Many years ago, a friend bought a .50-caliber flintlock long rifle in the mid-Appalachian Mountains style, and even back then it cost $1,000. In that first year with this primitive black-powder replica, he hunted deer through the regular firearms season and into the December muzzleloader hunt.
In northern Maine where he lives, the herd averages one to two deer per square mile, so the regular firearm and muzzleloader seasons had offered him no shot until the last evening of the black-powder hunt. A skipper was sneaking past him, and he shot the little guy.
And the deer pleased him:
First, whitetails that young have whitish, tender meat like veal, superb eating – the best – and he likes venison better than beef or pork.
Second, he had killed his winter venison with a flintlock, and few folks in modern times shoot big game, even a skipper, with this ancient ignition system that emits a tiny explosion inches from the shooter’s face. It takes fortitude to keep steady hands during the trigger squeeze.
Once home, this fellow backed his truck into the driveway with the diminutive prize in the body. When his wife came out to look, she said with a straight face, “Don’t worry, dear, if we add extra potatoes and carrots, it’ll make a good-sized stew.” He put up with comments like that and more.
This anecdote reminds me of two questions that plagued me in youth:
• Did early settlers with unlimited bag limits choose to shoot young game animals such as deer for the tender, white meat?
• Or did they choose larger animals for more meat – like a 200-pound buck as opposed to a 60-pounder?
It never was an either-or answer, though. Age has taught me what I believe is the correct reply. In that bygone era, when deer season went year-round with no bag limits, folks said, “If it’s brown, it’s down.” An antlered buck today, perhaps a skipper tomorrow, and maybe a big doe next week.
A dead deer, big or small, meant protein for the family; otherwise they’d be eating fried salt pork and gravy over boiled potatoes. And they’d have no mincemeat for the holidays.
Way back in the late 1600s, hunting pressure had caused a serious deer decline, so colonies like Massachusetts instituted game laws.
Folks living in the willy-wags ignored the legislation and poached with reckless abandon anyway. Food was food, and I suspect that average and affluent citizens then generally thought that law-enforcement officers denying a poor man wild meat for his family bordered on cruelty.
Young deer with white, tender meat pleases most palates, and a dish from such an animal excites me, a dish as good as breaded veal cutlets.
Venison cutlets from a skipper begin with slicing the meat thinly, laying them on a cutting board and pounding each slice on both sides with the edge of a heavy saucer. This step tenderizes tender meat even more.
Then, the cutlets receive a light coating of flour, a quick dip into a beaten egg-and-water mixture, and then a coating of seasoned breadcrumbs before they’re sauteed to a golden brown.
The meal goes well with Swedish potatoes, green veggies, French bread and light red wine. China, crystal glasses, and linen napkins and tablecloth add a touch of respect for the animal that gave its life for the family’s sustenance.
Larger deer aren’t exactly dog food, either. I once killed two Anticosti Island bucks in the same afternoon – a large one and a much younger deer. The trophy buck was tender and had a better flavor – probably from targeting different forage.
In my humble opinion, illegally shooting deer was much more rampant during my youth than now, and back then poachers often talked more openly about it – once the family had consumed the evidence.
Back in the day, I knew Maine deer hunters who liked shooting a deer for a wife or child to register just to get a tag in the house. Then they’d shoot more deer, and one goal was a skipper for the delicious white meat.
Once in my 20s, a fellow looked me straight in the eye and said, “I like those white-meated skippers, but it’s too embarrassin’ to tag a deer no bigger than a dog. I just sneak ’em through the back door into m’ cellar.”
As a general rule, poachers trust few people, even friends and relatives, so his comment came when the family had no venison in the freezer.
When honest rifle hunters can only shoot one deer a season, they often confront the big question: Do they shoot a bigger deer or a skipper, particularly early in the season when more deer may walk past another day? Each hunter must answer that question for him or herself, but often in a state like Maine with a small deer herd, it’s just a case of opportunity.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: