The Star-Herald

A taste for the outdoors

As an adolescent, I was a finicky eater and my grandmother, who did most of the cooking, spoiled me rotten. Lobster was about 25 cents a pound in the 1950s and when the family had a rare feed of the exotic crustacean, Gram made me a hamburger. I never did acquire a taste for lobster until my college years — of course then the price was much higher and I had to pay for it myself! 

I had become an avid outdoorsman over my teen years and my ventures led me to be more adventuresome in food choices, especially game animals. I got reminiscing recently and attempted to recall all the meat and fish flavors from cast and blast adventures that I’d sampled and how delicious, or revolting, they tasted.

Of course my wife Linda and I have prepared a lot of our own recipes with wild game, but many more exotic dishes have been sampled at sportsmen shows, public and private wild game dinners and during trips to hunting and fishing camps all over the world. For example, my cousin Steve Hitchcock and I have shared rod and gun outings for decades, so I was always invited to enjoy tasty treats at his annual wild game dinner. There were usually 20 or more guests, each bringing a special wild game dish to share. What a taste bud smorgasbord! Several times I took my old family recipe for baked beans cooked with partridge breasts rather than salt pork and it was always a hit.

While we are on the subject of wildfowl and upland birds, I’ve tried over a dozen species and partridge remains in the top three for savory flavor. Wild turkey is also top rate and I truly enjoy a roasted pheasant breast with orange glaze. Woodcock is dark meat and a bit strongly flavored for my taste and Bobwhite quail are tender and moist when done on a charcoal grill.

While hunting in Hawaii, I bagged blue pheasant, Erckel’s francolin, chukar partridge, gray and black francolin, wild turkey and dove. The Rio Grande wild turkey of Hawaii were every bit as tender, moist, and flavorful as Maine’s Eastern species. Francolin are members of the pheasant family, though very different in size, color and shape, but all offered tasty white breast meat similar to local pheasant. I am not a big fan of dove as dark meat has never been appealing to me and there was a gamey flavor.

Birds that fly far more than they walk tend to have dark-meat breasts and wings, so as you might guess, all migratory waterfowl feature dark meat. Nonetheless, I’ve sampled over a dozen varieties of puddle duck, four types of sea duck, six species of geese and even two kinds of fish eating merganser. I did not go back for seconds on any of the sea ducks or merganser, as it was too strong tasting for me! Roasted and stuffed Canada goose or citrus braised snow goose breasts were mouth watering. In order of preference, wood duck, mallard and black duck are my top three puddle duck flavors and rate about a 7 on a 1- to 10- taste test.

The best pork I’ve ever tasted came from a 270-pound wild boar that I shot when it attacked our trio of bird hunters on the side of a dormant volcano in Hawaii. The big pig was roasted for eight hours in banana leaves over wood charcoal in a covered pit. The meat was sweet, succulent, fall off the bone tender and far more flavorful than any farm raised, store bought hog I’ve ever sampled.

I could have written an entire article just on the fish family: fresh water, salt water, crustaceans, mollusks, and more. Let’s start right off with the guideline that if its raw, it’s not my cup of tea! I really have sampled some of the finest sushi and sashimi available. I know because I caught the tuna, mahi mahi, and other species myself and it was prepared by experts. I can’t stand the texture, taste and thought of raw meat, so all the more for those who can.

Fresh fried brook trout remains my favorite, followed closely by a wild, not farm-raised, Atlantic salmon steak slowly cooked on a charcoal grill. Landlocked salmon and rainbow trout get a 7 rating, togue a 5 and splake, yellow perch, and pickerel a 6. Despite its ugly exterior, cusk has solid white meat that makes a delicious chowder reminiscent of scallop. Maine’s smallest game fish, the smelt, fried up crisp and crusty deserves at least a score of 8. Smallmouth bass and white perch when prepared properly deserve a 7.5 on the taste test.

I’m not a fan of the taste of blue fish, shark of any species, flounder and cod. They rate a 5, while fresh striped bass, walleye and haddock fall in the 7- to 8-range. Of the five varieties of Pacific salmon, coho and pink are favorites I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy both at camp and for shoreline lunches in Alaska. I also really enjoy escargot, yes, snail, and even more so I love conch, which is a huge marine shell and a distant snail relative, with meat inside like a scallop. Conch fritters, conch chowder and cracked conch are all tremendous, but difficult to find on a menu unless you’re in Florida or the Caribbean.

I’ve tried squirrel stewed and fried, and gray is better than red. Snowshoe rabbit is also top rate prepared the same two ways. Alligator is firm, white meat but a bit fishy tasting for me. A pair of dining companions loved it. Ostrich is the beef steak of the bird world. It is a bit expensive and difficult to find on the menu, but delicious. Meatballs made of beaver were OK, and after going bullfrog gigging, a Louisiana sport, the large frog legs which look like chicken legs were firm, white meat, but a bit bland.

Finally, like most deer hunters, I’ve had great venison and some that was very wild tasting and unappealing, but given the choice, I prefer a good cut of moose steak over beef or deer. As for bear meat, when quickly and properly dressed and butchered, I’ve found it to be very tender and tasty.

I hope this story gets some of you outdoor folk thinking back over the years about unique meals you might have tried and perhaps enjoyed. Or better yet maybe it will encourage some of you to hunt or fish for a new species and try a new taste treat. Perhaps you don’t know what you’re missing.

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