2 lbs. ground venison
1 can tomatoes chopped
1 can tomato sauce
1 package chili mix
Brown ground venison with chopped onions and peppers for about 10 minutes.
Put contents in a crockpot. (You don’t have to drain off any grease because there should be very little.) Add remaining ingredients and cook on low for six hours.
5 pounds venison
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup vinegar
1/4 cup crushed red chili flakes
2 tablespoons of garlic powder
Slice the meat against the grain approximately 3/16 to 1/4 inch thick. Slice meat when it is partially frozen for best results. In a bowl, mix soy sauce, lime juice, vinegar, red chili flakes and garlic powder. Add the meat to cure and marinate for at least 24 hours, refrigerated. Rack the meat in a hot smoker and smoke at approximately 100 degrees for one to two days, until almost crispy.
Overbrook Shannon Bollinger wishes he had a four-wheeler. It sure would help with the grocery shopping.
Instead, it is not even 9 o’clock in the morning and Bollinger already is worn out. He has an 11-point buck deer on the back of a flatbed pickup to thank for that.
Not that a man who just shot an 11-point buck — on the first day that he hunted that particular spot, no less — has much right to complain, but the deer did fall in a bad place.
Just after the sun came up at 7 a.m., Bollinger — an X-ray technician from Gardner — saw the deer and took it down with a single shot to the neck. As soon as the rush of adrenaline from the hunt wore off, Bollinger realized he had just bought himself a job.
The deer was about 300 yards from where it needed to be to get it loaded onto the back of the truck.
“So, I just hooked a halter around his horns and drug him out there by myself,” Bollinger said.
A four-wheeler and a rope would have been a lot easier on his back.
Now, here at Overbrook’s Santa Fe Trail Meats, Bollinger has hold of the antlers again. He and an employee of the meat market drag the buck across the concrete steps leading to the back door of this butcher shop.
They drag him past a pile of hides that sits in a corner just inside the door. They drag him toward what could be called dead deer row — three smaller deer, hoofs up, leaning against the back wall of the slaughter room.
But they stop before they get there. This one is warm enough to go ahead and skin, if they can just get him up on an angle iron bench specially made for holding carcasses.
Grunts and groans from the two men, and then meat shop owner Aaron Higbie rushes over and grabs a horn as well.
“That’s a three-man deer there,” Higbie says as the carcass clanks upon the work surface. “Corn fed. That’s a good deer, good deer.”
What, this isn’t how you shop for meat?
• • •
The first 12 days in December are like none other in Kansas. It is rifle season for deer. It is the time of year that “horn hunters” take to the hedgerows and seek a trophy for a wall. It is the time of year that fathers will let sons go in late to school in order to partake in nature’s classroom. It is the time of year when wives who swear men are incapable of planning are proven wrong.
“There are guys who plan for this all year,” Higbie said. “They’ll take one vacation a year, and this is it.”
There’s no telling where deer season began for most hunters on Dec. 1 — probably somewhere dark and cold — but for most hunters, a meat market like this is where it ends.
It’s where it begins for Higbie — and it certainly is no vacation. Basically for two weeks, Higbie and his 11 employees do nothing but process and butcher deer. Their normal business of butchering cattle, hogs, buffalo, goats and lambs is put on hold.
“Deer season in Kansas is pretty intense,” Higbie said.
Higbie’s shop — one shop in a town of less than 1,000 people — will process about 400 deer during the season, which when you include the archery and muzzle-loader sessions stretches from September to January. But about 250 of the deer will come during this 12-day rifle period.
Already on this Thursday morning, four deer have shown up at the shop’s back door in the first hour of business. Some, like the buck, were shot just an hour or so earlier. Others were shot the evening before, or sometimes even days earlier. A Kansas December sometimes functions as a freezer.
At the back door is also where congratulations are delivered. Employees and passersby pat Bollinger on the shoulder, and he beams.
Forget all that earlier talk. Deer season doesn’t end here. It is becoming more obvious that deer season never really ends. Bollinger will be telling the story of this buck for a long time to come.
“A lot of this is about the memories and the stories,” Bollinger said. “You’ll always have those to tell.”
• • •
Memories may warm your heart, but meat fills your belly. For a lot of people who come to the Overbrook shop, the meat is mighty important, too.
“There are a lot of customers that this is pretty much the only meat they eat,” Higbie said. “There are a lot that this is the only time of year we see them.”
So, if you choose, don’t think of it as hunting. Think of it as a once-a-year shopping trip.
When it comes to deer meat, that is about the way it has to be. Good luck finding a package of deer meat — or venison, as it is technically called — at your local grocery store. In Kansas, it is against the law for retailers to sell wild game. And although domesticating deer is possible, it hasn’t become common, as with buffalo.
So that makes deer one of the last of the old-fashioned styles of meats. If you want to eat it, you’ve got to shoot it. Or perhaps find a buddy who will.
Oh yeah, you also have to clean it. Or pay Higbie — usually $85 to $100 — to do so. Even then, you’re going to need to get your hands a little dirty. Higbie asks that all deer brought to the shop are field dressed — which basically means that the stomach and other internal organs are removed. It is best to get those out quickly because a ruptured organ could contaminate the meat.
Then, it is skinning time. Higbie has one employee who is a skinning specialist.
“He’s working seven days a week right now,” Higbie said. “He’s in here until 10:30 at night on some days.”
Once the deer is skinned — which will take about 20 minutes, if you are handy with a knife and if the deer isn’t frozen stiff — it is time to get it in the cooler.
At the height of deer season, Higbie’s cooler may have upward of 150 carcasses hanging in it. In due time — most deer hang in the cooler for a week to age and become more tender — the carcasses are taken to the cutting room.
On this day, five hang from the ceiling. About a half-dozen men with knives — a couple also with hooks — begin an assembly-line process. One cuts away large pieces from the carcass and passes it along. Another cuts steaks and roasts, while yet another removes bones. Then there are men who work the grinders and some who stuff casings for summer or breakfast sausage, or other such creations.
They also keep a watchful eye out. Somebody, after all, has to find the slug that felled this animal and remove the tainted meat surrounding it.
“We’re just like the CSI folks,” Higbie said, “except we don’t get paid as much.”
It is not uncommon for a deer to yield 50 to 80 pounds of usable meat, and Kansas law now allows many hunters to shoot more than one deer a year. Depending on how you have the deer processed, it is possible for it to average out to around $2 a pound.
“A fairly cheap way to fill the freezer,” is one way it is described around here — although that description occasionally draws a laugh considering some hunters seem to require an expensive ATV, a fancy rifle, a gee-whiz GPS ... the list can go on and on.
“But a lot of the guys are still pretty simple,” Higbie said. “They have an old 30-30 rifle that has been handed down. They don’t have an ATV and all that gear. They just go get it done.”
• • •
At some point in time, most deer hunters also go get a bowl of chili. When you ask a deer hunter what his or her — Bollinger’s wife also hunts — favorite deer recipe is, chili is a likely answer.
But there are other possibilities: the sausages, the deer jerky, the deer sticks (think of something like a Slim Jim), and just plain old deer hamburgers and steaks.
Some hunters admit the meat can be a bit of an acquired taste — wild meat tastes different and the lean nature of deer meat can make it susceptible to overcooking.
But for the men who come in the back door of Santa Fe Trail Meats, they all swear by it. It’s good eating, they say. And you get the sense that the best part may be the aftertaste it leaves behind.
“I like that this is the only way you’re going to get this meat,” says Kevin McCush, a Topeka resident who brought in a deer from the Silver Lake area. “When you are fixing a meal with a deer that you know you got all on your own, it just makes you feel a little bit better about yourself.”