The Game Less Eaten

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I don't hunt, and I've caught (and released) a total of three fish in my life, so I'm not exactly a regular reader of Field & Stream magazine. Over the weekend, though, I picked up the latest issue for the purposes of research, and a short article caught my eye. It was called "Acquired Tastes: Five Ways to Eat Wild" and offered tips for cooking once-popular critters that have fallen out of food fashion, including merganser, opossum and groundhog.

I've never tried any of those, but I have tasted a few unusual wild animals, mostly since moving to an area with a strong hunting culture. The strangest by far was seal, which was served during a wild game tasting at a "Becoming an Outdoorswoman" seminar I was writing about. I guess I was caught up in the spirit of the event, because I put aside my usual meat aversions and took at least one bite of nearly everything (for some reason I drew the line at bear). Let's just say seal does not taste like chicken, and I won't be eating it again. Last year, Abigail Tucker wrote about eating narwhal while on assignment in Greenland, with a similar verdict.

A merganser, on the other hand, is a kind of duck. Perhaps it would be tasty with a nice orange sauce? Apparently not—unlike the farm-raised ducks on the menus of fine restaurants (and other wild species, like teal), mergansers eat fish, giving their meat a strong flavor that many people find unpalatable. The article recommends marinating overnight in brandy and seasonings, but even a good, long alcohol soak can't rid the beast of another drawback of its fishy diet—its high levels of PCBs in some waterways.

Another fish-eating duck, the loon, is now a protected species, but it's not as if hunters are clamoring to reintroduce it to the menu. The only loon recipes I could find online were variations on the same joke:

Planked Loon Catch a Loon Duck. (Black Lake Loon’s are best). Pluck and clean. Boil well. With sharp knife, split duck down the belly. Splay it on a well soaked hardwood plank. Nail it good and wire it securely. Place upright on plank in front of hot coals on outdoor fireplace. Cook well for about two hours. When done, throw that fishy duck away, and eat the plank!!!

Some people have a hard time eating cute animals, but the opossum seems to suffer—or benefit from—the opposite fate. Although 'possum is traditional rural Southern fare that many claim is good eating (some describe it as tasting like a cross between rabbit and wild fowl), I have to believe its ugly, ratlike mug is the reason it doesn't have the culinary cachet of venison or other wild game. The Field & Stream article suggests cooking it with sweet potatoes, sugar and bacon.

As for groundhogs (aka woodchucks), I'd put them squarely in the too-cute-to-eat category. But a 1983 copy of The L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook I found in the library at work makes a good point, I guess: "When one considers the number of woodchucks shot each year as varmints it is a pity that so few of them are eaten. The meat of a young woodchuck is as delicious as squirrel."

Now, I don't know how delicious squirrel is, and I don't have any burning desire to find out. How about you? Have you ever eaten any of the above critters, or any other unusual meat?

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