Featured in the May 2017 Issue of Fur-Fish-Game
My first wild game dinner was a steak from a whitetail doe my dad shot when I was seven years old. The dinner was a prime opportunity for a lesson in outdoor ethics, and he explained to me the relationship between hunter and prey. To sum up his words: “if a deer didn’t taste so damn good, there’d be no reason to shoot it”. The point being, you eat what you kill.
As most hunters understand, that’s the only way to truly honor an animal’s life. Some find it contradictory, and a whole article could be spent trying to explain this complex relationship. But no matter how you spin it, hunting for meat gives purpose to the chase, and an enigmatic value to the cuisine.
I’ve taken this idea a step further than most. Everything from boiled whitetail tongue to green-winged teal liver has landed on my plate in a curious game of trial and error with wild meats, but I was never a trapper. Nor did I ever have any desire to put fox in my catalog of wild game recipes. After three months spent wreaking havoc on a resident red fox population, however, any limitations I put on wild game meals had to be broken. I had a new culinary obligation: to hunt and procure a red fox steak.
Last spring, I worked with a wildlife management agency doing predator management trapping for nesting shorebirds. Our primary target was the local red fox, who had ravaged a nesting colony that previous summer and were still active in the area based on the number of dens, scat, and rabbit fur that decorated the inland dunes. My duties were strict: trap the fox with foothold traps, dispatch with a silenced .22, and chuck the lifeless bodies in the bushes— none to be kept for our own use.
My first fox was trapped beneath a limb of a young cedar. The white of her underjaw was glued to the soft sand beneath her and her front paw was lifted slightly by the chain wrapped around a low-lying branch. Her eyes were large and curious, and they watched me as I walked up on her with the .22. After a well-placed shot to the head, I grabbed hold of her tail and flung her into the bushes where she could not be seen, just like I had been directed to. In the moment of that toss, I spoiled a lifetime spent abiding by strict ethical standards, in which I had eaten everything I killed.
Back at the cedar, I picked up the spent .22 casing hidden in the sand. The shell was placed on a shelf in my bedroom to serve as a daily reminder that I needed to redeem my outdoorsman code, and mend my relationship with the red fox the only way I knew how: by eating one.
We barely managed to put a dent in the fox population during that summer job. They were smart, and weary of our constant presence; traits often portrayed in ancient Native American legends. Natives treated the fox as a spiritual relic, and many stories interpreted the fox as a tricky animal, mystic in nature and difficult to catch. The latter I can attest to. Silver foxes, above all, were highly respected. Western tribes believed that the silver fox was one of the creators of the world.1 When working up close and personal with fox, it’s easy to understand how these stories were created. A fox is much like a nomadic man, wit and survival determines their direction, inciting curiosity in anyone who sees them. For me, an impassioned affinity for fox was inevitable, especially since I was stricken with guilt for piling them up.
In the months following my predator management job, my mind had transitioned back to whitetail lust. Now smack in the middle of the November rut, I set out on a frigid evening with my bow, eyes-wide for venison. For hours, the forest laid silent, barring a few foraging gray squirrels and the distant honks of Canadian geese. Just as dark started to settle among the oaks and pines, a swift trot against fallen leaves cracked the silence. My peripherals caught a silky red canine with his tongue hanging out, panting as he jogged. He floated atop a downed log and surveyed the land before him. I took a moment to let the scenario sink in, to admire his beauty, and to decide on my next move. The opportunity finally presented itself, and my hand extended for my bow. The fox dropped off his perch and crossed through my shooting lane as I drew back.
When it comes to bow hunting whitetails, everybody talks about “pie plate accuracy”. That is, the vitals of a deer are generally the size of a pie plate. So, if you can consistently shoot a grouping that size, you should be good. When your bow hunting a fox, that pie plate gets much smaller; a truth I never took into consideration until I looked through my sight.
My top pin found the middle of the metaphorical plate and steadied after a few methodical breaths. In a single moment determining life and death, the redemption of my outdoor ethics, and the prospect of a fox meat dinner I had relished for months now, I released my arrow.
The standards of acceptable culinary practices have changed drastically in the last couple centuries. Rufus Sage, famous for his explorations of the west and writing on the lifestyle of a 19th century mountain man, frequented bizarre dishes that I’d bet most of today’s hunters wouldn’t be able to stomach. On one occasion, while facing eminent starvation, Rufus boiled down and ate a buffalo hide.2 He reported that it was tacky, and stuck to his upper jaw and teeth as he ate. Mountain man Jedediah Smith, between mapping out the new frontier and fighting off grizzly bears, survived off dead horses and beaver meat when times got rough.3 History’s outdoorsmen relied on many meats we would find odd today, including muskrat, lynx, and even buffalo testicles, but reports of canine meat have always been contradictory.
In the 1913 scholarly classic, My Life with the Eskimo, Vilhtjalmar Stefansson reports that he “preferred wolf meat much to caribou, for it is usually tender and fat.” Stefansson further calls wolf to be “excellent eating.”4 Meanwhile, Siberian hunter A.A. Cherkassov was disgusted by wolf meat, saying that “the meat of a fox is not as bad as wolf meat is” and that even though fox was better, it should only be eaten in “extreme conditions”5.
A palate craving canine meat is probably influenced by culture, level of starvation, and method of cooking, but in ancient China, fox meat was celebrated as a medicinal treasure. In an early 14th century Chinese cookbook, fox meat gruel (a soup with the consistency of oatmeal) was said to cure infantile convulsion epilepsy, spiritual confusion, and “inappropriate singing and laughing”6. My red fox dinner was not intended to cure dire starvation or severe illness, but I was curious about the lessons I would learn from eating one.
The fox hung by its hind legs as it was given the precision cuts needed for a proper case skinning. With the fur off, the real prize was revealed: the meat. I pulled the backstraps off just as I would a deer: careful cuts along the spine and peeling back, cutting connective tissue along the way. To taste the fox in its purest form, I did no more than give it a simple saltwater brine for 24 hours. After the 24 hours was up, the meat was padded dry, and thrown into a pan with butter.
The best way to eat deer is while it’s still damn near bleeding, but it’s important to cook carnivore meat all the way through. Raw meat diets make fox a perfect vector for parasites, and one of the most commonly found parasites in fox is Trichinella. Although the parasite is more prevalent in European populations of red fox, it infects both bear and wild pigs in America and could in theory infect other carnivores as well. Meat infected with Trichinella can be cured in two ways, freezing or thorough cooking. The USDA suggests freezing at under -5 °F, or cooking to an internal temperature of 140 °F. These temperatures will vary depending on the species of parasite, but if you cook carnivores long and thorough enough, you should be safe.7
When I was certain that any concealed parasites would have been killed, I pulled the cooked meat off the pan and brought it to the table. What laid before me looked like a miniature version of the venison I had been eating my whole life, but I was in for something different. After all, this was fox, the very canine that had haunted my mind with guilt and frustration over the last six months. Now, with the meat on my plate, I was finally offered redemption.
Before I could start cutting away, I had to get over a few inconvenient facts:
1) Fox have an uncanny resemblance to man’s best friend. I’m eating dog, and I don’t quite know how I feel about it.
2) For all those who have dealt with fox, you know that they absolutely reek. Usually I don’t like my food to come from an animal that smells like skunk lathered in stale beer, but on this meal, I made an exception.
After some mental toiling, and fighting off the temptation to back out, I swallowed all my preconceived notions with my first bite. Surprisingly, the meat wasn’t bad. But I can’t say it was good either. The coot I shot and cooked last duck season was worse, which tasted like a thick mixture of mud and grass. But still, this meat had a distinct flavor that was strikingly foreign to my palate. It was strong and powerful, and far harsher in gaminess than deer or waterfowl. The flavor had an intense metallic tang to it, and tasted as if I had sprinkled little iron shavings into my salt water brine. But I would much rather live off a diet of red fox than poorly cooked coot.
Another chew in and I was comfortable enough to let the real flavor sink in: the fact that I was rectifying a summer spent violating my ‘eat what you kill’ code. Rufus Sage probably felt a feeling similar when he finally found something to eat, even if it were a buffalo hide. Jed Smith also, when he ate his dead horse while trying to cross the Mojave. These meals were imperative for their survival and they had no choice, but my meal was just as liberating. Their lives were at stake, but so was my hunting and trapping conscious.
Fox meat may not taste like grade-A beef, but that’s no matter. It’s not taste that gives value to wild game, it’s the relationship.