The Myth of "Gamey" Venison.

Jack Fowler

My real introduction to critter cuisine came later in life than most. My Dad was a target shooter, and I was raised in a "city-slicker" environment. Occasional holiday visits to my Granddad resulted in a few East Texas rabbit hunts, but that was the extent of my early hunting.

As soon as I settled on 640 acres in Young Co. Texas, the cram courses in rural living came hard, and fast. My mentor in many of them was a man who had spent his life in the area, and had become a master woodsman, living off the land in good times, and bad. When we got around to the subject of meat on the table, I expressed a less-than-enthusiastic taste for "gamey" meat. He shot me one of those looks, and proclaimed, "Gamey ain't nuthin' but a fancy word for spoilt." I had already learned the bad odds of questioning his opinion, and as he usually did, he set about proving what he had said. Over the next few years, venison was a staple of our diet, served up in all kinds of dishes. It was, and still is, one of the tastiest meats I've ever enjoyed, and "gamey" was nowhere to be found.

In any mammal, decomposition begins at death. It is caused by naturally occurring bacteria which flourish, and quickly multiply in a warm environment. There is no magic "grace period" allotted to hunters to give them time to load their kill, and get it into town to the processor. From the moment of the kill, the clock is ticking. The enemy is heat. The residual heat of the innards, combined with the natural insulation of the fur covered hide, provides a thermal blanket for the meat which has it's own residual heat to deal with. 

It is my opinion that every minute that passes with the carcass left intact diminishes the quality of the meat. At some point the rapidly multiplying bacteria will decompose the meat to the point where the taste will be affected, and the result will be a "gamey" taste, or as my friend so bluntly put it, "spoilt". Such meat still looks normal, and is certainly not so far along as to smell bad, or cause any sickness. By normal definition then, it is not spoiled, and is safely edible. 

Unfortunately, this is many people's only experience with venison, and other game meat, and the taste is unfairly blamed on the animals. Our ally in this race is obviously, cooling. The quicker the meat is cooled, the quicker the bacteria are killed, and the decomposition process slowed. Since most large game is taken in cool, or cold weather, the solution becomes obvious. Ideally, the carcass should be caped, beheaded, skinned, and gutted on the spot of the kill. This is seldom feasible, much less convenient, but the dressing out process should at least become the primary focus of the hunter as soon as the kill is made. I don't have any charts, or graphs, but considerable experience in those days has led me to believe that anything over an hour is asking for trouble. 

All of our deer were fully dressed out well within this time limit, and as I have said, gamey was just not an issue. Such travesties as a triumphant ride into town draped over a warm vehicle hood, or left hanging in a tree until "Bubba" gets his big trophy buck are just a waste of good meat turned to well deserved crap for those who allowed it to happen.

My experience is not very scientific, and I have heard protests from far more experienced hunters who have challenged me with tales of hauled-into-town deer that "tasted just fine." I don't know for sure how much decomposition must take place before the taste is affected, and there are many, many variables at work here. I always replied that "just fine" is a relative opinion, and it was a pretty safe bet that the quality of the meat didn't *improve* any during the trip to town.

Once dressed out, the bare meat cools quickly, and depending on the ambient temperature, the race is usually won. We relaxed, and leisurely tidied up the carcass, removing excess fat, and cleaning up the body cavity. When done, we quartered the carcass, divided it evenly, and headed for our respective freezers. My friend also taught my wife the art of butchering, passing along such tips as slightly frozen meat is much easier to cut than fresh, or thawed meat. She quickly became very good at creating her favorite cuts, and learning which parts of the carcass were best suited to what dishes, or cooking techniques.

During those years, we often had friends out of the city come visit. I always waited until after supper to tell them that the only thing on their plate that was "store-bought" was the salt, and pepper. They could understand the bread made from wheat given to us by area farmers, and the fresh veggies from the garden, but when it came to the meat, they always locked up. "It's beef isn't it?" "Did you butcher one of your cows?" When I told them it was venison, the response was universal. "But it didn't taste gamey!" "All the venison I ever ate tasted gamey!" I never had the heart to tell them what they had really been eating all those other times.

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Bone Sour
Caused by bacteria that attack the interior of the meat when the meat temperature is allowed to rise above normal refrigeration. Occurs in dry cured, large cuts of meat because of the time required for the cure to reach the interior of the meat. Always keep meat refrigerated doing the entire curing period. You can also pump (inject) the cure into the meat to speed the curing process.