The Rev. Edward G. Robinson's flock was reluctant to try the unusual new offering suddenly filling the freezers at his West Baltimore food pantry, so one Sunday the pastor decided to use his burgeoning culinary skills to whip up a meal with it.
"Most of them thought it was roast beef and they enjoyed it and sampled it and even asked for the gravy," he recalled.
What they were eating at Agape House was something perhaps out of place at an inner-city soup kitchen but regularly found on the menus of top-tier restaurants: venison.
With Maryland's deer population on the rise, sport hunters are allowed to kill more of the animals than ever before - up to three dozen apiece, and sometimes more. And with freezer space for venison tenderloin, ground meat and sausages limited, more and more deer meat is showing up on the plates of the hungry - not only in Maryland but nationwide.
In recent years, donations of the lean, high-protein foodstuff have increasingly answered a growing need for those who work with the disadvantaged by providing a type of meat that is otherwise prohibitively expensive for agencies that feed the hungry.
"When I was a young man in the '60s, you were allowed [to hunt] one deer per person per year," said Rick Wilson, who runs a Hagerstown nonprofit group that helps get deer meat into the mouths of those who need it. "The limiting factor back then was, you shot your deer and then your hunting season was over. Now the season's not over until you feed as many people as you can feed."
Idea takes root
Wilson's program - now called Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry (or FHFH) - began in 1997, soon after the retired schoolteacher encountered a woman by the side of a Virginia road stuffing a dead deer into her car trunk. Wilson warned the woman she could get a ticket for taking road kill home for dinner, but she told him she didn't care. Her hungry kids were desperate for nourishment.
The encounter got him thinking. Soon he began what he calls a venison feeding ministry, raising money to have deer donated by hunters processed into food for the needy.
"Hundreds of years ago, only royalty ate wild game. The commoners ate domestic game. Now things are kind of backward," Wilson said.
That first hunting season, he was able to distribute the meat of 75 deer. In 2000, the program expanded beyond Maryland and is now in more than 25 states. Last year, in Maryland alone, more than 2,400 deer were donated, providing about 125,000 pounds of meat, enough for half a million servings. Since its inception, contributions of more than 1,600 tons of deer meat have been made through the program.
Hunters could probably donate even more. Each hunting family typically wants the meat of just one or two deer, several hunters said. What limits Wilson's group is the money it takes to process the meat at a state-permitted facility, which can cost about $70 per animal.
"There's always more," said Hafey Hyle, owner of Ridgely and Ferrens Marketplace in the heart of Towson, where deer are processed for hunters and for FHFH. "They're always coming in."
The deer hunting seasons in Maryland last from Sept. 15 until Jan. 31. The busiest - the two-week firearms season, when nearly 50 percent of the year's deer are killed - runs through Saturday. And Hyle said he has already turned into dinner nearly 125 deer - the number FHFH paid him a discounted rate to process for the entire season. He will need more money from the charity to process more.
At Agape House on a recent night, Pastor Robinson has been cooking. Some nights he'll make venison chili, spaghetti with venison meatballs, venison meatloaf or even tacos with venison meat. Often, when he gets a delivery of deer meat from the Maryland Food Bank - which receives many of FHFH's state donations - he'll send cuts home with the people who come to his food pantry on Wednesday and Sunday nights.
On this night, there's a disposable roasting pan atop a Sterno flame that's filled with Robinson's venison stew - chunks of meat simmered with two kinds of potatoes, carrots and bell peppers. Dozens line up in the foyer of his outreach ministry and scoop servings onto paper plates with plastic forks.
`I was scared'
"This deer tastes good, pastor," Larin Walker tells Robinson. Not long ago, Robinson gave Walker some venison in his weekly package and Walker served it to his five sons. "I didn't tell them what it was," Walker said.
"I was scared cooking it but I boiled it first and put onions and peppers in and it was good," he said.
He knew better than to let on to his boys that they weren't eating beef before they tasted it. After they knew, they still wanted more, Walker said.
As Walker was eating Robinson's stew, someone asked for another helping. "I'm running out here," Robinson said with a smile. "There are no seconds. I'm sorry."