight.  I was sitting at work today when I got a package with the following inscribed upon it “Refrigerate” and “Perishable”.  If I hadn’t known better I might have thought he’d shipped me a few snowballs…or perhaps a six pack of local brew.
I tore this package open with the skill and care of a surgeon and the speed of a meth fueled cheetah.  What I saw when I lifted the lid was beyond belief.  No…it wasn’t six pounds of gold…it was better.  There were three vac packed items inside the box.  They were all neatly arranged and labeled, and they were all still very cold.  One was labeled “marinated antelope steaks”, the next “Elk Steaks” and the final package carried the words “cutthroat and rainbow”.  I’m getting giddy again just writing about this.
A quick word about the male emotional circuit is in order here.  Guys generally don’t get emotional.  We don’t cry at movies and we don’t sit around talking about our “feelings”…but when I saw these packages I was moved almost the point of tears…great big ol’ tears of joy and hunger.
I immediately placed this precious cargo in the refrigerator at work along with the keys to my truck.  Why did I put my truck keys in the fridge?  Because if I didn’t then I might leave work without these sacred packages…so I put my keys right on top of the elk steaks and I got back to work.
My friend was kind enough to shoot me some suggestions on how to prepare each of these treats and I was eager to get home and try them.  After a serious and deliberate bit of contemplation I decided that the elk steaks would be first.  When I got home I ran up to my wife and with all of the excitement and pride of a 5 year old showing off his first Matchbox car I showed her what I had received in the mail.  She started saying something but I blew right by her on my way to the charcoal and hoped she would understand.  I had a primal urge burning in me to get the charcoal lit.   
After I had the coals going I gently sliced open the package containing the elk steaks.  From this bag I removed four of the most beautiful cuts of meat I had ever laid eyes upon.  The first impression I got was just how big these steaks were.  They were big rectangular slabs of lean, moist, ruby-red elk steaks.  Even raw they smelled wonderful.  At this point I also had to hand it to my friend...this meat was obviously processed by someone who knew what they were doing and who cared.  The meat was in great shape with no “silver skin” as we call it in the south…this is essentially tendon attached to the outside of the meat and it creates a very tough and chewy texture if not removed.  My friend had done a masterful job of processing this animal.  His handy-work was now sitting on a dinner plate roughly 1,500 miles from where the animal fell. 
After preparing the steaks for the grill it was show time.  I placed the steaks on the grate about 4 inches above the coals and I prayed I wouldn’t mess this up.  I literally had one shot to make this work.  I had faith in my grill skills and I did what needed to be done.  While the meat was cooking I paced like a coyote outside a chicken house.  This meal could…not…be ready…soon enough.  During the time these were on the grill my dog had been keeping an even closer eye than usual on the grill so I had to watch to make sure he didn’t do something suicidal. 
I had to turn the steaks once or twice during the cycle and these were becoming the most perfectly plump, caramel colored, pieces of protein that have ever graced my grills surface.  15 minutes later the first steaks were ready. 
There was no ceremony, I simply walked in the back door, set the plate on the counter and with tremendous anticipation used my best knife to slice across the grain of this beautiful steaming chunk of meat.  The caramelized outer layer had bits of black charring around the edges that gave way to a thin layer of lighter brown just under the surface which in turn flowed to pink and then darker and moister shades of red as I approached the center of the cut.  Juices and steam flowed and danced in front of me in an irresistible show that beckoned me to partake of this meal.  Enchanting might be the best description.
I cut the first slice into two pieces…one for my wife and one for me.  I handed her the first piece and a moment after she began to chew her whole body slumped in an exaggerated display of relaxation, her eyes rolled back in her head and I kid you not…the first words out of her mouth were “When are you going elk hunting?!?” 
NOW I REALLY owe my buddy in Idaho..big time.  He just single-handedly got my wife to BEG ME to go elk hunting.  This guy is a genius.  This plan was so bold, so audacious, and so…diabolical that I never could have come up with it.  I never could have guessed that this would be the end result.  In my short sighted view of the world I thought I was just getting a really good meal….when all the while he was seeing the big picture, looking out for me, and casting in stone my ability to go elk hunting whenever I want…it’s unbelievable.
I think he has created an extension of the old phrase “give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime”. 
The new saying should go “Give a man some elk and you’ve taught his wife that him going elk hunting is a really, really good deal for the whole family not just for him because everyone loves elk meat and it’s really delicious and good for you too and it’s not just like he’s out there goofing around and playing cards in a cabin with the guys, he’s actually procuring the best meat on the planet for his family and that makes him a great provider and she’s glad she married him and if he gets an elk he doesn’t have to do any of the stuff on the honey-do list”. 
It’s a bit more “wordy” than the original phrase but I think it works.
My friend had told me that the elk would be the best meat I’ve ever had…period.  While I had heard many stories over the years proclaim the joys of elk meat…I had my doubts that it would be the best.  I’ve eaten in a lot of high falootin places in my time.  I’ve had five star French meals on Waikiki beach, and I’ve had Prime-Grade bone-in Rib eyes at some of the best steak houses in the world.  I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had some opportunities to really eat well. 
When that meat hit my mouth it was pure magic.  I want to say it “melted” in my mouth but that’s a bit cliché and I’m not sure it captures the true nature of the event.  That elk meat didn’t just melt in my mouth…it melted with my soul.  If it were ever possible to “become one” with a flavor…it happened right there in my kitchen.  The combination of texture, flavor, tenderness, juiciness, and several other “intangibles” all combined to do more than merely satisfy me.  They transported me.  I was no longer sitting at a dinner table in Memphis, TN...I had just sat down to dinner in Idaho.  I might as well have been standing amid sagebrush halfway up a draw in an Idaho canyon listening to the elk bugling and drawing deep cool lungful’s of mountain air scented with sage and pine and elk musk.  I am a loooooonnnng way from “Aisle 5” at this point. 
These are the things that make life..."LIFE"…and I am tremendously happy that my friend allowed me a small glimpse into his world through the joy of food.  I also owe him huge thanks for getting my wife to demand that I start elk hunting. 
I need to wrap this up…I actually am going fishing tomorrow.  And since I owe my buddy a favor in return maybe I can find a FedEx box big enough to put a big blue cat into.  Who knows…maybe it will make his wife demand that he starts jug fishing.

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