It's not just hunters who can satisfy a taste for the wild. Now grocers and mail-order firms are supplying the meat, too.

GOOD GAME

January 07, 1998|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

On cold winter afternoons, when the wind seems to blow straight through his thick jacket and briskly falling snow stings his face, Lawrence Meeks comes in out of the weather hoping his wife, Jeanie, has prepared one of his favorite meals.

It could be venison meatloaf or fried rabbit. Or perhaps roasted Canada goose or fried squirrel.

At 51, Meeks has spent his life dining on meats some people would never consider eating. A hunter since he bagged his first ** deer at age 13, Meeks learned long ago what Native Americans knew centuries before his English ancestors came to this country: The most delicately flavored meat rarely comes from a chicken, pig or cow.

With a variety of wild animals currently in season, including ruffed grouse, Eastern cottontail rabbit and quail, Meeks is among a select group of Maryland residents who hunt game. After sitting quietly for hours in woods near his home, waiting for that perfect shot, Meeks reaps the rewards of his efforts in his cozy farmhouse kitchen when his wife prepares the meat he has brought home.

But game lovers addicted to dishes like squab and mushroom stew and pheasant with leeks and pears don't have to tote a shotgun into the woods to get their meal themselves. A number of grocers around the state carry farm-raised game. (By law, game sold in this state must be farm-raised.) And mail-order firms across the country will ship elk, buffalo and bear and a variety of other meats right to your door.

Though die-hards argue that wild animals offer a more authentic taste, in a bad year -- when poor weather limits the amount of food available to such animals -- farm-raised animals whose diet has been closely monitored usually offer a tastier dining experience.

John Manikowski, a Massachusetts wildlife artist and former restaurant owner who has hunted and fished since he was 12, says the population at large continues to convert to the merits of eating game. "I think that, finally, the opinion about eating game has reversed itself," he says.

"Fifteen years ago when I first started in the restaurant business, we had trouble locating sources for game," he explains. He was a partner in a restaurant in Mill River, Mass., and in Hudson, N.Y.; both restaurants had extensive game menus.

"Now I list 40 sources in the back of my book," Manikowski says, referring to his recently published "Wild Fish & Game Cookbook" (Artisan). The extensive tome features drawings by Manikowski, tales of his many hunting and fishing expeditions and gourmet recipes using a variety of wild and domestically grown ingredients. It is the result of years of writing about hunting and fishing for newspapers and answering the requests of wives of avid hunters, desperate to know what to do with the wild bounty their husbands brought home.

Kitchen tradition

Lawrence Meeks learned to cook game from his mother, Ruth, who still lives on the family farm in Chestertown. Her recipes -- simple presentations designed to showcase the flavor of the meat -- were passed down from her mother. A bachelor until he was 46, Meeks proudly says game dishes were among his culinary specialties in his single days.

Jeanie Meeks, 53, also learned to cook game at her mother's elbow, though her mother, Rebecca Lambert, used recipes that disguised the meat's origin in an effort to remove any possible "gamy" taste.

Jeanie Meeks treats game as she would any other meat, accompanying it with a variety of suitable side dishes. On a recent Sunday, the couple enjoyed fried rabbit and venison meatloaf with mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, Waldorf salad, fresh-baked rolls and iced tea.

The Meekses grew up in Maryland in the 1950s, when it was very common -- especially in rural areas -- for people to hunt wild animals for food. Hunting, dressing and cooking game were skills passed down as part of longtime family traditions.

Today, state Department of Natural Resources statistics show that only 4 percent of Marylanders hunt (for food or sport) -- well below the national average of 7 percent and the averages of nearby states such as Pennsylvania (10 percent) and West Virginia (nearly 20 percent).

In the 1930s and 1940s, wild and domestically raised game was so common on the dinner table it warranted its own chapter in popular cookbooks. "The American Woman's Cook Book," first published in 1938, tells readers how to clean and dress game birds and offers recipes for everything from canvasback duck, Delmonico style to roast opossum. The same section includes recipes for 15 different game stuffings, using everything from chestnuts to pineapple.

Choosing rabbit

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