March 4, 2010

Reasons aplenty for raising, hunting your own meat

— Turns out most people don't like seeing the true face of food.

This became clear after the Oct. 7 edition of the Press Herald hit subscribers' doorsteps. When readers flipped to the Food & Dining section they found themselves confronted with the crispy face of a roasted pig. The resulting e-mails, phone calls and letters that flooded the desks of various editors and writers left no doubt that local readers don't mind eating pork, they just don't want to be reminded it comes from the notoriously cute pig, which bears too close a resemblance to a dog -- or even a human -- for many people's culinary comfort zone.

I can relate.

As a child growing up on an organic farm in Maine, I saw slaughter first hand. Unlike other kids my age, I lacked the illusion offered by supermarket Styrofoam and plastic wrap to protect me from the fact that my pork chop was once a charming barnyard companion.

When I became old enough to cook for myself, I made a decision to avoid meat whenever I could. Sure, the health and environmental benefits to be gained were part of my decision, but the real clincher came with the realization that if I wasn't prepared to witness -- let along take part in -- the act needed to bring meat to the table, then I really had no business eating it.

So you might be surprised to hear me say I have tremendous respect for hunters.

These meat-eaters have their eyes wide open and know exactly what it takes to add animal flesh to the family larder. Unfortunately this realism about food has become a rarity in our processed and packaged industrial food landscape.

Today everything from our fast food chicken nuggets to our gourmet restaurant steaks are more often than not churned out far from home in the filthy and inhumane conditions of a confined animal feeding operation. In contrast, the act of hunting is not only the most traditional way to obtain meat, it's become a way to maintain an intimate connection to your food while taking a stand against an ethically challenged and bacterially contaminated food chain.

New Gloucester resident Josh Sparks hunts for exactly these reasons.

A husband and father of two, Sparks has hunted since he was 10. These days all the meat his family eats passes through his own two hands. He slaughters the chickens, turkeys and pigs he raises, and he estimates roughly 10 to 20 percent of the meat his family eats each year comes from his hunting success.

''I'm not a big fan of commercial meat,'' said Sparks, 34, ''which is a big part of why we raise our own and hunt.''

For him hunting is not a sport nor an idle pastime.

''I was raised to understand if you shoot something,'' Sparks said, ''it's because you're going to eat it.''

Here in a rural state like Maine, it's easy to find other hunters who share Sparks' views on local food and self-sufficiency.

Skip Cadigan has been hunting for 44 years, but it wasn't until he read ''The Omnivore's Dilemma,'' by Michael Pollan, that he really started to think about the superiority of wild game over conventionally-raised meat.

''They're making cows eat stuff they normally don't eat to make them fat,'' said Cadigan, 53, referring to the common practice of feeding corn to cattle, which is difficult for them to digest. ''You wonder if that's good for you.''

In contrast, the Cumberland resident says he prefers the meat he obtains from hunting ''because I went out and got it. I know it only ate natural things and it's probably better for me.''

But even hunters aren't immune to moral quandaries about shooting something with a face. Kate Krukowski Gooding, who is the author of ''Black Fly Stew: Wild Maine Recipes,'' used to be a hunter but gave it up after helping rehabilitate injured animals with David Sparks, who owns Sparks Ark and happens to be Josh Sparks' father.

''But I have no problem preparing meat that other people hunt,'' said Gooding, 55, who lives on Mount Desert Island.

A friend recently told me she's started cooking more game meat as a way to keep the family's food budget in check. However, the resulting dishes were either tough, dry or stringy. Gooding, and her cookbook, offer excellent advice for people who find themselves in a similar gastronomic predicament.

''I wrote my first cookbook because this is such a common concern,'' Gooding said. ''Game meat, no matter what you get, is very lean and it takes less time to cook.''

It's also super local and contains none of the mystery inherent in supermarket meat. And for those who hunt it down themselves, there's no denying the venison hamburger once had a face.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

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