Father and daughter team to hunt, forage and cook
Three deer pass by the window. It is the Sunday before Thanksgiving and John Allgood has not gotten his deer for the winter. He shakes his head, but leans forward to watch their postures and movement. “Her tail is tucked down, and she has that awkward stride. It means a buck is nearby,” he says.
John lives on Mount Desert Island where deer are protected, and it is also Sunday, a no-hunt day. Those deer are not game, but John still stops what he is doing to see where the does go.
John and his wife Abbie raised their two daughters on as much locally hunted, fished, gathered or grown ingredients as possible. He says, “I won’t swear to it, but I am pretty sure the red meat Lily and Sadie first tasted was deer.”
“I haven’t missed an opening day since I was thirteen,” John says, adding, “I look forward to this day all year.” If he were working construction in the early hours, he would get out before the light faded, and if his employment kept him busy until dark, he would hunt on opening day before work. John is close to sixty, and that is a lot of opening days. He hunts, and also fishes, gathers mushrooms, digs clams, and forages cranberries, ramps and whatever else the season has to offer.
John is not sure how young he was when he first started traipsing the woods looking for deer with his dad and his uncles, but he remembers the first successful hunt when he was eight. “We got a deer, I had never been part of that before, and I was allowed to carry the guns while my dad and uncles hauled the deer to the car. It was a tiny Renault Hillman. Four adults and me stuffed inside, and a deer in the trunk, that was pretty memorable. Then we got home to find Jack Ruby had killed Lee Harvey Oswald.” That is not a day easily forgotten.
John is not just a hunter, fisher, and forager, though. He is a cook. The oldest of six children, his mother was a nurse and often worked on Sundays. That was the day his father prepared food for the family. “It was usually a hubcap-sized meat patty cut up like a pie, with frozen Tater Tots and canned corn,” John recalls.
At eleven or twelve he started to cook in self-defense. He has never had what he calls food phobias. “Why wouldn’t I want to try moose or squid?” New foods and flavors appeal to him, and he is always ready to experiment. When living in Austin, Texas he naturally headed to the farmer’s market, and came home with a bag of tomatillos. The woman he bought them from thought she was being helpful calling them Mexican tomatoes, and John laughs as he tells about lining them up on the windowsill to turn red, or slicing them into salads. But that is how one learns, and this fall he canned 20 cups of tomatillo salsa verde.
John prepares most of his family’s meals, and his daughter Lily was intrigued by this. “She always wanted to know what I was doing, and why,” he says. Lily loved to cook with her dad, but she did not hunt and fish with him as a child. It wasn’t until she was in art school that, circuitously through friends studying taxidermy, she became interested in hunting. When she came back to Maine she and John took the hunter safety class. The tale of John and Lily getting a moose has become family legend, involving a shot from the canoe, stalking over a hill, having the bull run almost out of range, and making their shot. With help from friends they had the moose field-dressed, cut-up, and in the canoe in under four hours.
John’s moose meatballs are also legend, and are quickly consumed at potluck dinners. Lily has continued to develop her cooking skills as well as what John calls a super palette–the ability to discern subtle nuances and flavors in any given recipe.
“Lily always wanted to know how I cooked things, but she has long surpassed me,” John says. “Now I am learning from her.” In summer, father and daughter work and learn together in the kitchen of The Burning Tree, a destination restaurant in Otter Creek.
Euell Gibbon’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus was a well-thumbed book when John was a teenager, and his grandmother would send him and his siblings out to gather young milkweed leaves, which she loved. They also gathered dandelion greens. But as an adult he mainly hunted and fished for his family, and it was his daughter who revived his interest in foraging.
Lily brings her own twist to preparing the game she and her dad hunt, and created a turkey mole John still grins about. It was made with the first turkey John ever shot. He has been hunting them since the state first opened a turkey season, but with no success. He wryly describes a few hunt days. “I could call anything but a turkey. One year I was crouched and ready for a tom when a fisher approached. He thought I was a turkey in distress.” John got up and shooed it away, but still had no turkey answer his call. Another year he set up a turkey hen decoy, and settled in making his turkey call. This time two barred owls, the turkey’s only serious predator, were called in. Since they kill by decapitating the birds, and he did not want his decoy decapitated, he again jumped out of hiding, this time shooing the owls away.
This spring he finally had a tom in his sights. “I was shaking like a little kid,” he says. “A ten-point buck would not have had me so nervous.” But he got his shot, and got another turkey in the fall. Lily took the first one apart, slow cooking it and pulling the meat off for that turkey mole, and Abbie made homemade tortillas. “Man, that was really good,” John smiles.
The three deer that had passed by the window have moved on, and sure enough, there is a large buck with a wide rack following their scent. John’s tracking skills are not in doubt, but deer can be evasive, and there are only six days left. End the season without a deer? Not John Allgood. “I’ll get my old smoke-pull out,” he says, referring to a black powder muzzleloader. Like any good hunter, he is tenacious, and there is more than one way to stalk a deer.
John’s Moose Meatballs
John is not a recipe follower, and his instructions for preparing dishes are similarly vague.
Take equal parts ground moose meat and pork sausage (he prefers Tide Mill Farm’s). Add an egg and some breadcrumbs, a bit of cayenne and chili powder, and roll into balls about 2/3 the size of a golf ball. Braise in a cast iron fry pan, and eat just like that, or add Heinz’ Chili Sauce.
Turkey Mole by Cynthia Detterick-Pineda