|Paul Charest prepares beaver sausage and pheasant at the Conway Sportsman’s Club. Ready for serving: pulled bear in rolls and wraps (center) and ground turkey with peanut sauce. (Photos By Bill Regan for The Boston Globe)|
In Western Mass., hunters’ communal grill
CONWAY — Smoke was already billowing off the grill the day before the annual game dinner at the Conway Sportsman’s Club early last month. The event is a rite of spring among a passionate subset of the people who live in our small town, and it demands a commensurate amount of labor.
In the previous few days, club members had hauled last season’s fish and game out of their freezers and dropped it off at the club, a modified white farmhouse about a mile from the center of town. Police from a neighboring town donated a moose that had been hit by a car. One man brought in a beaver he had trapped in New York, where it is legal. Others contributed elk from hunting trips out West. The kitchen crew checked it all for spoilage, and everything that passed inspection was being cut up: turkey, quail, and pheasant; the moose, elk, venison, bear, rabbit, raccoon, and muskrat; perch, trout, and salmon.
Country music filled in for conversation while about a half-dozen men and women worked quietly in the kitchen. Two women plucked pheasant breasts from a glistening pile and boned them with surgical skill. In one corner, a man was chopping carrots and celery. Two other men bent over a table, one of them feeding chunks of cabernet-colored beaver flesh into a cast-iron grinder, the other fitting sausage tubing onto the output end.
All the meat was some shade of purplish crimson, unlike the scarlet beef in grocery stores, and no fat marbled the muscle tissue. Mark Fortier, who has overseen the game dinner in recent years, bustled between counters and stoves, with occasional dashes outside, where elk ribs were roasting on the grill. “Game is packed with a special protein, which gives it its dark color,’’ he explained after a peek into an oven. Fortier has been cooking game since he was a youngster. This year his taste ran to Asian: ground turkey in peanut sauce, muskrat wontons, teriyaki raccoon, and apricot-teriyaki pheasant were among the items on the menu. “Everyone who cooks shows up with a recipe,’’ he said.
The Eastern fare was balanced by Justis Conant’s venison stew, which was based on a recipe from the Burgundy region of France. Conant trained as a chef in Dijon years ago, he said.
The next evening, pickup trucks filled the muddy parking lot. Ticketholders shuffled in and claimed folding chairs at the banquet tables, where plates of beaver sausage, cheese, and crackers awaited them. Bud Ware, who hosted the first game dinner at his house, sometime in the 1970s, watched from the kitchen as people filed in. “We sold 130 tickets, a full house,’’ he said.
Ware and his Boykin spaniel, Maggie, contributed squirrel and pheasant to the feast. Like Fortier, he knows the animals he hunts — their habitats, habits, and food, which gives their flesh its unique taste.
Take your muskrats, for instance. “They eat all that tender, sweet aquatic foliage, and they have a tender, sweet-tasting meat,’’ Ware said. “The same with moose — those aquatic plants make up most of their summer diet.’’
By then the appetizer course was in full swing. Servers swept through the crowd with trays of hors d’oeuvres: mushroom caps stuffed with moose sausage, barbecued elk and venison ribs, spicy fishcakes, pulled bear in hot-dog rolls, raccoon teriyaki, ground wild turkey with peanut sauce, “poor man’s shrimp’’ (chilled perch strips), and muskrat wontons. On sideboards stood pots of venison stew, elk chili, and a standout chowder with five kinds of fish.
The kitchen crew readied the main course. Jim Recore lined up foil-covered baking pans on the weathered butcher block, then changed into a fresh T-shirt as the line of diners snaked into the kitchen. Servers loaded paper plates with rabbit pot pie, elk meatloaf, bacon-wrapped elk chunks, apricot-teriyaki pheasant, and roast venison. Some dishes were tastier than others — the quality of game is naturally inconsistent — but the feast celebrated skill and the first community gathering of spring as much as the table fare.
And on Monday, some who had attended would not be able to resist turning to a coworker and asking, in a casual tone, “Have you ever eaten muskrat?’’
Jane Roy Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.