Meat and unmediated experience: Deer School at Madroño Ranch

At lunch the other day, a friend opined that too much of what we all think and see and hear—and, yes, eat—passes through various filters (the media, agribusiness) before it reaches us; even our air is conditioned, he added, though I have to say I’m okay with that, at least in the summer. But his larger point is one that’s been in the back of my mind (and take it from me, there’s lots of room in there) for some time.

Unmediated experiences seem increasingly hard to find. We have lost an awareness of the connection between our actions and their consequences, especially when it comes to food, especially when it comes to meat; it’s easy to avoid the stark truth that some creature was slaughtered, blood was shed, so that we might buy shrink-wrapped chunks of meat in the supermarket. The thoughtful (and splendidly named) English chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writes in his River Cottage Meat Book that “the human act of killing animals for food, once familiar to most of society, has now become so shameful that those who condone it—by eating meat every day—are entirely protected from thinking about it. Food animals are killed and their meat is cut up and packaged far from human eyes. By the time meat reaches the consumer, the animal origins have been all but obliterated.”

Conveniently, this last weekend presented us with an opportunity to escape the shrink-wrap bubble in the form of “Deer School,” a hunting/butchering/cooking extravaganza at Madroño Ranch. Watching the skinned, eviscerated, and decapitated carcass of a 120-pound buck being carved up on your kitchen counter definitely qualifies as an unmediated experience.

The man doing the carving was Austin’s incomparable Maestro of Meat, Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due, and his audience, in addition to Heather and me, included six hunters—four experienced, two newbies, united in their love of food and dedication to the principles of ethical hunting—who had paid to spend a long weekend at the ranch. Four of them live in or around Austin, but we also had a couple who drove all the way from Michigan (!), sleeping in their Little Guy trailer all the way.

In return for their money, the guests were taken on three guided hunts (the guides were Jesse, his omnicompetent buddy Tink Pinkard, and, after poor Robert, our ranch manager, was felled by a kidney stone on Saturday morning, our son Tito) and then instructed in how to make efficient use of whatever animals they shot. They also ate a series of truly spectacular meals prepared by the indefatigable chef Morgan Dishman-Angelone, who works with Jesse.

Their collective haul included five deer and several hogs, though Robert shot the buck Jesse used for his demonstration the day before the guests arrived. As we all gathered in the kitchen to watch Jesse at work on the carcass, I was reminded of Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” A grisly spectacle, but also fascinating, and Jesse’s obvious care and skill were mesmerizing.

True confession: I am not a hunter, though I am an enthusiastic carnivore and have done a good bit of fishing in my time; the only mammal I have ever knowingly killed was an obviously diseased raccoon who was staggering around in the middle of a hot summer day at the ranch several years ago. But we live in a meat-centric state (the Republic of Barbecue, anyone?), and I have come to realize the distance between my life and the realities of blood and bone that hunters and farmers and ranchers confront on a daily basis.

Here’s Fearnley-Whittingstall again: “As I pull the trigger and… the beast tumbles, I feel the gap between me and the quarry, which a moment ago seemed unreachable, closed in an instant.” I think this is really the point of ethical hunting, responsible carnivorism, and eating meat in general: the realization that we, consumer and consumed alike, are part of the same system, much as we might try to deny it. Thus, in a funny way, a hunter—a responsible one, at least—rather than treating the animal he or she kills as an objectified and separate Other, is more likely to understand the profound interconnectedness that binds us all together.

Jesse and Morgan took virtually every piece of meat off that buck and used it for an extraordinary multicourse dinner that night. “We’re going to punish you,” Jesse warned us facetiously, and he wasn’t kidding: six courses, including venison tartare (pictured above, just prior to final assembly), venison paté with Jesse’s own coarse-grained mustard, braised venison flanks stuffed with chorizo, liver with mashed potatoes and apples, venison cutlets with grilled marinated radicchio, and, for dessert, Morgan’s signature Basque cake—salty-sweet crusted cake around a pastry crème center with candied persimmons and apples. It was an unforgettable meal, and left everyone—even Tito!—sated, at least temporarily: the next morning we had breakfast tacos with barbacoa made from the deer’s shanks and neck meat, which had been simmering in a crockpot overnight. Under the circumstances, “holy cow” hardly seems like the right expression, but you get the picture: we ate incredibly well, and that one buck provided enough meat to feed thirteen people twice, with quite a bit left over; thanks to Jesse, we’re looking forward to enjoying even more of it when we go out again over New Year’s, by which time I should be almost ready to think about eating meat again.

And who knows—maybe the next time we host Deer School at Madroño (and we do hope there will be a next time) I’ll sign up myself. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that I was about as unconscious a carnivore as there was on the planet, and I’m in as much need of unmediated experience as the next guy. I’m not going to start refusing to eat anything I haven’t actually killed myself; that would be impractical, to say the least. But I do believe that hunting and butchering a deer or other animal for one’s own consumption is probably a useful exercise, and that the world might be better off if every unconscious carnivore were forced to undertake it at least once. A fuller awareness of the cost of satisfying our appetites cannot, I think, be a bad thing.

What we’re reading
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (still!)
Martin: Charles M. Robinson III, Bad Hand: A Biography of General Ranald S. Mackenzie

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7 Responses to Meat and unmediated experience: Deer School at Madroño Ranch

  1. joyhowie says:

    Getting to see the photos of Deer School on Facebook was great. Getting to read the story underneath those photos is even better. Also, I love the fact that at the end of a post about meat and hunting and conscious carnivorism, the book that you're reading is called "Bad Hand." That made me laugh out loud in the library. Thankfully, they did not kick me out. xoxo

  2. Brad Kik says:

    Incredible. Wish I had hitched a ride with that couple from Michigan. Just a few weeks ago we participated in something very similar – an on-farm hog slaughter. I hope you don't mind if I include the link, it's a great story by a friend who wasn't all so sure she wanted to be there.

    I still have hope that I'll have my private version of deer school before the late hunting season ends on the 31st. We've processed a few sheep and chickens as well, and are learning how to cure meats.

    It's a joy to see the parallels between our work in Michigan and your work in Texas!

  3. Heather and Martin says:

    Brad: Great to hear from you, and it's totally cool that you posted that link – harmonic convergence? Perhaps our species' collective consciousness level is actually rising? Hope that you and the family are doing well, and that we see you guys again soon.

  4. Tito_Kohout says:


  5. Ellen Jockusch says:

    This is fabulosa. Onward to New Year's!

  6. Philip Keil says:

    beautiful sentiments expressed here, Martin. I have been thinking a lot about these topics lately, especially since Michael Pollan came to town and I was reminded of his experience with hunting in Omnivore's Dilemma. I am signed up for Jesse's Hog School in March, and I'm half elated, half scared to death. Can't wait to see the ranch! I hope y'all will be there…

  7. Heather and Martin says:

    Many thanks for the kind words, Philip. We're thrilled you signed up for Hog School – should be fantastic.

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