Back in the corner of Oregon, where I grew up, elk meat is as commonplace as crawfish in New Orleans or corn in Nebraska.
Since I was a young lad, I've been wolfing down elk, encouraging my mom to create new ways to prepare it.
Steaks, roasts, sandwiches, sausage, you name it, we ate it. A chewy chunk of elk jerky was often right next to a Twinkie in my school lunch box.
When hunting season rolled around, fellow classmates would be excused from school for "business trips."
But my wild-game culinary expectations were called into question when I moved East. When I casually proposed a meal of elk to my new friends, I was met with blank stares.
Hadn't East Coasters heard of this delicious meat? "Don't tell me you're still eating boring old birds and beef?" I'd quip.
But today the word is out and spreading fast. Game meats are popular far beyond the forests. It's not just those ritzy brass-and-velvet joints serving game anymore. You will just as easily find willowy women eating seared venison as burly loggers.
"I sell to the inexpensive bistros and the very fancy white-tablecloth restaurants," says George Faison, co-owner and president of D'Artagnan, a New Jersey-based company that is a large supplier of game and foie gras.
He says society as a whole is moving away from traditional meats toward what he calls "specialty" meats.
"When [Americans serve game] at home, it becomes fun, it becomes entertainment," says Mr. Faison. "They want to explore." He says the trend gained strength about a decade ago.
"Restaurants are where everything starts," Faison says. "Chefs went, 'Wow, we have alternatives to standard fare.' "
Russell McCurdy, president of Seattle's Finest Exotic Meats, sells game to progressive supermarkets and, he predicts, it will be in many mainstream grocery stores in five years.
Mr. McCurdy owns just one of many stores where shoppers can order 26 species of game, imported from all over the world: alligator tail from Baton Rouge, La., wild turkey from West Virginia, antelope loin from Wyoming, and grouse from Scotland, to name just a few.
This selection of game is altering the way Americans view meat.
"It's a very involved process in changing the American palate," says McCurdy. But exotic meat that was once confined to back-country ranges is now finding its way into American ovens.
McCurdy says that more Americans are looking for an alternative to chicken, pork, and beef.
Game meat is lean, too. According to the US Department of Agriculture, 3.5 ounces of elk has 1.9 grams of fat compared with 14.3 grams in lean roast beef.
According to the North America Deer Farmers Association, 810 metric tons of venison was imported in 1998. The trade group reports the industry is growing 30 to 35 percent per year.
McCurdy attributes the increase in popularity of wild game to the success of bison and ostrich meat in the mid-1990s. He says the media latched onto the rage and soon, with the help of this exposure, consumers tasted it. They found ostrich mirrored the taste of beef, and American bison had its own unique flavor.
He also says that misconceptions used to run rampant about wild game.
"Most of us [tasted] Uncle Joe's deer strapped to the top of his truck.... It's very gamy," says McCurdy. But that isn't the case with farm-raised game. "You don't need to do heavy marinating because they are farm-raised. It doesn't have a game taste."
The quality has also increased.
Faison says that because most game meat has little intermuscular fat, the meat turns dry and chewy when frozen. Now that this meat is available fresh, "the flavor comes through more cleanly."
And the darling of the industry? Venison.
What used to be buried under strong herbs and a slew of tangy sauces in restaurants is now emerging as a delectable entree any time of year. D'Artagnan's venison sales are up 20 percent from a year ago.
McCurdy likes his venison steak simply prepared. He lightly coats it in olive oil with a dash of salt and pepper, then sauts it on medium-high heat for a few minutes on each side, then bathes it in a Blackberry Sage Sauce. "It doesn't take a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America to cook it," he says.
Specialty meats do not come under the jurisdiction of the USDA and are inspected on a voluntary basis (although many states have mandatory inspection).
The National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry has formally recommended that exotic and specialty meats meet USDA requirements, a testament to the growth in popularity of these meats.
Grilled Elk or Venison Loin with Portabello Sauce
2-1/2 cups balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon juniper berries, crushed
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups sliced portabello mushrooms
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 quart chicken stock
6 sprigs thyme
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1-1/2 pounds elk or venison short loin, trimmed and silver
skin removed, cut into 4 steaks, blotted dry
Salt to taste
1/4 cup finely diced fresh tomato (or canned tomato)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Combine balsamic vinegar and juniper berries in a stainless steel saucepan and reduce over medium-low heat to slightly more than 1/2 cup. Strain, and set aside to cool; reserving juniper berries.
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms and cook until just cooked through; add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add chicken stock and simmer 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms from stock with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Continue simmering stock until reduced to a thin sauce consistency. Add 1-1/2 tablespoons of the reduced balsamic vinegar, and 2 sprigs of thyme; simmer another 5 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve and keep warm.
Light a gas or charcoal grill and heat to medium hot. Or preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
Combine remaining scant 1/2-cup of reduced vinegar, the black pepper, and reserved juniper berries in a small bowl. Brush elk or venison steaks with vinegar mixture, season with salt, and grill to desired doneness, preferably medium rare, 5 to 6 minutes per side. Remove from heat and allow to rest while finishing mushroom sauce. (Alternatively, quickly sear both sides of the steaks in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, then bake in oven for 5 minutes for medium rare.)
Return mushroom sauce, reserved mushrooms, diced tomatoes, and parsley to skillet. Heat to simmer.
Slice each steak on the diagonal into 2 pieces. Divide sauce and mushrooms on 4 warmed plates. Place steaks on mushrooms. Garnish plates with sprigs of remaining thyme.
Adapted from 'D'Artagnan's Glorious Game Cookbook'
(Little Brown, $35.)
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society