What’s for Dinner?

When you live on a farm and butcher your own meat, and are putting that meat in the freezer for long-term storage, it’s important to label the packages clearly.

Unfortunately, try as we might, we don’t always remember to follow this rule. As a result, I’m not entirely sure what’s for dinner tonight.

Yesterday morning, I pulled a somewhat frosty Ziploc bag from the freezer. I made a quick inspection, and thought it looked like ground beef. I set the bag on the kitchen counter, to begin thawing it for lunch.

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By the time lunch rolled around, the meat was still mostly frozen — but thawed enough so I could tell it was most definitely not hamburger. Apparently, the frost had thrown me off.

But what was it?

Evidently, in the rush to get the meat cut into meal-sized portions, and off the butchering table, someone (probably me) forgot to write anything on the label. If I had to guess, I’d say it was a leg roast from a young goat that we butchered recently. But it could also be a leg roast from a deer that I butchered about three years ago. I really don’t know.

I put the bag in the fridge to continue thawing overnight, and then our eldest daughter put the meat in the Crock Pot this morning. We added some apple cider vinegar, an onion, salt, and various spices (rosemary, basil, etc).

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We then let it cook on low for a few hours, waiting for the fat to come melting off, before adding some chopped potatoes and stirring everything up. It’s been cooking together like that all afternoon now.

I’m still not positive about the meat, but it sure smells good. And with the little September snap we’re already sensing in the air, I have a feeling that this hearty roast is going to make a wonderful dinner tonight.

Whatever it is.

Surprise Bonus!

Living on a farm, you never know when a curve ball will throw your whole day onto an unexpected trajectory. It could be the surprise arrival of a goat kid or lamb, especially one that needs human attention because the mother isn’t doing her job. It could be the stupid goat that snaps a leg going over a fence. Or any number of other things.

Tuesday of this week, it was an early-morning collision on the road in front of our property. I was out in my office when I heard the sound of crunching metal. The dogs began barking, and I went to the window for a look. A car had stopped toward the western edge of our land, and two whitetail deer where headed across our hay field. The lead animal was bounding at full tilt, but the second one was hobbling badly. It wasn’t hard to deduce what had happened.

Another vehicle stopped to assist the one that’d hit the deer, so I returned my attention to the hay field. It appeared that both animals were now long gone, but then I took a closer look. In fact, the trailing deer — a doe — had collapsed in the middle of the field. Her head would be visible for a few seconds at a time, struggling, before dropping below the tall grass. It was likely that the collision had broken some ribs, which had punctured a lung; it was how more than one of our beloved farm dogs had died over the years. I figured the humane thing to do would be to put her out of her misery.

I holstered a handgun, then pulled on my jacket and jogged out to the hay field. As I made my way toward the struggling animal, I noticed an older woman walking in from the road as she talked on a cell phone. She greeted me, and introduced herself as the driver of the car that’d hit the deer. She said she’d called the sheriff’s department, and that a deputy would be coming to take the accident report and euthanize the deer. “They asked if I want the deer, and I don’t,” she added. “Do you?”

“Sure,” I replied.

After trying to describe our location to the person on the other end of the line, the woman handed me the phone, and I told the dispatcher exactly what our address was. “I have a pistol and can put the deer down right now,” I added.

“No, you can’t!” the dispatcher replied. “You need to wait for the deputy.” I was more than a bit taken aback by the dispatcher’s emphatic tone, but on later reflection understood the policy better. Without an officer to confirm the circumstances of the situation, it would be easy for a poacher to shoot a deer and then later claim he was euthanizing an injured animal. He could even break one of the animal’s legs, and/or a few ribs, to make the story more convincing.

I assured the dispatcher that I would wait for authorities to arrive, then handed the phone back to the driver. But as she gave her name and other information, euthanizing the deer became moot. The poor doe went into death throes, and flopped flat onto the hay field. The driver’s voice broke with emotion, and could barely spell her own name for the dispatcher. I knelt and stroked the doe’s neck and head as the animal expired — even more as a gesture of comfort for the driver than for the deer.

Once she finished with the dispatcher, the woman returned to her car and I went back to the house. I got a large wheelbarrow, took it to the hayfield, and after quite a struggle managed to get the heavy doe into the wheelbarrow. I considered bleeding the animal out, but didn’t want to risk having to explain a large knife wound to the officer. Instead, I simply wheeled the body up next to the woman’s car, told her I’d return once the police arrived, and then went back to my office to wait.

I didn’t realize the police had arrived until I looked up and saw the driver bringing the wheelbarrow down our driveway to back porch. I looked out to the road, and saw the patrol car now behind hers. Apparently, the officer had been satisfied with what he’d seen and no longer needed the deer’s body. I grabbed my identification, and followed the woman back to her car. Her husband had also arrived, and the three of us stood around making small talk while the officer sat in his cruiser and worked on a computer. It was an unfortunate way to meet the neighbors (they lived just a couple of miles up the road from us), but I enjoyed getting to know them.

While we were talking, our oldest son came out to the road to see what was going on. He told me he’d seen the carcass in the wheelbarrow, and had thought one of our own goats — one that indeed has coloration very similar to a deer’s — had died. I explained what’d happened, and assured him that all of our animals were fine. But it was still an amusing misunderstanding that injected some much-needed levity into an otherwise sad situation.

Eventually, the officer finished his work and gave me an official “Permit to Posses Deer or Bear.” I thanked him, then said my good-byes to the woman and her husband. (Her car had substantial front end damage, but was fortunately still operational.)

Back at the house, I had a decision to make. Take the carcass to our butcher, and spend $60 or more having him process it? Or try my hand at carving it up myself? Although I butcher all of our poultry, and am not the least bit squeamish, I’d never attempted to butcher a mammal larger than a scrawny goat kid or lamb. In my mind, I guess large mammals had become something “I Can’t Do,” and that “Someone Else Has to Do For Me.”

I was tired of thinking that way, and decided to treat this deer as a learning experience. Yeah, I would probably make some mistakes. But so what? It had cost us absolutely nothing. The whole thing was a pure bonus.

I left a message for a friend who has a lot more experience butchering deer, and who’d told me some time back that he’d be happy to teach me how to process a deer or goat. And then my oldest son and I got started as best we could. First, I got some heavy-duty baling twine, then cut holes near the each of the deer’s rear ankles to string it through. While I hugged and hoisted the deer as high as I could, my son pulled the twine over a large beam in the downstairs part of our barn.

Problem is, though, that beam is only about seven feet off the ground. Even with the deer as high as I could string her, the head was still almost on the ground. Since I didn’t have any other options at the moment, we got to work as best we could. First, I cut the head off to allow as much blood to drain. Then, in the time before our friend arrived, I managed to disembowel the animal and get all the guts / organs removed. There was a lot more material, but the process was similar enough to eviscerating a turkey or goose. The twelve-year-old joined us somewhere in the middle of this process, and the two boys thoroughly enjoyed identifying each of the body parts as they came out. We saved the heart and liver (which were HUGE compared to their poultry counterparts!), fed the lungs to the chickens and barn cats, and dumped everything else into an old feed bag for disposal.

Our friend got there soon after I cut the hide and began peeling it off the deer’s hind legs and back like a sock. He’d brought a real block and tackle, which would work well using the rafters of our garage. He helped me cut the carcass down and move it, then he set up his hoist in the garage. A moment later, we lifted the remains of the deer into place. It still was a little lower than ideal, but a much better work space than the barn.

It took us about 45 minutes or so to finish skinning the deer and cut off the neck. We then flipped the carcass around the other way, so it was now hanging from the front legs. This let us remove large chunks of meat, and the hind quarters, and he showed me how to remove the tenderloins and back straps. We also got a good look inside the chest cavity, which confirmed my suspicions about how the deer died: several ribs on her right side were badly broken, which had most likely punctured her lung.

We put the meat in large food grade plastic bags, and stored them in a spare refrigerator. We made the mistake, however, of thinking the garage would remain cool enough to allow the fore quarters to hang and age for a couple of days. It was certainly cool enough at night (we even had our first frost early today), but the garage got warmer than expected during the daytime hours. When my neighbor returned this morning to help cut up the large pieces in the refrigerator, and to finish carving up the hanging carcass, we decided that the room-temperature meat would be more safely fed to the dogs. It just didn’t smell or look quite right. He apologized, explaining that he’d never butchered a deer this early in the fall. I shrugged and assured him that what we had in the refrigerator (easily 25-30+ pounds) would be plenty. This was a learning experience, and I’d learned something important. Besides, with all the lambs and goat kids we’re expecting to butcher this fall, I’m not sure how much spare freezer space we’ll have anyway.

We spread the meat out on top of an old (dead) chest freezer that I’ve kept precisely for use as a butchering table. (We sanitized it with bleach water first, of course). We then cut up the large pieces of meat, filling gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bags about halfway each — about the right amount of meat for a meal for our family. Since we’ll end up simply throwing most of these in the Crock Pot, and then adding carrots and potatoes, I wasn’t very particular about neatly slicing and packaging anything. Hunks of meat were fine. Finally, I took what was left on a rear shank and submerged it in a saltwater brine. I figure it’ll make a really nice venison stew for our Sunday dinner this week. The Ziploc bags all went in the refrigerator to age for a few more days; I’ll transfer them to the freezer this weekend.

And, in the meantime, I know the dogs will enjoy finishing up the fore quarters.

I can honestly say … this is the first roadkill I’ve ever butchered. And the first that I’ll be eating. I wouldn’t have touched it had I not known its origins, and known personally how it died. But why let perfectly good and delicious venison go to waste?

Best part is: I was able to use this “bonus” carcass as a learning experience, without fear of ruining one of our perfect farm-raised animals. And, you know what the best thing is I’ve learned? Butchering a large mammal is now Something I Can Do.

The Butcher

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I just got back from the local butcher. Our flock was shorn over the weekend, so this was an ideal time to get the lambs processed. We got up early, then jammed eleven lambs into the back of our old 1984 Ford Bronco II. The trip is always interesting, to say the least, with that many nervous animals in the back — especially when slowing for stop signs, starting back up from stops, and going around curves.

As I’ve noted previously, these custom slaughter operations are getting increasingly difficult to find. Back in Illinois, we had to drive a great distance to reach the one and only place for many miles around that still does this kind of work. Here in Michigan, the place is closer — but it is still our only option. With the decline of small farming operations, it seems there has also been a decline in small meat processing operations.

The one near us is one of the survivors. It’s run by a man named Jack, and he looks to be in his mid to late fifties. He has employees, but he is personally involved with every aspect of an animal’s trip through the facility. Dressed in a blood-spattered white apron, he meets our truck when we pull in the back with a load of lambs or goats, helps us unload and secure them in a holding pen on death row, and then goes around to the retail portion of the place to write up our order. Put all the animals together or keep them separate? How many people in your family will be sharing a package of steaks or chops? You want the ribs, or should we remove the meat and grind it? Shanks? Rear legs as whole roasts? You want the organs? Neck as soup bones? Okay, I think that’s it.

Jack is not a chatty or extroverted guy, but this morning he happened to mention something interesting. As he finished writing up our order, I asked him if we could get a couple of male goat kids in next week. He flipped through his order book (it’s all still done by hand — nothing in the place is computerized), and sighed about how incredibly jammed they are. And then he added something to the effect of, “I hate killing those little baby animals, and having to charge you for all that labor.”

I assured him they weren’t “babies,” but that I totally understood if he wanted to wait on taking the goats in. He said we should hold off, because (waving at the calendar on the wall), they are super busy from the time of the Fair through February. Nobody wants to over-winter anything more than they need to. And then there are all the deer that hunters want processed. You could see from his face, and the way that he leaned on the counter, that he’s tired. But the tiredness was more than physical, and gave a further hint as to why these custom slaughter operations are getting harder to find (despite how much business they can do). “Everybody wants us to kill this, kill that,” he said, shaking his head. “When I first started doing this, it was easy for me to kill everything. I’m starting to hate killing things.”

Killing things isn’t fun. We butcher our own chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese; I’ve personally killed and cleaned hundreds of birds over the last several years. But I’ve been holding off on butchering our larger animals. As HFG and I drove home in our truck, I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty for “outsourcing unpleasantness” onto someone else. If I invested in a good set of knives, and a block-and-tackle, I could butcher our lambs and goats myself. It wouldn’t be pretty, and I wouldn’t be able to package things up as neatly as Jack’s people do. But is the quality of the finished product the only reason I’ve balked at butchering our own lambs? Am I hesitant about looking a lamb in the face before putting a bullet through its brain? Do I have the emotional strength to cut the lamb’s throat so it can bleed out as it thrashes with death throes? Can I get my hands dirty cleaning out a lamb’s intestines and lungs? And pulling the pelt off?

I don’t see “butchering my own meat” as a moral obligation or anything — but I am a believer in taking a personal stake and having a personal connection with one’s food, unless there’s a good reason not to. For instance, there is simply no way I could possibly butcher a beef cow. But lambs are small enough for anyone to handle. And if squeamishness is the real reason I’ve been outsourcing this work to Jack, I’m starting to wonder if I should at least give butchering a try next fall with one of our lambs.