The Field to Table Journey

Spring is upon us and I’m filled with newfound energy and reflections on the process of renewal. In reality, late March really feels like the “first of the year” to me more than does January 1. Sometimes our societal constructs and the natural world don’t always coincide perfectly. 

PK & I recently had a discussion on the Podcast about kickstarting many of the seasonal objectives often related to spring. Changing up training, diet, sleep patterns and other aspects of the vigorous life are common this time of year. Because the season gets me looking forward with anticipation of things to come and engaging in plans and processes, one of the most important parts of my existence is on my mind. And that’s the field to table journey.

The field to table journey describes my passion for hunting and fishing, and how that perpetually revolves in a cycle from quest to celebration. In fact, field to table sounds more like a point-to-point journey than a continuously renewing cycle that is among the most evolutionarily consistent. I’ve always been an advocate for hunting, fishing and the preparing, serving, and sharing of wild protein which is at the root of our biological history.

Hunters are the original athletes. History proves this point with absolutely no ambiguity. As a Lifetime Athlete, I’m also proud to be a lifelong hunter.

I got started back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s with the field to table journey. This was long before there was popular media on the subject. It’s just what, as a hunter and fisherman, you did. You would prepare for your trips and outings, getting your body and gear ready. In the field, you would test your knowledge and skill and often (more so over time as experience developed) be successful. You would take the greatest care in dressing, cleaning, butchering, wrapping, and freezing (if not eaten fresh) your harvest. This bounty would be met with much reverence and given to others. You delighted in cooking and preparing dishes from wild game and fish. You fed and nourished yourself, your family, and your friends in delectable celebration and communion. Then you did it again. You actually kept doing it and didn’t think about it as a start and stop sequence, but as a natural constant in your universe. This is what hunters have done for several million years, more or less.

Meat doesn’t magically appear in a package in the grocery store. There is a process involved. It is palpable and visceral. Being connected to where some of your meat comes from is an incredibly human experience, and this is a tradition to which we must stay connected.

I’m glad that in 2022 we have a great awareness of this process. I’m an advocate for every part of the field to table journey, or whatever we choose to call it. I’m a lifelong conservationist and I’m very spiritual about this subject. I appreciate that some of the general populace is also embracing hunting and cooking wild game in particular. My enthusiasm for this lifestyle started way back when there were no television shows or YouTube channels dedicated to this process. But it’s great that all that stuff exists and I enjoy learning from others as much as I offer my own advice. I’m going to talk about each aspect of the journey, at least as I see it right now.

Physical Preparation: Getting in shape for your sport is a no-brainer. Every type of hunting has active demands, but backcountry big game hunting in particular is exceptionally athletic. Being able to hike for miles and miles in the mountains, and carry heavy loads, is a form of conditioning that requires repetition. I like to get into the kind of shape where I can do this all day if need be, without getting overly tired or sore. This helps me to stay alert and effective as a predator, and enjoy the outdoors maximally. 

Specific Skills: Bows and firearms are not unlike violins and pianos, in that being truly proficient with them requires many hours of training. Hundreds of arrows and rounds of ammunition are good in practice, but thousands of them are better. I see this as a non-negotiable. When the moment of truth comes, you want to be efficient and ethical. Conditioning, stealth, instinct, and practice lead to optimal shot placement, and this is a critical component in the field to table journey. Lousy hunters and crappy shots don’t eat.

Gear: Like many or most, I’m certainly a gear junkie of sorts. I’m always trying and testing new equipment to go along with my tried and true, go-to gadgets. The secret is to take everything you will need and use, and nothing you don’t. That’s an art form and some of that is dependent upon situation and weather. Making sure everything is ready to go and in good operating condition is key. This is actually an ancient tradition even though us modern hunters have fancified it a bit.

Planning: Combining anticipation with organization is as fun as it is useful. Whether that is e-scouting, discussing objectives and routes with comrades, or calculating put-in and take-out points on the river…making plans is important. Contingencies, communication, and the like are considerations for safety and success. This is where treating your outing with as much seriousness as excitement should be done. While you don’t need to have everything laid out precisely (your field time should have a level of spontaneity), it’s good to have a general idea of where you’re going, with who, roughly for how long, and when you’ll be back. What will be the process if someone puts an elk down 7 miles in? Planning also involves vetting partners. Only go out with people you want to spend time with, are 100% reliable, and completely like-minded on the details of the quest.

In-field Meat Care: Once an animal or fish is taken, this is where things can go really right, or really wrong. The name of the game is cleanliness and rapid cooling. A lot of my fishing is catch and release. But if I’m keeping a few fish, I’ll quickly dispatch, gut, and cool them down. In a boat, they’ll go into the cooler. Otherwise it will be a creel. 

With game, the clean and cool thing is even more important, especially regarding big game in the backcountry. As opposed to shooting a deer, field-dressing it, throwing it into your truck, and hanging it in a meat locker (or even a shed or garage), backcountry hunting has unique requirements. Animals need to be skinned and quartered quickly (but safely), kept clean from dirt, hair, entrails, leaves, or flies; and cooled to an internal temperature below 50 degrees (colder is better) within a few hours. I’ll usually place meat on the skin side of the hide for prep, or use a small tarp. If it’s cold enough (below 40 degrees), I’ll leave the quarters bone-in, place them in synthetic game bags, and hang them in a shady area with good air circulation. Otherwise, I’ll bone out the meat before hanging it in the bags. Where hanging isn’t possible, I’ll use the tarp as a shade cover (with airflow) until the packing begins. The number of trips and time involved depends on the size of the animal, how many people are involved (sometimes I’m solo), and if livestock will be used (nice when it happens). 

It’s important to keep airflow present until the internal temperature of the meat is low enough. Never put warm meat in a plastic bag or even a pack, as it will sour rapidly. In bear country, take the extra precautions indicated. If it’s warm, I’ll have coolers and ice ready at the trailhead, otherwise, the meat will continue cooling in the back of the truck on the way home, protected from direct sunlight.

Aging: This is perhaps the most controversial of topics, because there are a lot of ways that meat can be aged. Aging helps to make meat tender and mild, and it gets rid of much of the gamey flavor. 

If you are hunting close to your truck and your meat processing facility (professional or do-it-yourself), you can hang a whole deer or antelope in a meat locker, where you can dry-age the entire carcass like a beef. In other circumstances, such as during consistently cold temperatures, I’ve hung whole deer or antelope (when long pack outs were not mandated) in a shed (checking on them daily) for a week to 10 days. When it’s really cold you can leave the hide on, but in borderline conditions it’s best to skin them and even keep a small fan circulating the air. You’ll lose a little meat to the rind that develops, but this is standard butcher practice. Most of the time I prefer to skin the animal while it is still warm. It’s much easier to remove the hide and you are ensured of rapid cooling and better tasting meat. The aforementioned techniques are known as dry aging and it is the preferred method when applicable.

However, most of my hunting takes place in the backcountry. Elk, moose, bear, sheep and other game isn’t coming home whole. Instead, your hard-won protein arrives for processing in pieces as a result of your sweat. In an ideal situation, I’ll bring clean, cool meat home in those cloth game bags. Once I’m home I’ll double-check that everything is clean, touching up my field work, and that it is indeed completely cool. Then, I’ll place the meat in plastic bags (only once it’s cool) to prevent it from drying out excessively. It goes in my garage fridge and/or coolers for 3-5 days to “wet-age” until I can get it all cut and wrapped. When using coolers, I place the meat on racks above the ice, put a board under one end of the cooler, and open the drain plug. I’ll refresh the ice periodically and use a pan to collect the drainage. It’s important not to waterlog the meat.

Butchering: Have good quality, sharp knives and be adept at using them as well as keeping their edges honed. A semi-flexible boning knife and a “steaking or breaking” knife with a stiffer blade is all you need. A bone saw is handy for certain cuts, like osso bucco. Use a clean, well-lit area for your processing, and try to have enough space (work tables or surfaces) to do everything efficiently. Like many hunters and fishermen, I convert my garage into a meat shop when the need arises. I’ll set up a couple of plastic portable tables and employ a large plastic cutting board. Everything gets wiped down with white vinegar before starting (I prefer this over bleach). 

I was an amateur butcher before I was a physical therapist, but either way you have to be a good anatomist. I’ll stage the meat by the primals, for example working on a hind quarter in its entirety before addressing other parts. When the cuts are complete, such as steaks, roasts, chops, stew meat, and trim for grind…I’ll generally wrap that batch and get it into the freezer before going on to the next section. For sausage making, I’ll usually freeze the trim and save it for a later date. With wild game, it’s important to remove all visible fat, as it tends to have an off flavor and is prone to rancidity in the freezer. I’ll usually leave the fascia (silver skin) on meat for freezing and then remove it after thawing. This actually protects the meat from freezer burn and extends storage life.

Wrapping and Packaging: There are two main ways to go about this process. You can use a vacuum sealer or you can wrap with butcher paper. I’ll use both depending on the product. For wet products like fish or liver, or irregularly shaped pieces like link sausages, I’ll use the vacuum sealer. It provides a nice, tight seal (with no air) and extends freezer life. With butcher paper, while it’s not absolutely necessary, I prefer to double-wrap when using this method with steaks, roasts, and burger. First, I’ll use plastic wrap, then butcher paper and tape. It doesn’t add much cost or time and it ensures long product life and freshness. To each his or her own. Here are two semi-pro tips. Form your packages as flat as possible so they’ll stack well and save space in the freezer. And be careful not to bang your vacuum sealed products around because you can perforate the bag.

Thawing: If you need some burger in a hurry, just drop the package into a bowl of cool water for about an hour and leave it in the sink. However, with other products, give them several days in the fridge. Dry-aged meats will be ready to go in a day or two. Wet-aged product can actually stay wrapped in its airtight packaging for a couple more days, gaining a bit of additional aging on the “back side.” Wet-aged meats are going to leach some blood and liquid. You’ll want to rinse off these meats and pat them dry before preparing. This is also the time you can touch up the trimming if needed. You can also turn a roast into steaks if the urge strikes you. The key here is not to rush the process and plan ahead. It’s just good practice to transfer a package of meat from freezer to refrigerator most days. 

Rubs and Marinades: Here’s an interesting point. If you do all the previously mentioned steps well, you may have little need for much in the way of seasoning. Wild meat is absolutely delectable when prepared properly, and your spice application serves only the purpose of highlighting, not masking the flavor. Sometimes a little salt, and maybe some pepper will be all you want. But not always. Over the years, I’ve become more of a fan of dry rubs than marinades. Whether it’s a homemade spice blend, or a commercial one (although watch out for sugar and MSG), that’s my personal go-to. However, if I’m smoking an entire quarter, or slow-cooking a tough cut like a shoulder roast, I’ll sometimes use a brine or marinade first, often for several days. Seasoning is definitely context-dependent and your palate (and those with whom you dine) drives your choice. My only suggestion is to experiment with an open mind.

Cooking Methods: Rule number one – let the meat come up to room temperature before cooking. This is essential for any searing or grilling applications in particular. Ice cold meat won’t cook properly and you won’t get the outcome you deserve. Getting to room temp takes about 30-60 minutes on the counter, covered. Letting the meat marry with the salt or seasoning during this time is also key. 

Since this isn’t a recipe article (but let me know if you want some) I’ll just hit the big rocks next. For steaks and prime cuts, cook fast and hot to a medium-rare level. I’ve gotten decent results with the reverse sear method but I honestly prefer searing first and then finishing with indirect heat (on the grill) or in the oven (started on the stove in a hot cast iron skillet). With other cuts, whether smoking, braising, etc., getting a light sear on and then going low and slow is the mojo. Here’s another semi-pro tip that everyone probably already knows – let the meat rest for about 10 minutes uncovered (steaks) or 30 minutes tented (roasts) before slicing or shredding. The meat will reabsorb much of its juices and relax into tender deliciousness. This has always been tough for me because the aromas and my hunger sometimes weaken my resolve…but it’s worth the wait. 

Pairing and Plating: You are only limited by your taste buds, creativity, and imagination. My favorite is probably a flatiron steak (cut from the shoulder), seasoned only with salt and pepper, rubbed with extra virgin olive oil, and grilled fairly rare, with a dollop of herbed garlic butter on top. Next to that will be a small side of any fruit or vegetable that compliments but doesn’t overpower the steak. I like broccolini, mashed potatoes, or a grilled peach. A glass of cabernet completes the picture. My wife prefers a slow-cooked, shredded roast prepared chili verde style in soft corn tortillas with shredded cabbage, sliced radish, cilantro, and lime juice next to a local hazy IPA. This is the part of the field to table journey that distinguishes dining from merely eating.

Gratitude: This probably goes without saying, but gratitude is present at every step of the field to table journey. The gift of the animal is honored with great respect and appreciation. This is not only the path of sustenance, it is the epitome of deep nourishment of the body and soul.

Thank you for joining me today. Contact me if you have any comments or questions.

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