Having grown up around prime hunting land, the site of bow-wielding, camo-clad neighbors and hanging deer carcasses (often from the kids’ swingsets) was a part of rural life. What I have come to realize, though, is that in most cases, the dead animal was all about the kill and not much about the sustenance. Sure, a couple of hunks of flesh would be torn off and roasted ’til they taste like boot leather, and the carcass will dumped off at some grindhouse that will give you back your deer’s weight (more or less) in snack stix and summer sausage, but the true potential of what the animal has to offer is not realized.
When my brother, who still lives outside of Chicago close to where we grew up, informed me that his friend had shot a deer for him and that he needed me to butcher it for him, I was happy to oblige–have knives, will travel. My payment would be a nice portion of meat. What is also rewarding to me is the opportunity to teach other people the basics of how to properly butcher an entire animal. When I was in the process of breaking down the carcass, a neighbor had come over to watch me. An avid hunter, he was amazed at some of the basic techniques that I was using. This was no surprise to me; after all, we live in a time when we don’t necessarily need to prepare our own food or even know a butcher, and our meat comes to us in small packages, far from its original state as a part of a whole.
When trying to comprehend butchering an entire animal, the first thing to understand is that most animals are the same, four-legged ones as in this case–rabbit, lamb, pig, deer, cattle. Once you learn your way around one, you can understand your way around others. The same goes for poultry and fish.
I like to look at the animal as being comprised of primal quarters. You may have heard the term “primals” or “prime-cuts,” especially when referring to beef. These are exactly what they sound like, the primal cuts or pieces of meat from the animal. In the U.S., these cuts are standardized, as they are in other countries. But other countries have their own way of labeling the cuts and even have their own ways of cutting that may be slightly different than ours.
But for our purposes here, I think the best way to familiarize one’s self with a whole animal carcass is to look at it in quarters. If you were to lay the animal on its ribcage on a table, as you will see in one of the videos, you will see that once the head and hoofs are removed that you have two hind legs (hind quarters), two front legs (front quarters), and the long backbone section in the center (saddle) with the ribcage. I think most people know their way around a chicken and can quarter it. You can think about the four-legged animal similarly. Remove the hind quarters at the hip joints: the legs and thighs. Remove the front quarters, which are the legs and shoulders. What you are left with, in the middle, is the backbone and ribcage, where the loins are attached. The loins are lean, tend to be cooked for less time, and are considered the more expensive and posh cut.
If we are to judge the skill level so far, it is an interesting one. Let’s not forget, it took great skill to actually hunt the animal. A man, sitting in the tree, spotted the animal from X amount of yards and fired an arrow from a bow through the animal’s ribcage, directly through its heart, to deliver a quick and instant death. Great skill there. Then, he field-dressed the animal by opening it and removing its internal organs. But you and I don’t necessarily have to perform these steps ourselves.
We can acquire a whole animal from a local farmer, it will be at the stage that I was describing, when you can easily break it down into the primal portions. It is getting deeper into the primals that requires some learned skills. You will need to be comfortable using a knife and will have to learn a handful of skills to make some necessary detailed cuts. For instance, you could easily remove the boneless loins from the saddle, but if you want to go a step further, you can split the chine bone, trim the ribs, and remove the loins with the rib bones attached, creating a beautiful bone-in, chop-ready, rack of venison. I showed my brother how to do this. But like every other skill, practice makes perfect. Don’t be intimidated to get in there and learn.
The advantages of whole animal butchery? One, value. The more processing that occurs to deliver a final product most often results in a higher price, especially if that product is the most desired premium product, like a tenderloin or a center-cut chop. You will have to pay a high upfront cost when purchasing a whole animal, but overall you have saved the extra cost of buying that animal in pieces, or a la carte. Now, obviously we have to take practicality into consideration; an entire steer may be both a lot of money and not the easiest thing to put in your trunk and carry up your stairs.
Two, you will gain a new respect for where your food comes from. When handling a carcass, you are easily reminded of the fact that you are responsible for taking that animal’s life. If you hadn’t bought it, it may still be roaming around. So you will want to take advantage of every morsel, every bone, and every scrap that the animal has to offer.
Three, you will learn new practical skills that will give you confidence to not only butcher your own meat, but also inevitably lead you to learn new cooking techniques. “If God hands you lemons, make lemonade.” But you have to learn how to make lemonade, or in this case, venison chili, or roasted rack of venison with root vegetables, arugula, and pickled cherries.
Finally, you will be part of something a little more idealistic. You will be part of a conscientious movement to rediscover a bit of our food culture that has been lost over the years in the race to be a quicker, more efficient, and wealthier society. Just like the need to drive was satiated by mass production of the automobile, corporations looked at the need to eat in the same way and turned our food supply into a factory operation. The problem here is that industry is telling us we need to eat to live, not that we live to eat. Living to eat is about being a part of the process, getting your hands dirty, knowing where your food came from, where it pastured, what kind of soil it grew in, how much love was put into preparing it, and sharing the process with your family and friends.