From a very young age, I knew meat didn't come only in neat little plastic-wrapped packages from the grocery store—it also came in the form of a carcass suspended from its neck, tongue hanging out of its mouth, legs splayed open, bleeding out into a metal bucket.
I grew up on a 40-acre farm in Nowheresville, Northern Michigan. In addition to growing sweet corn, red potatoes, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, green beans, and snap peas, my family also ate venison. Every November, my stepdad—as well as every other male (and a few women) age 10 to 80 in our town—would disappear into the deep woods for a week or more. Public schools in Northern Michigan made the first day of the fall hunting season an official holiday, because hardly anyone would show up anyway. My stepdad would go out with a gun or a bow and bring home a dead deer that he would hang to dry in our barn and then take to the meat market for processing.
Eating venison was just something we did. It wasn't special or fancy, like the venison stew ($18) I once ate at Spinasse, or the venison-and-wild-boar sausages ($19) served with caramelized onions at Belltown's new upscale dining hall Bell + Whete. The super-lean, gamey flesh of the Odocoileus virginianus—the North American white-tailed deer—was a cheaper, but more tasty, alternative to store-bought meat.
We'd freeze steaks and then thaw and soften the meat in a slow-cooked red chili my stepdad would make in a Crock-Pot on frigidly cold Midwestern days. Or Mom would add "ground chuck"–style crumbles to boxes of Hamburger Helper when she was too tired to cook after working all day. It was always much better than greasy hamburger meat.
One summer, my stepdad's boss filed for bankruptcy. Not only was my stepdad out of a job, but his boss refused to pay him for a week's worth of work. By the end of September, we were broke. My mom's paycheck wasn't enough to feed a family of four. The freezer was empty, and though Mom and I were fine eating like vegetarians, my stepdad was a hardcore carnivore.
"We're goin' shining tonight," he exclaimed one Friday evening. "We have to."
"Shining" is a slang term for taking a spotlight, or car or truck headlights, to find a herd of deer at night. Deer are most active after dark, and when you shine a really bright light on them, they freeze, blinded and dumbfounded, until you move the light away. Shining while hunting is unfair to the animal and illegal in the eyes of the Department of Natural Resources. Also, it being only September, it was far from the legal deer-hunting season. Shining a deer, even on our property, would make my stepdad a poacher. And if he got caught, he'd face fines upwards of $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail.
At the time, I didn't think too much about my stepdad's controversial proclamation. The next morning, however, as I shuffled out of my bedroom in my pink Strawberry Shortcake pajamas and blue fuzzy slippers to watch Pee-wee's Playhouse and Saturday morning cartoons, I stumbled upon something that I can never un-see.
As I entered our kitchen, the first thing my little eyeballs landed on was the meat grinder. Bloody noodle-like strands were falling into a big pan, and my aunt was laughing and telling a story, holding a glass of whiskey in one hand and gripping the grinder handle with the other. Mom was wielding a huge butcher knife and standing over the kitchen sink, which contained the severed head of an antlered deer. My stepdad and uncle both had large saws, and they were standing near a tall garbage can that had three legs connected to hooved feet jammed inside it. My kid brain couldn't process what I was seeing.
Then I saw the blood. OH. MY. GOD. There was SO. MUCH. BLOOD. It covered everything, including my mom's face. I had seen deer carcasses before, but I had never seen one inside of my house and all over my mom.
"Uh-oh, Kelly's awake," my stepdad said. Mom wiped her wet red hands on her jeans and came over to me. "Now, Kelly, listen, you can't tell anyone about this," she said. "This stays right here in this kitchen." I didn't know what, exactly, she meant by this.
Then I started screaming with every ounce of voice I could find in my chest. I ran back to my bedroom, locked the door, and hid under the covers.
Later that evening, we had a huge feast, and my parents were happier than I'd seen them in a really long time. Instead of "Venison Helper," we had linguine with red sauce and Parmesan cheese—and some of fattest and tastiest meatballs I can ever remember eating. Thank you, family.