Lives: Earning Her Food (The New York Times Magazine)

Originally published in the New York Times Magazine, March 26, 2010.

I’m a city girl from New York. I’m also 82 and half-blind, so what am I doing deer hunting with my son, Sam, at the end of October in Montana? We’re in the foothills of the Swan Mountains near Kalispell, south of Glacier National Park. For the last four days, Sam and I have been tramping dawn to dusk over tree debris that loggers call “clear-cut.” We haven’t eaten since we left his cabin before dawn. Now it’s snowing, and I’m wet, tired and bloody cold.

Because Sam wanted to make sure I wouldn’t blow his head off by mistake, I learned how to load and fire a .22-caliber rifle in September at a shooting range off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I found out you needed only one eye to line up the sights. But when I got to Montana, it wasn’t a .22 Sam handed me but a .270 Winchester with a scope. He showed me how to haul it up, push it hard into my shoulder and jam my cheek along the stock, but the gun was so heavy I could ­barely keep it still. Even if I see a deer, I thought, how will I aim this wobbling bazooka?

Sam calls hunting “earning your food.” Although I’ve spent a lifetime buying, cooking and eating food, this would be the first time I’d ever hunted and sought to kill. Others had always done that for me.

By noontime on this fifth deerless day, I have seen nothing but snowflakes and ravens. The air has been so milky that I fantasize coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bears. Sam has pointed out the scat of all these, fresh and glistening, along with deer scat. But the whitetail stay invisible. I’ve liked the challenge, but I’ve also yearned to go home — not to Sam’s cabin but to my overheated New York apartment.

This morning I vowed at breakfast that it was going to be today or never. I can’t let Sam down, nor myself, nor even the deer. Somehow we’re all in it together. But as we trudge across one more clear-cut hell, I say to myself, I will not cry. I’m like a Marine recruit on Parris Island, collapsing from heatstroke while his sergeant says, “Suck it up, Fatso.”

By miracle the sun breaks out, lighting up the landscape like Christmas in Manhattan. Sam points. For the first time, I can actually see a doe with my naked good eye because she’s no more than 40 yards away. This first week of rifle-hunting season, young deer are so innocent, they’ll just stop and stare. They don’t know that this is my only chance to hit one.

When I lift the gun and look through the scope, by chance she’s right there presenting herself broadside. Weirdly the crosshairs are exactly on the target point, just behind and above her right shoulder. I squeeze. The gun booms and bounces. The target disappears.

“Great shot!” Sam hollers. I jump into his arms. My head is exploding as we embrace. “A double-lung shot,” he says. “She didn’t know what hit her.”

I’m both elated and appalled. Extreme joy and extreme grief are locked like the crosshairs. “Now’s the time to pray,” Sam says. Even though I long ago abandoned my forefathers’ Calvinist God, it’s him I thank for the fellow creature I’ve killed.

The first rule in hunting is to dress the animal in the field, remove the innards and leave them for the crows, magpies and coyotes whose territory we’ve invaded. Except for the innards you may want to eat.

Sam puts a warm, wet ball in my hand. I’ve cooked and eaten many veal hearts and chicken hearts, so I know a heart when I see one. But not one this newly cut out, dripping blood through my fingers. And certainly not this naked, without the euphemizing wrap of Cryovac. But I’m so hungry I could practically eat it raw.

After Sam hauls the dressed doe on his back to his truck, we drive to the Lower Valley Processing Company, where I choose to turn my deer into steaks, sausages and jerky. Soon my freezer will be stuffed with venison. My deer’s hide will go to a Montana tanner and then onto my Manhattan bed.

That evening when Sam and I sit down to dinner, we eat the heart. Most recipes say to slice and fry with garlic and onion and add barbecue sauce. I just use salt and pepper in order to taste the grilled flesh pure. Men use fire; other animals don’t. But I have never felt the bonds of creaturehood so intensely.

I repeat the blessing my grandfather said before each meal, “Bless this food to our use and us to thy service.” With gratitude, we eat.

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Posted on Mar 26, 2010