It’s officially a trend: Numerous high-end chefs are serving venison as more than just a trendy menu gimmick, but a staple item consumers are increasingly coming to love.
As a kid, my dad and a group of co-workers had an annual ritual around this time of year: Bow hunting for white-tailed deer in the surprisingly rugged hills in western New York near the Pennsylvania border.
He always came back wearing a full beard and toting only a couple slabs and maybe a leg from an animal one of the other hunters bagged and butchered in his garage. Us kids were always disappointed he never returned with a trophy rack, but we always looked forward to a special meal featuring slow-roasted venison.
That was back when hunting was accepted and hunters were admired for their skill, rather than demonized as killers of helpless wildlife.
My father’s oh-for-his-lifetime is proof that the deer weren’t helpless by any means, but now venison is making a comeback — it never really left — as a plentiful, locally sourced protein food that’s natural, healthy and under the animal activists’ radar for the most part.
Of course, the surge in popularity of game meats is separate from the activities of hunters; regulations generally prevent hunted animals from being sold directly to consumers; only state- or federally inspected establishments can process and sell game meats.
But even in urban areas, chefs capitalizing on an increasing consumer taste for venison. Meat purveyors are marketing venison to upscale restaurateurs, mostly as a seasonal specialty, and even supplying a few grocery stores and meat markets.
At The Musket Room restaurant New York City, for example, Chef Matt Lambert carries venison on the menu year-round, according to a feature on amNewYork.com. Lambert, a native of New Zealand, where most of the farm-raised venison sold in the United States is raised, said that his customers’ appetite for venison is growing, and his “Red Deer with Flavors of Gin” has become a popular signature dish.
Much of the venison served domestically is imported from Cervena, farmer-owned co-op in New Zealand that has focused on consistency in both quality and availability — and business has been good. Typically, a rack of venison ribs retails for about $85 and 2 pounds of venison strip steak sells for market prices north of about $30 a pound.
According to Cervena’s description of its Natural Tender Venison, its farmed deer are under 36 months of age (since Chronic Wasting Disease, a neurological disease similar to BSE or scrapie is found among both wild and farmed deer), are allowed to roam and graze freely and are given no hormones, steroids or supplemental feed other than hay or silage.
That’s all wonderfully green and pastoral, but it would obviate the advantages venison producers enjoy if they attempted to confine the deer to dairy-sized pastures and to administer growth promotants. Even relatively tame, domesticated deer aren’t easily herded like cattle or sheep, and the idea of individually administering supplemental pharmaceuticals would likely be more trouble than it’s worth.
Deer and elk are superbly suited to otherwise less-desirable acreage: hilly, brush-covered terrain or second-growth forest land is ideal. In fact, there is a growing farmed elk industry in northern Alberta, which, unfortunately, has developed around sales of antlers (velvet) as an aphrodisiac to Asian markets. Although elk meat has an excellent nutritional profile and a mature animal can yield as much as 400 or 500 pounds of meat, elk lags far behind venison as a game meat of choice.
That’s too bad, because when either species finds favor among trendy foodies and/or blue-collar carnivores, it’s a positive development — in fact, I would argue that every pound of game meat bought and consumed represents a powerful counter to the vegan mythology that humans were meant to live on plants.
Native Americans lived almost exclusively on venison, buffalo and fish as their dietary staples, and no animal rights advocate I’ve ever heard has attempted to criticize their lifestyle. Plus, the usual attack lines activists always use — the horrors of industrial farming, the unconscionable waste of energy and resources used to grow animal feed — just aren’t applicable to deer.
Them dogs don’t hunt.
D’Artagnan, a Manhattan-based purveyor, projects a 25 percent increase in its U.S. venison sales for 2014 to around 140,000 pounds. Other urban purveyors are selling U.S. grown venison from such sources as Bur Oaks, a venture put together by Iowa State University Extension.
But the very fact that it’s a traditional, natural, eco-friendly food source makes venison an excellent example of the kind of diet on which people were built to thrive.
Venison remains a seasonal specialty food, and unless you’re a hunter with better skills than my dad, off the table for most people. But with increasingly popularity, it might become a year ’round menu item. That would be a source of culinary satisfaction for diners and even better, a serious case of indigestion for animal activists.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.