Welcome to the host site for outdoor writer Steve Sorensen’s “Everyday Hunter” columns. For a complete index of all columns, go to EverydayHunter.com.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

What Happened When I Took My Daughter Hunting

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 29, 2012.)

I slit open the deer’s belly and began to empty the contents. “What’s that, Daddy?”

“That’s the liver,” I replied.

“Can I touch it?”

Our conversation continued that way as we field dressed the doe. Jill was fascinated with the stomach, kidneys, heart, lungs and other internal organs.
That hunt was one of the things that
made Jill think about a career as a surgeon.
Twenty-one years later a nominee for Vice President of the United States stopped at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World near Cincinnati to buy his 10-year old daughter a camouflage jacket to wear deer hunting this fall. If the picture I saw is an indication, the jacket had pretty pink piping.

As predictably as a rutting buck sniffs out a doe, anti-hunters condemned Paul Ryan and pro hunters applauded him. The report on the CNN website included feedback comments all the way from “What a creepy, pathetic excuse for a man,” to “Quite common here in the upper mid-West for girls to learn gun safety at a young age.”

Certainly it’s not creepy and pathetic for an avid hunter to introduce his daughter to hunting – it happens all the time. That’s one of many reasons women are the fastest growing demographic in the ranks of hunters. If young Liza Ryan has an interest in hunting, and if Dad Ryan is free from the stereotype that hunting is a man’s sport, then teaching Liza to hunt is as normal and natural as coaching her soccer team.

And hunting will be like soccer. She may lose interest, or she may become passionate about it.

Or, she may experience something else, as my daughter Jill did. I couldn’t buy her a camo jacket with pink piping. No one made them in 1991. I simply suited her up in clothing I hoped would be comfortable, and took her along to expose her to my passion. What she did with it was up to her.

And what she did with it still amazes me. Though it was the only time I took her hunting, the memory stayed with her – especially the memory of field dressing the deer. She had some general idea what was inside a body, but she had never seen it. To say she was fascinated is an understatement.

Four years ago she entered medical school and decided to become a surgeon. That hunt, she says, was one of the things that made her think about a career as a surgeon. Surely it wasn’t the only thing. Maybe it wasn’t even the biggest thing. But it was something, and she says it was important.

Now, I’m not taking credit for her becoming a surgeon. She might have become a surgeon anyway. Nor am I taking credit being a great dad, though we had a memorable time together. I take credit only for giving her a day that remains vivid, and precious, in her memory.

She remembers eating candy bars hardened by the cold. She remembers feeling badly about the doe’s head bouncing along the ground as we dragged the deer from the woods. And she especially remembers her curiosity about what was inside the deer – that’s what stuck in her mind. It’s what she recalled over and over, and what remained with her through the years.

She graduated from medical school in June, and now M.D. comes after her name. And she’s in a top surgical residency program in Chicago where she sees things much sadder than watching a dead deer’s head bounce along the ground, and way more fascinating than what was inside that deer those many years ago.

A dad took a girl deer hunting, gave her hands-on exposure to something only hunters’ kids see, and now – every day – that girl’s hands are playing a role in healing the livers, kidneys and other organs of real live people.

I’m truly glad I took my daughter hunting. If you take yours, even just once, I promise you – it will be worth it.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Great Venison – Coming Soon to a Dinner Plate Near You

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 15, 2012.) 
Just because venison is red meat doesn’t mean it should be cooked the way you cook beef.    

Here we are on the cusp of deer season, and people will soon be sinking their cuspids into the same lean, tasty meat that sustained thousands of generations of Native Americans. Some people, however, won’t care much for the taste.

People have opinions about venison. They toss around words like “gamey,” and “dry,” without ever defining what gamey is or considering what to do to prevent dry meat.

I don’t call venison “gamey.” In fact, I’m not sure what “gamey” is. Yes, it is game, but I don’t hear anyone describe rabbit, turkey, or pheasant as gamey. They’re all different, just as venison is different from beef.

Right there is the big clue why people make plenty of mistakes cooking venison. Just because deer meat is red meat doesn’t mean it should be cooked the way you cook beef.

Most of the mistakes people make when cooking venison have to do with the fact that the meat is dry. If you address that issue, you can enjoy this season’s venison more than ever.

Why is venison dry? First, because it’s lean. It’s lean because it lacks the marbling beef has. Marbling consists of those globules of fat you see sprinkled throughout a good beef ribeye. They melt when cooked, and penetrate the meat.

Two words sum up what marbling adds: juiciness, and flavor. Health experts argue that juicy beef isn’t friendly to your heart, but juicy beef gets along very well with your taste buds!

So, let’s chew the fat about fat for a minute or two. Beef fat tastes great; venison fat tastes terrible. It coats the inside of your mouth. It’s tallowy. It’s better used in the candles on your dinner table than on your dinner plate. If the truth is told, fat might be the reason people think venison tastes “gamey.” Here’s a simple solution – trim away all the fat.

Whittling the fat away does nothing to keep the meat juicy, but it does a lot to make the meat more palatable. After trimming away the fat, you’re ready to deal with the dryness.

Why does venison dry out? Because moisture in beef and moisture in venison are totally different. When you grill beef outdoors you get flare-ups as the melting fat fuels the fire. Beef can afford to lose some of its moisture into the fire. Venison can’t. In fact, moisture in venison goes the other way – it evaporates into the air and nothing can restore it.

What can you do to keep venison from drying out? Some people use marinade to add moisture. Evaporated milk, Italian salad dressing, and teriyaki sauce are a few common marinades.  Five to six hours is usually enough time.

You can also add moisture to venison by wrapping it in bacon, cooking it in gravy or mushroom soup, or laying some strips of beef fat on it.

Another way people dry venison out is by slicing it too thin before cooking. If you like it sliced thin, either cook it submerged in a sauce, or slice it after it’s cooked. Venison cooks very quickly, so if it’s sliced thin prior to cooking, it won’t take much heat to dry it out. An inch isn’t too thick. After you cook it, slice it as thin as you want.

Perhaps the most common way to dry venison out is to overcook it. Lots of people use meat thermometers these days, and you should use one for venison just as you would for pork. New guidelines say 145° F is adequate for pork. The same works for venison. When you use a meat thermometer, insert it so the tip is in the thickest part of the meat.

A meat thermometer gives you confidence your meat is cooked through, even though it’s still pink inside. Don’t cook until the pink gets gone, because the moisture gets gone too.

Finally, avoid salt. Salt is absolutely necessary when you preserve meat by drying. (Think jerky.) But when you’re cooking meat, salt will further dry it. Make the decision about salt at the dinner table, not at the stove or grill.

If you put your tag on a deer this season, and you can get it to the dinner plate without drying it out, this is the season you’ll change someone’s mind about venison.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A review of Steven Rinella's MEAT EATER

Reviewed by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Havalon Sportsman's Post, September 4, 2012.) 
A kid can still grow up dreaming about being the next Jeremiah Johnson.

Really? A guy living in Brooklyn writes a book about hunting? What you might think isn’t even close. He’s not some odd kind of metrosexual without the aversion to wild game. Nor is he a casual hunter who occasionally escapes Gotham for an upstate camp where deer hunting is incidental to which beer goes best with what’s in the camp’s stew pot.

Enter Steven Rinella. Born in Michigan and groomed for hunting by a culture where kids can still grow up dreaming of being the next Jeremiah Johnson, Rinella actually made his boyhood hunting dreams happen. A blend of Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger and Tom Sawyer, he hesitates not at all to strike out for the territory ahead with traps, fishing rods, bows and guns. His adventures have taken him everywhere and his book, Meat Eater, takes us along. So, think of it as a travelogue.

The outdoors and the wildlife it hosts have held an attraction for Rinella for longer than he can remember. And he unapologetically tries to fill his tags. He declares himself, proudly, a meat eater. So, think of Meat Eater as a book about hunting.

But it’s not a book about killing. That’s the irony of Meat Eater. As Rinella pursues the experiences hunting offers across the continent, he weaves into his stories a philosophy of life that’s as gutsy and as honest and as deep as you’ll ever read. That’s what Meat Eater is – it’s really a book about a hunter’s values camouflaged as a book about a traveling hunter.

Certainly hunting is man’s oldest pursuit, and while much of man’s hunting history is lost, a big piece of it is recent enough for North Americans to remember how it shaped the continent. Rinella treats the fact that hunting is in its waning years as a tragedy – the very thing that gave man his ability to survive in a hostile world is on its way out at a time when the world is increasingly hostile.

In the pages of Meat Eater, you’ll clear up a few things in your own mind. You’ll learn that the primary motivation of hunters is not to kill. You’ll learn that hunters aren’t dimwits out to prove their manliness, or sadists seeking their jollies by causing animals to suffer. Rinella destroys the false stereotypes constantly reinforced by a culture that has severed itself from its own roots.

The truth is that hunters hunt for reasons little understood in an urban, technological age. And they take responsibility for it in a way that the average person today doesn’t even think about.

If anyone cares a lick about understanding what makes hunters tick, this is exactly the book to read. If modern hunters need confirmation for what they do and why, here it is. And if non-hunters (or anti-hunters) will risk reading a book about hunting that will threaten their preconceptions, this is the one.

Time will tell, but Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter has what it will take to be a high water mark among twenty-first century essays on hunting. It’s well written, thoughtful, respectful, and it’s right.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Pink Camo? Yes, and No

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, September 1, 2012.) 
Plenty of times I’ve seen guys stop and stare when a pink product grabs their eyes.    
I’m not about to wear it, but it’s growing on me. 

For a few years now we’ve been seeing various camouflage patterns enriched with pink. It’s not just clothing. Pink covers everything from boots and bows to knives and gun slings. Even rifle stocks feature laminated hardwood with alternating layers stained pink and gray. 

What's up with all this pink stuff? For starters, it’s a reflection of the huge growth in women getting involved in hunting and other outdoor sports.

Sometimes pink shouts-out for a good cause. Alpen Optics offers two binoculars in pink, and when people buy them Alpen makes a donation to fight breast cancer. That makes good sense because Alpen has a high profile in the competitive 3D archery circuit, where many professional archers are women. Several of them serve on Alpen’s pro staff.

Pink also makes a statement. It says women are not afraid to be associated with the outdoor lifestyle. They’re proud of pink. It’s photogenic. They may not all be hunters, but the ranks of women hunters are growing, and pink sets them apart from the men in traditional camo garb.

Vickie Gardner, Vice President at Alpen, actually warns women about NOT wearing pink. “Once a man I was hunting with didn’t notice I was part of the group and….” Think about it and you’ll get the picture. Pink camo will give men with female hunting companions an instant reminder to be a little more careful around women. Of course, she’s not advocating all-pink camo. Subtle pink piping and pink accents on traditional camo should be enough.

Hoosier hunter Vikki Trout is a freelance outdoor writer who at least partly agrees. “Pink gives a feminine touch and helps distinguish us from the guys.” But she’s personally more traditional. “Pink is a bigger hit with the younger generation.” When I asked her if she thought pink had any appeal to men, she said it does “because it keeps the ladies looking more feminine.”

Her words reminded me that plenty of times I’ve seen guys at sport shows stop and stare when a pink product grabs their eyes. Maybe they’re expecting to see a pretty girl. It happens often enough to make that expectation reliable.

That also says pink-themed merchandise is sometimes nothing more than a marketing ploy. Some companies paint a product pink in a cynical attempt to appeal to women, based on the assumption that they’re so shallow they’ll respond to a product just because it’s pink.

Other companies don’t slip into that condescending attitude. For them, pink sets products apart once they’ve redesigned them for smaller hands and better efficiency.

Some women avoid pink. It doesn’t fulfill the hunting dreams of Laura Lee Dovey, Executive Director of the Professional Outdoor MediaAssociation. Although she does like pink camo for T-shirts, hats and non-hunting accessories, “Pink camo for hunting is not for me. I don't want to wear it to hunt because it messes with my psyche and feelings about blending into the habitat.”

Kirstie Pike, CEO of Próis Hunting and Field Apparel, agrees. Próis specializes in serious camo clothing for women. “Pink just does not at all correspond with the vision of our company.”

And that brings me to two bottom lines. First, pink camo and pink gear attracts all kinds of attention, and it’s going to keep coming from specialty companies and mass marketers alike.  

More important is this – our society is realizing women aren’t all cut from the same pink cloth. More and more, everyday women are giving each other lots of latitude in what to wear and what to think. They’re less and less being locked into one way being feminine, even one way of being a feminist. Some like pink camo and gear, and some don’t. But they’re all defining for themselves what “pink” means and where it’s appropriate.

As for me, I wouldn’t be at all embarrassed about carrying a pink-handled knife. I use an orange-handled Havalon knife now, and I’d be just as willing to have one with a pink handle for the same practical reason – when I drop it in the leaves it’s easy to find again. And it would remind me that we men are being joined in the woods by women who are just as good as we are.