By Lisa Gosselin, "The Locavore Christmas,"November/December 2010
I moved to Vermont, in part, because of an old general store and all that it stood for. The small clapboard building was the only shop within miles of my house. Its floorboards were worn smooth from more than 150 years of muddy boots, its shelves packed with canned beans and tins of chewing tobacco. It served as a deli, post office and the big-game weighing station. It was, I figured, a good place to buy venison.
Venison was not a regular part of my diet. But in the six months since I’d traded a Manhattan apartment for my tiny cabin on a dirt road, my life had done a 180. Instead of takeout Szechuan, I now bought chicken from a farmer a mile away, maple syrup from my neighbors and milk from the dairy down valley. As the weather turned cold that first year, I began dreaming about what my first Vermont Christmas dinner would be. I decided to recreate one of my father’s favorite dishes: venison, with maple syrup and apples from an ancient tree near my stream.
There are more deer in New England now than when the Pilgrims first arrived, and in my valley big herds would graze nonchalantly in one field. Then, as I’d drive by, almost on cue they’d decide that the grass really was greener on the other side of the road. Hooves. White tails. Squealing brakes. Heart racing, I’d curse Bambi and all his brethren.
But come hunting season, the deer magically disappeared. Trucks with gun racks cruised up and down the road. In the general store, pictures of burly men in camouflage, proudly grasping large antlers, were thumbtacked to the bulletin board. But no one seemed to know where I could get venison. The closest I could find was a gourmet market a 45-minute drive away that sold frozen cuts. At $24 a pound. From New Zealand.
Then, one November morning as I was picking up my mail at the general store, I saw the game warden, tall and lanky in his drab green uniform.
“Excuse me,” I asked hesitantly, “do you know where I could get some venison?” The warden sized me up. I became acutely aware that I was in stockings and heels, remnants of my old urban life. He stirred another packet of creamer into his coffee and watched it dissolve.
“Around here, ma’am,” he finally replied, “most people get it themselves.
A deer can help get you through the winter.” The store had suddenly grown silent. “Do you hunt?”
I could feel a dozen eyes on me now. “Um...no,” I said meekly.
“The other option,” he said slowly, “is that sometimes we get road kill.”
I gulped. “What happens then?” I asked. As soon as I did, I regretted it. A snicker came from over by the cash register.
“If I know someone wants one, I’ll drop off a carcass.”
I inched toward the door.
“Do you butcher?” the warden asked.
I hastily murmured a thank you. Then, for some reason, as I backed out of the store I began babbling, explaining Dad’s penchant for saddle of venison (“Best part of the deer,” the warden interjected), that my great-grandfather had owned a general store in central Vermont, that this was the first Christmas dinner I had ever made for my parents. I turned to make my final retreat, stumbled and dropped my mail.
Magazines and bills scattered across the rough floor. The warden bent down stiffly. But as he collected them, he softened. “Listen,” he said, handing back my Banana Republic catalog, “write down your number and if I find some venison, I’ll call you.”
A month went by. The snow fell. My parents arrived from Connecticut. I’d moved on to Plan B (free-range local turkey) when I got the message on my answering machine. It was the day before Christmas.
“This is the game warden. I got a deer.” The message then went on: the warden would be out of town, but the deer was in a pickup truck, parked under his carport, and I was welcome to retrieve it.
Retrieve it? What was I going to do with a deer carcass? I hit “Delete message.”
That afternoon as I drove home from work it began to blizzard. As I passed the turnoff to the warden’s house, curiosity overcame me and I pulled up the long driveway. The pickup was there and I half expected to see antlers sticking out of the truck bed.
There was nothing. I looked inside the cab. Nothing.
Then, just as I was driving out, my headlights caught something shiny on the tailgate. There, nestled in the drifting snow, was a small white plastic bag. Inside, wrapped in butcher’s paper, were two beautifully trimmed tenderloins, and the warden’s card.
On the back, scrawled in pencil, the words “Merry Christmas.”
Lisa Gosselin is the editorial director of EatingWell.