I’m not squeamish about food. I’m a proud omnivore, and I’m not afraid to try things others might run from in terror. As Anthony Bourdain puts it, I like the “nasty bits,” such as liver and kidney, which when correctly prepared are far more delicious than anyone gives them credit for. I draw the line at tripe, however. Oh, who am I kidding. I’d try it. Why not?
But it is with that spirit of gastronomic adventure that I headed down Route 9 from Bangor last Friday to attend Unity College’s fifth annual Wild Game Dinner, which happens every April, and this year sold out in fewer than three days. It raises money for different outdoors-related charities, this year including Operation Game Thief, the Maine Warden Service Association, Catch-A-Dream and Hunt of a Lifetime. The organizer of the event, Unity Associate Director of Admissions Joe Saltalamachia, promised me a unique evening.
“Word of mouth has spread about it,” said the enthusiastic Saltalamachia, known as “Salty” among students and staff. “You know you’re not going to get a meal like this for this price anywhere else. It’s very unique. You just don’t see beaver on any menus.”
Chef Becky Traylor and a team of Unity College students spent most of the day of the event in the kitchen in the basement of the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts, preparing an assortment of appetizers and entrees. The meat comes from area hunters and trappers, and it is truly the definition of free-range and organic. Forget whole foods; this is the real deal.
“We want others to be able to try this kind of food. It’s one of the reasons why we hunt, because we know that this is the most organic, nutritious meat out there. It doesn’t get any better than that,” said Saltalamachia. “You hear that stereotype about trophy hunters, and we know that events like this help to dispel that myth. We eat what we shoot. And it’s really good eating.”
Deer, moose, bear, beaver, wild turkey, wild duck and wild goose were on the menu. I’ve had the first two off that list, but the rest were all new to me. As a native Mainer and someone with a great deal of respect for Maine’s sportsmen and women, I feel an obligation to sample what our hunters bring home.
The evening starts with a cocktail hour, with students passing around trays of appetizers. Everyone from game wardens and Carhartt-clad hunters to Unity students and curious locals sample a bit of everything, chatting with each other over a glass of wine or Maine’s own Peak Organic beer. Then it’s downstairs for the meal itself, which is served family-style, with different dishes coming out every 10 to 15 minutes for whole tables to share.
First off, the venison and moose. Now, I’ve had both those items before, with a killer moose burger served up at a barbecue a few years ago and a generous helping of venison stew one winter awhile back. During the cocktail hour, maple moose sausage was passed around, as was a breaded and pan-fried venison. As anyone who has tried venison before can attest, it is denser, leaner and slightly gamier than the most obvious comparison meat, which is beef. Moose, in particular, has a nice texture, a bit more like lamb or mutton. It’s crumbly when ground up, and the maple complemented the mild flavor of the meat.
During dinner, we were treated to four venison entrees: venison stromboli, venison sliders, venison cheddar pie and venison hot dogs and beans. The venison hot dogs and venison cheddar pie were particularly excellent, with the leanness giving the dogs an unusual density and flavor. Personally, I’d love to order venison hot dogs at a baseball game. Now that’s Maine.
Wild turkey was featured in four dishes: turkey salad on crackers, turkey pepperoni and roasted turkey appetizers, and wild turkey quesadillas during the dinner.
The turkey you buy at the grocery store for Thanksgiving is, in my opinion, pretty bland and flavorless, and only tastes good when paired with loads of garlic, herbs and spices. The turkeys you shoot and bring home to eat can be a little on the tough side, but at the Unity College dinner, the meat was moist and unlike any plastic-wrapped bird you would buy at the store. The difference between farm-raised and wild was strongest here; there are no antibiotics, hormones or unnatural feed to cloud the true flavor of the meat. You don’t taste anything but the bird.
One of the appetizers that disappeared the fastest was the wild duck wrapped in bacon. Wild duck is quite gamy, but in a pleasantly savory kind of way. I’ve had domestic duck in restaurants, but never wild duck, and the difference is quite noticeable. Same goes for the goose, which as an entree was served with an orange marmalade sauce. Goose is a little tougher than duck, and oddly enough, tastes more like pork than any bird I’ve ever eaten.
My good-natured, well-informed tablemates, Bob and Deb Noonan of Canaan, publish a bimonthly magazine called The Trapper’s Post, geared toward those who trap beaver, raccoon, mink and other creatures. They pointed out a bit of birdshot left in one of the pieces of goose meat — not an unusual occurrence, and an indication of just how wild this game really was.
Then there were the two meats I was most excited about trying: bear and beaver. The beaver was served as a kind of pulled, potted meat, with a cornbread pairing. I’m not going to lie; I didn’t particularly care for it, though it was well worth trying at least once. It has an earthy, almost muddy kind of taste, unlike anything I’ve tried before. Maybe I’m biased because of an incident when I was a little kid, when an enormous beaver slapped its tail at me while I was swimming in a river, and scared me.
The bear, however, was wonderful, served as meatballs and as Cajun bear sausage appetizers, and as a meatloaf entree. It’s meaty, strong and boldly flavored. It’s a fattier meat than, for instance, venison, and it’s hard to compare it to anything else. It’s not like beef, nor is it like pork. It’s like bear. And that’s exactly what I was hoping to get at the dinner: something totally unique.