It happened around 4300 BC or so. As a nighttime thunderstorm approached, lightning struck a tree near a cave creating a fire that spread throughout the woods. The next morning, the occupant of that cave came across a deer carcass blackened by the flames. Cautiously he sampled a piece of the charred meat and grunted his approval. This, according to the Wild Game Cooking Association, was the beginning of wild game cooking.
That serendipitous event underscores the importance of game to human cultural evolution. As Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat points out, wild game furnished almost everything human beings needed for survival for hundreds of thousands of years -- not just food, but clothing and tools. (After all, the first tools were used for hunting.) She concludes, "The whole economy of society could be summed up in a single word: game."
Still, the effect of game on the human diet surely was its greatest impact. All meat was once wild game if we go back far enough and the meat of wild mammals, birds, and terrestrial reptiles has been such a substantial part of human nutrition over the ages that the "Cambridge World History of Food" observes that a conspicuous difference between the digestive system of homo sapiens and those of their closest primate relatives is the capacity of the former for processing a diet heavy in meat.
Certainly that capacity was fully developed among Americans whose appetite for meat, as Waverly Root notes, sometimes astonished visiting Europeans during colonial days. In an age of modern animal husbandry we may not realize just how much our ancestors were dependent on game to satisfy that appetite. But as Root reminds us, "For a considerable time after the arrival of the first settlers, game was not only the main meat of the colonists, it was often the main food." Moreover, the situation did not change dramatically until relatively recently. "Until the end of the 19th century, in fact, game was the most abundant meat on the American table," says "The Joy of Cooking." Only since the 20th century have domesticated critters dominated the dinner table. Thus, James Beard notes, early American cookbooks listed venison along with other meats rather than under a separate heading of "game" because it was so common in the diet of the time. In light of all this, it is not surprising that Dale Brown concludes, "Game made the settlement of America possible." No wonder, too, that Angus Cameron and Judith Jones declare the cooking of game to be more American than apple pie.
Yet despite these deep historical roots, the people of modern society appear less wild about game. It all started with what Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto calls the third great revolution in the history of food, the "herding revolution" or the domestication and selective breeding of edible animal species. (Snails, by the way, he says are the world's oldest "cattle," having been bred for food for more than 5,000 years.)
The consequence of this revolution is that today, as Cameron and Jones argue, the so-called "gaminess" of the meat we buy has been reduced to the point that its flavor is dull and flat when compared to the undomesticated variety our ancestors ate. Accordingly, they maintain that moose meat is far superior to any beef you can now buy and suggest that millions of Americans no longer know what fully mature meat, like that found in the wild, tastes like.
Thanks to L. J. "Freck" Shivelbine and Charles Wiles of Cape Girardeau, I'm not one of them. Not long ago I was the guest of Freck, an inveterate hunter, for a dinner that featured game in every course except dessert. From the beginning (we started with venison sausage) to the end it was a succulent meal featuring primarily game birds, which, I discovered, when properly prepared provide a taste experience far more sublime than mere supermarket chicken.
Then last year I was lucky enough to be invited to the game dinner organized annually by Charles Wiles, a custom going back to his days as a teenage Explorer Scout. He and like-minded friends put together a spread that featured such delicacies as quail, venison, duck, geese, pheasant, trout, wild turkey, doves, and even elk and antelope prepared in a myriad of ways. Once again I realized what connoisseurs of game have always known: it shouldn't have a strong gamy taste. That's usually the sign of improper handling of the animal when dressed, butchered, or transported.
To be sure, when cooking game you have to adjust for the fact that it has less fat than domestic meats. Indeed, a fat game animal is probably sick and shouldn't be eaten. But if you compensate with moist heat, larding, and judicious use of marinades and take care not to overcook it (the mistake most people make), game is as good as any other meat, even better. It's far too good to leave only to hunters.
Roast Quail with Cranberry Madeira Sauce
This recipe, adapted from Gourmet Magazine, is one I fixed at Charles Wiles' annual game dinner last year. Fortunately, for those who don't hunt or have generous friends who do, farm-raised quail, one of the sweetest and most delectable of all game birds, is readily available at the supermarket these days. Incidentally, in serving this dish on toast you pay homage to the medieval practice of presenting food on trenchers, originally large slabs of bread that served as a plate.
12 oz. bag cranberries, fresh or frozen
2/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup apple juice
1/2 cup cranberry juice
1/3 cup Madeira, dry sherry, or port
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
zest of 1 orange
1 cup chicken broth
4 tablespoons butter
12 slices toast
Combine first nine ingredients with half the broth and half the butter and salt and pepper to taste and bring to a boil. Simmer until thickened and berries have burst, about 25 minutes. Strain and reserve 1/2 cup of the glaze. Rinse quail and pat dry, tying legs together with kitchen string. In an ovenproof skillet brown quail in remaining butter for 4 minutes and arrange breast side up. Baste generously with remaining glaze and roast in top third of oven at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 400 degrees and cook 40 minutes longer, basting with glaze every 10 minutes until leg meat is no longer pink. Remove quail from skillet, discarding string, pour off fat and deglaze skillet with remaining broth. Stir in reserved 1/2 cup glaze and boil mixture, whisking until thickened. Strain and season with salt and pepper. Serve quail atop toast and serve with sauce. Serves 6.
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