With the holidays well behind us, I’m thinking of how to save money. Maybe vegetarianism? This was going through my mind as I drove back from a friend’s farm in New York’s Hudson Valley when the car in front of me hit a deer. It was so stunning I had to stop to regroup. Immediately I was reminded of a story a my friend Nora Fluke in Colorado told me on her first day of vegetarianism, which was her New Year’s resolution.
She was driving home from the hospital (she’s a nurse) and hit a jackrabbit. She was going to keep driving, but instead, she stopped. The rabbit was still alive, barely. She held her breath, grabbed the shovel in the back of her truck, and, with brute force, put the rabbit out of its misery.
Now what, she thought, picking it up by its ears and putting it in the truck’s bed. By the time she arrived home she had decided what to do. She took the rabbit into her kitchen, skinned it, cut it up and after sautéing onions and garlic she seared it. Then, in the same pot, she added potatoes, carrots, leeks, white wine, a bay leaf and mint, lidded it, and let it cook all afternoon.
“It would have been far worse to waste the creature,” she told me. She would begin her vegetarianism tomorrow.
I looked up and saw a group had put the deer on a tarp and was dragging it to the side of the road.
Last year I did an interview with a young man who was a forager and uncomfortable with me revealing his identity because of the sometimes negative reaction his foraging receives. Seth grew up in Southern California and, as a kid, he and his friends rode around on their bikes collecting fruit either from the ground or the over-laden branches of orange, plum and pear trees. He lived near the beach, and everybody he knew had a pole spear. They’d ride bikes down to the beach and spear fish; bring the fish home, grill it or make ceviche.
Now, as an adult, he searches out mushrooms in the mountains of Colorado, gathers his neighbor’s fallen fruit, and if he sees a tree laden with apples, he takes his ladder, knocks on doors and gets permission to pick the fruit from the highest branches, fruit that otherwise would go to waste. There are websites for foraging such as www.neighborhoodfruit.com, www.veggietrader.com and www.fallenfruit.org, many of which are based in California.
Seth’s wife lovingly calls him an “accidentarian” because if he finds a deer or elk that has accidentally been hit by a car or truck, he pulls the dead animal off the road and begins his work. It’s an unfortunate accident for the animal but rather than waste a body along with a life, he uses it.
‘You think of it as food’
Five or six years ago, he bought a house and started a garden.
“Foraging is a lot easier when you’re in one place and have a freezer and a pantry, somewhere to store your food. It also helps to have someone besides yourself to feed,” he said.
His first experience dressing an animal was when he was out climbing and his climbing partner’s dog chased a deer into a fence. The deer broke its leg. They found a neighbor with a gun to put the deer down. He remembered an old U.S. Army field manual he’d read which outlined how to dress an animal.
“It’s intense to put a knife in a body while it’s still intact. But as you do it the process gets more and more abstract, and then suddenly it’s in 1- or 2-pound bags going into the freezer, and you think of it as food. I no longer look at meat in the same way. I have empathy for every living being. I mean, it’s a large mammal, it has most of the same parts we have,” Seth said.
The way it works is he either gets a call, or is driving and sees a dead deer or elk on the road. He gets out of his truck and spreads a tarp. Often he’ll drag the animal out of the road. Nobody wants to touch it. It’s often still warm; sometimes it has cooled. In the winter, or even when it’s cooler in the fall, it can be sitting there for days and still be fine.
The stomach bloats almost immediately because of the gas. People see the bloated stomach and think the meat has gone bad. He uses a hatchet to cut through the pelvis of the animal. He takes the innards out and leaves them along the side of the road for coyotes and crows.
After a deer has hung for maybe a day or two, even up to three weeks, you can process it into steaks or roasts and then freeze it. He takes all the tough stuff with tendons, what he’ll use for stew, to the local butcher. They’ll grind as much as he wants for about $20.
At least 14 states have laws relating to roadkill but still the salvage of dead animals for food is sensitive and controversial.
Last winter, a deer Seth picked up around Thanksgiving fed three families until this summer. All of this came back to me as I stared at the dead deer on the side of the road. The group was gone. The deer was alone and I was wishing I could save that creature from going to waste. It would feed my family for weeks.
Zester Daily contributor Katherine Leiner has published many award-winning books for children and young adults and, more recently, her first novel for adults, “Digging Out” (Penguin). Her most recent book, “Growing Roots: The New Sustainable Generation of Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists” won half a dozen awards, including the National Indie Excellence Gold Medal Award. Katherine’s next novel is due this year.
Photo: Seth butchers a deer. Credit: Andrew Lipton