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Wild Game Plan

A new breed of game meat processors and home butchers emerges


When I was a child in Greenleaf, hunting for deer and elk was more a matter of necessity than a matter of sport. If my family did well--if one of us got an elk or maybe a deer--we had a much easier time with the food budget over the next year. Most years, we would drop off the scrap meat at a local butcher shop for processing.

I vividly remember Randy Jahn, the owner of Greenleaf Custom Meats, greeting me and my father each year. He would ask about the hunt, how fast the meat was cooled and inspect the cooler of meat we were about to leave in his care. A few weeks later, we would return for our items: ground elk mixed with beef fat, maybe some jerky, summer sausage and some salami.

Fast-forward 25 years and wild game processing is now in the midst of a revolution that is not necessarily occurring in the butcher shops. Hunters across the United States, and increasingly in Idaho, are starting to follow the culinary trend of DIY butchering. And some hunters who do take their meat to be processed are beginning to ask for more preparations beyond the pepperoni stick.

"The consumer in general is getting a little more adventurous and depending on where you are, the hunters can be ahead of that curve, behind that curve or right on it. I think it depends on the region," said Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, and the forthcoming Duck: The Ultimate Guide to Preparing Duck and Geese.

But by and large, Idaho seems to be behind the curve. After calling a host of local Treasure Valley butchers--including Tackett's Wildgame Processing, Smoky Davis, Meats Royale, Custom Butcher and Smoke House--and visiting their websites, most seem to be producing similar things. The majority make pressed jerky, pepperoni and summer sausage but not much else.

Shaw explained that, like most industries, wild game butchers live on the supply-and-demand model. If hunters asked for unique and different cuts of meat, then the butchers--"meat geeks" as Shaw called them--would provide the product.

Anthony Rios, butcher at Boise game processing staple Smoky Davis, said the new generation of hunter/foodies isn't demanding wildly different products from the old guard.

"It is still pretty traditional. They mostly want things that they can freeze, like sausages. ... One thing that we are doing this year that is unique, is smoking whole bone-in quarters of game animals; I have two hanging in my cooler right now," Rios said. "We have never had people ask for that before."

But Jesse Hernandez, owner of Prime Cuts Meat, is hoping to broaden the options available locally. Hernandez has experience in wild game, wholesale butchering and retail butchering that he will bring to the former Reel Foods location next to Rhodes Skate Park in downtown Boise in mid-December.

"I truly am going to provide something unique to the area," Hernandez said. "I am going to do some whole muscle jerky, as well as pressed because pressed jerky is often batched--that is what everybody does. I'll give people an option, quality and value."

Pressed jerky is made with meat that is ground fine and then extruded through a tube into shapes. Often the meat from several animals is used to make this preparation so a hunter can often get another person's meat mixed in.

Hernandez went on to add, "I am currently experimenting with homemade meatballs. I give every customer recipes, nutritional facts on wild game meat and a color-coded diagram chart of their cuts."

According to Hernandez, the strangest game animal he's processed to date is bear, which he made into bear sausage.

"It was freaky and definitely the strangest wild game meat that I have ever cut up," Hernandez added.

But some hunters, like Dave Bourff, are wary of taking their meat to a butcher.

"You wonder if you are a) getting back all the good stuff, and b) if you are getting back somebody else's stuff," Bourff said.

This practice is commonly referred to as "community grinding" on wild game.

"I know that when I take care of game in the field and treat it properly, I don't want mine intertwined with people that drug theirs through the dirt and let it sit in the heat," said Bourff.

This concern has even become an advertising point for some butcher shops. Tackett's has a "100 percent get your own meat back guarantee" on its website. It even has a showroom where a hunter can watch the meat being butchered.

Wanting to know exactly what's in your meat and where it came from, combined with a pervasive DIY ethos, has led home butchering to become a lifestyle choice for many consumers. I butcher all of my meat at home. Some preparations I've tried this year include Basque-style bear solomo, duck prosciutto, bear pepperoni, smoked duck, elk chorizo, venison breakfast sausages, duck bratwurst, elk jerky and rabbit Italian sausage.

On the forefront of this home-butchering trend nationally is chef Corey Fair, the owner and founder of Butcher and Baker, an online store dedicated to supporting and meeting the needs of the Culinary Generation. Fair sells a variety of things, from cutting boards to a T-shirt that pays homage to Sir Mix-a-Lot with the slogan, "I like Pig Butts and I Can Not Lie."

Fair has noticed some new trends in the wild game processing world.

"I'm starting to see a movement towards learning how to use all of the various cuts in better ways. When I was growing up, it was pretty much back strap, roast and stew. Now you have guys like Jesse Morris at creating dishes like teal Tom Yum soup, duck gumbo or sous vide goose," said Fair.

In the past, wild game meat was the norm, not the exception. Whole cuisines developed around what hunters could bring to the table. In order to rekindle this age-old connection between hunting traditions and foodie desires, it's essential for butchers and hunters to meet somewhere in the middle.

"At their core, every hunter and chef is a foodie. We all appreciate and want better products. We want to know how to best use them, and we want to get back to a better way of life," said Fair.