Not that long ago, people planned for a hunt like their lives depended on it. And often they did, as there were no supermarkets or corner stores, and no “Skip the Dishes” food delivery service. Hunting in the time before farms and refrigeration was a serious proposition.
Having no meat over a winter could mean starvation, so when hunters returned with a successful harvest, there must have been a lot of joy and jubilation. I have to think this is where the tradition of a feast and celebration of the fall harvest came from. It seems like most cultures have something that acknowledges it, even if it’s not directly hunting related. Thanksgiving is the most obvious tradition, but there are others.
Celebrate the hunt
In my family, celebrating the end of the hunt with a dinner is something of a tradition. My late grandfather, Ora Ellis, was a very keen hunter, who spent weeks on Manitoulin Island hunting deer. Although I was never able to experience that hunt camp, he wrote journals about it and there are many pictures of the camp’s sagging buck poles.
Other pictures I recall seeing are of my grandfather and members of his hunting group standing around a dining room table in their Sunday best. This was the end of the season celebration for the Ballyhoo Hunt club. It looked like there was a little of everything to be enjoyed, but venison was the star of the show. Knowing my grandfather, there would have been a lot of laughs, stories, and good natured ribbing around that table. Maybe some apple pie and ice cream or peach cobbler, for dessert.
A few years ago, my dad, Gord Sr., and mother, Nora, came up with an idea. Why not celebrate the end of our hunting season with some friends and family? Their thought was to do a wild game dinner in the dead of winter — January — when a good meal and a fun night would be especially welcome.
However, this dinner — later dubbed “BeastFeast” — would not just be about eating. There would also be post-dinner events, including a crowning of a king and queen of the hunt, remembrances and awards for hunt-related undertakings, and a wall of pictures. The menu would include game or fowl, but no fish, largely because my oldest son, Devin, is allergic. Assembling a variety of delectable game dishes wouldn’t be a problem as the hunters in our little circle chase moose, deer, bear, wild turkey, snowshoe hare, grouse, duck, goose, and even pronghorn.
So it was that BeastFeast came to be.
Over the years, the dinner has evolved, with some core people always on hand, a few who’ve come and gone, and some new recruits. It’s usually a full house.
At some point, due in no small part to my late friend Sandro Fragale, the BeastFeast after-dinner activities became more like a roast, where some seriously ingenious prizes were presented, and the Skunk Awards became a thing. Basically, if you don’t manage to harvest an animal during the season, you’re pretty much assured to be the centre of attention.
Over the years, Skunk Award winners have been presented with hats, gloves, toys, pelts, pictures, paintings, books, and sculptures of the smelly creature. The sheer number of skunk-related items available for presentation is mind-boggling, and continues to grow. One long-time member has a room nearly full of skunk awards.
The food is always the real focus of BeastFeast; so many mouth-watering choices! Too many, sometimes. It’s hard not to try everything. Moose cutlets, sweet and sour bear meatballs, wild turkey skewers, green peppers stuffed with venison burger, wild rice and mushrooms, breaded grouse fingers, and the list goes on and on. Add incredible salads and some homemade rolls and bread, and dinner is about as good as it gets.
Wild game is not only a truly organic food, it’s also the most savory. Many of my favourite culinary experiences in life have happened at BeastFeast. That being said, perhaps my all-time favourite meat is roasted wild turkey with rosemary and garlic. This dish is something my wife Cheryl prepares from time to time (depending on my hunting success), and it’s truly the finest of meals. Add a side of wild rice and highbush cranberry jelly, and it’s a “take me now, Lord” moment.
Wild game dinners don’t have to be as extravagant — or long — as our BeastFeast. In fact, I know many people are happy just to enjoy some delicious dishes, drink a nice wine, and talk about the season that was. It’s a wonderful way to spend a winter evening.
When you sit down for your celebration, make sure to lift a glass to the wild places we visit and the creatures we harvest.
It’s both an honour and a privilege to be a hunter.
Originally published in the Nov.-Dec 2019 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine