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Living off the land

The other night I dined like royalty. I felt like an artist’s rendering I remember seeing as a kid in which King Henry VIII is chewing on a huge turkey leg. But in my case supper was fried squirrel legs.

In last week’s commentary I talked about going squirrel hunting on Saturday morning. I didn’t make it as I had planned. Instead, the in-tank fuel pump on my old pickup died a couple miles from home. After getting it towed back to my workshop I diagnosed it as a faulty pump (which I had speculated on the side of the road). I then spent part of Sunday afternoon and much of Monday replacing the troublesome pump … and, oh yeah, spent a lot of my available ammo money in the process. 

Good friends are better than gold teeth. I had two of them (friends, that is) take time out of their own Monday to stop by the house and help me with the task. Thanks to Cliff and Joe, and also to Ray for offering to help if needed. 

I do plan to make it back to the squirrel woods again a time or two in the next few weeks. And I shot a big red squirrel in the back yard earlier this week. Come mid-November I’ll put the .22 rimfire away for a couple weeks while I deer hunt. I’m ready for some fresh venison tenderloin and other cuts. Afterward, I’ll be back at squirrel hunting until season ends in mid-February.

 It’s been a regular smorgasbord of living off the land recently. For several months straight I ate venison in one form or another for lunch most days. I often fry up a couple pounds of meat on a Sunday evening and divide it into containers for my lunches. While my wife handles much of the cooking duties at our house, I tend to handle the preparation of wild game. It’s a mutual decision between us.

 Recently I enjoyed a bowl of turtle soup for lunch. We’ve had a few meals of rainbow trout in recent weeks, and good friend sent home a sack full of elkhorn mushrooms with my wife from work earlier this week. Then I had some scrumptious squirrel dumplings last Friday night when my wife and I hosted a “wingding” – our term for a potluck meal, acoustic jam session and good friends visiting for the evening. This group of friends get together three or four times a year for such evenings. We visit, eat, and then break out the stringed instruments and play for a couple hours.

Due to the weather we held our gathering in the workshop. We set up the food on workbenches and sat around folding tables decorated with pumpkins, gourds and shed deer antlers. I took the chill out of the air with a propane heater, and we ate, jammed and visited into the evening. Like I said earlier, good friends are better than gold teeth … or even a good shotgun, a reliable deer stand or a fine hunting dog. This group is some of my favorites and all share at least one of my favorite hobbies … hunting, fishing, acoustic music, old automobiles or good food.

As we do each fall, we’ve also been cashing in on the seasonal apple crop and dehydrating apple slices and bagging them for healthy snacks. From time to time I’ll mix in a couple bananas or a pineapple. If dried adequately and stored in a cool dry place, dehydrated fruit can last up to a year or longer. A half-dozen years ago we planted a small orchard of peach and apple trees in our front yard. This year for some reason our peach trees didn’t produce, but we had enough apples for a couple pies and some other uses.

This falls under the “make hay while the sun shines” practice of using what’s in season and available at the time, or preparing (drying/canning/freezing/etc.) it to have when it’s not available fresh.

For desserts we’re still enjoying zucchini muffins my wife baked and froze in recent months when the garden was producing more than we could eat or give away. I’ll admit that I’m no gardener, but I’m glad that she likes to get dirt under her fingernails (and that she washes them good afterward). A few years ago we had a little antique garden tractor we used to prep the garden spot. Most years we just use the walk-behind tiller. But I just bought another antique garden tractor and intend to give it some TLC in coming weeks to prep it for snow plowing this winter and garden and food plot duties come spring. It’s a dandy little Cub Cadet which should serve my purpose well. 

The National Weather Service issued a report this week saying we can expect a “normal” winter as precipitation and temperature goes. I’m all for that. Last winter I just about wore out my ATV hauling loads of firewood up to the wood box and plowing snow.

Another favorite dessert we enjoy is homemade cornbread or muffins drizzled in honey from the bees we have maintained on our property. Our beekeeper friend, Stanley, would rob the bee boxes each fall. We helped him extract the honey from the frames sometimes, and he’d always give us a cut of the honey. As of late he’s grown too busy to keep up with the bees and recently sold his hives and most of his other equipment. We’ll miss the fresh honey and watching the bees make their way to and from their home in our backyard. Someday I’d like to get into the hobby myself, but there’s too much other stuff to accomplish at this point to take on another interest.

Each year about this time I write about how I feel this “hunt and gather” instinct well up from somewhere deep inside. While my family tries to make the most of growing and hunting seasons year-round, in the fall I always want to make sure there are “stores” or “provisions” put away. Even though nowadays most of us can easily hop in the truck or car and run to Walmart at a moment’s notice 24-hours-a-day to pick up meat, milk, vegetables and nearly anything else we might need, there’s still something satisfying about seeing a well-stocked freezer, full pantry shelves, or a full woodshed for that matter. I think it’s a throwback to earlier days when people had to be self-reliant if they were to survive a long hard winter.

But of course, you don’t have to hunt or fish, or garden or have a hive of bees to stock up. As I said, I like to see well-stocked pantry shelves lined with canned and boxed goods. Such items are still cheap as compared to fresh varieties of the same vegetables, fruits or pastas. Like most, we prefer fresh over canned or boxed. But we still keep a variety in the pantry, and use it up and replace it with fresher cans or boxes from time to time. That’s not an outdoorsman thing, but simply good common sense.

If all goes as planned I’ll replenish the freezer with venison, squirrel and rabbit in coming months. I’ll likely swap some venison for a few ducks or a goose or two. And if I shoot a fall turkey before month’s end …. well, that’ll just be icing on the cake. Looking at my calendar on my phone it’s not likely that will happen, though.

Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat (… and although he’s tried to lose some weight in the past year, he finds it harder to diet when he’s writing about food.)

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