Game Time

Hunting season keeps butchers at Holsinger's Meat Market busy, as it has every year for generations

January 05, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

MAUGANSVILLE - Like Forrest Gump's best buddy, Bob Holsinger can name more than a dozen ways to fix his favorite food.

"There's deer dogs, deer sticks, deer ham, deer bologna, deer pepperoni, deer burger, deer sausage - sweet and hot," says Holsinger, a fireplug of a man with an impish smile.

Warming to the task, he rattles off another handful of items and ends in a flourish with "our newest item, deer brat."

Every fall, Holsinger makes good on that menu for hundreds of hunters from Georgia to Maine who bring their deer to Holsinger's Meat Market in this Washington County town.

Several loose-leaf binders bulge with orders for butchering that keep the shop lights burning around the clock for days at a time.

"I don't care how far I have to drive, I'll go to Holsinger's," says retired Baltimore police lieutenant Fred Archer, who has four deer to be butchered. "I've even driven back with deer from Alabama iced down. I won't go anywhere else."

Deer hunting season for butchers and taxidermists is like income tax time for accountants. Shops around the state estimate that as much as 70 percent of their business comes during the four-month span that ends in January, as hunters stalk deer with bows, muzzleloaders and modern firearms.

A good hunting season such as this one - Maryland officials estimate hunters will bag more than 80,000 deer for the first time - means good business for butchers and taxidermists.

On Nov. 25, the first day of Maryland firearms season this year, Holsinger's took in 204 deer. The second day, 100 more.

"They just kept coming by the hundreds," marvels Regine Holsinger, Bob's wife of 47 years, who handles the books and takes orders.

Carcasses filled a 22- by 24-foot building used for skinning as well as nearly all of the six walk-in coolers in the complex, and were stacked three deep in a refrigerated tractor-trailer near the hunters' check-in point.

Things got so hectic that Holsinger rented a refrigerated unit to make room for all of the beef and pork he sells in his butcher shop.

By the time the meat lockers are bare in February, Holsinger guesses he'll have processed more than 3,000 deer.

"Good thing I like deer," he says, eyes twinkling.

Hunters pay $52 for basic processing (the average deer yields 50 pounds of meat). Specialty smoked meats add to the cost: bratwurst is $2.40 a pound; deer dogs are $1.90 a pound; a chipped ham is $20.

Archer, who has been hunting 41 years, says it's not the price that keeps customers such as him coming back.

"It's the quality. It's the caring. It's the friendliness," he says. "A lot of other people do a good job, but it's like comparing filet mignon to ground meat. Which are you going to take?"

Bob Holsinger isn't the first one in his family to make his reputation in meat, and it appears he won't be the last.

His grandfather and father ran the Hagerstown City Market, and his grandmother drove their horse-drawn delivery wagon. In 1925, they switched to a truck with a butcher block on the back to serve neighborhoods.

Holsinger's sons, Bob II and Jim, work in the Maugansville shop, and Bob II's sons, Richie and Robbie, help out, too.

Daughter Lisa Eckle oversees bologna production.

The shop does a bang-up business in beef, as a passers-by might guess by glancing up at the life-sized steer on the roof. The family's hickory-smoked beef dogs took top honors in a 1990 regional competition sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association of Meat Processors. The Holsingers also have won regional prizes for roast beef and beef jerky.

So far, Bob Holsinger hasn't won anything for his "roller burgers" (that's ground chuck and aged cheddar cheese stuffed in a hot dog casing and smoked for $1.49) except the gratitude of harried motorists who find them easier to handle than a traditional hamburger and moms whose kids love anything resembling a hot dog.

Federal law prohibits the sale of wild game - "not that we couldn't find customers. We get requests all the time," says Regine Holsinger.

But even without commercial sales of deer meat, the Holsingers estimate this year they'll crank out 40,000 pounds of bologna, 15,000 pounds of deer snack sticks and countless steaks, roasts and hams.

That's a lot of cutting for the Holsinger boys.

Bob II, 41, says, "It was pretty much a born and given" that he'd be working for his father. He began as a deer skinner at age 12 and figures he's done 28,000 deer since then.

He also acts as the unofficial "spicemaster," working to get the seasoning just right for the bolognas: sweet, garlic, butcher's choice, medium hot and hot.

Jim, 32, a Washington County deputy sheriff, works overnight as a butcher during the height of the season and even uses some of his time off when things get hectic.

"Some people go to the beach on their vacation. What can I say?" says Jim Holsinger with a weary smile.

He can turn a deer to chops in 12 minutes, or 75-80 deer a night.

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