I recently wrote about my family's summer of corn.This post is about another powerful food memory. I have not had Dad's special venison jerky recipe since we left Tennessee, but I hope I may have it again. Someday...
I think about Tennessee in the fall of the year, and I can smell the pungent odor of tobacco wafting from barns along country roads. I can still remember a certain barn on Greenwood Rd where it met Spann. Its timbers were various shades of weathered gray, and they looked brittle and dead in the languid afternoon sun. But riding the bus home from school, the smell of the tobacco emanating from between them was robust, intoxicating as I watched its smoke rising to rendezvous with the gray skies above.
In the fall of the year when the smell of the tobacco barns hung thick on the air, Dad piled wood on the front porch. The trees had became so bare near the creek that we could see our neighbor's pigs across the stream and their home over Spann Road, and we felt less secluded in our little world. Reuben, our lab, carried Dad's axe around in his mouth so Dad would have it to hand when he was out gathering wood. When they returned Dad spent many long minutes kneeling by the old woodstove in the living room in the evening, shoving logs onto the coals and blowing into them, his cheeks pink first from the cold and then mottled from the heat as he attempted to coax the ashes to life. The stovepipe behind the old stove would start to glow pale red with the heat and the escaping coals.
But that stove was good for more than just providing heat. It was excellent for smoking jerky. And Dad's jerky...well, it was the meat equivalent of Mom's blackberry cobbler - something never to be forgotten in culinary experience and something which still grabs my senses if I pause to recollect the taste and smell of it.
In the fall, you see, hunters would begin to appear on that piece of land we rented. The woods on it were substantial, but they also bordered the woods of our neighbors to either side and the back. They were lured, too, as the years wore on by the regular exchange of a tale about an enormous and elusive buck with an incredible number of points on his antlers that roamed the property.
Sometimes, they came to the house first to let us know they were there. At other times we'd find their vehicles parked in the field at the turn-off just past the creek.
Our landlord didn't think to set limits on who he allowed to hunt the property. So occasionally we knew there had to be three - maybe four hunters in the woods. Dad forbade us to play in the field most autumn days, because some of the hunters seemed to defy safety (their own and others) as a matter of pride. The rifle blasts could be heard from the house, echoing through the trees and the hills.
But from where did Dad get the meat for jerky? From those same gentlemen, of course. Dad himself is not a hunter, but he always graciously accepted the meat offered to him by those who were. Usually, they helped him dress the deer. Some of them, though, just dumped the carcass with a, "There you go, Dan!" and cheerfully left with the head or the antlers in the bed of their truck.
The proffered deer was hung on one of the Walnut trees in the side of the yard where daffodils flourished in the spring, its poor head limply pointed toward the ground, the eyes wide with their last expression. It was sad to see, but the venison was a boon to us throughout the winter.
Nate, when older, helped Dad dress the deer. And it was the rib meat and the front quarters to which Dad assigned the great destiny of becoming jerky. The hind quarters and backstrap were cooked in his Swiss Steak, salted and hung in the basement, or frozen for later in the winter.
Once the appropriate meat was apportioned into thin strips, it was seasoned deliciously with salt, pepper, sage, oregano, thyme, basil and cayenne. If any of these were missing, Dad rooted through Mom's spice cabinet for some other pungent spice (but don't mistake it, when I bring that lovely, chewy deer meat to mind, it always, always tastes the same; its ghost smells the same, and I wish I had some now). Thus prepared, the meat was spread beneath the top grate on our wood-burning stove to slowly cook.
In the morning, we'd wake, and the odor of the meat and its spices was there. We kids would open the door having come home from school after a long, chilly walk down the lane, and the incredible smell was there to draw us in and drive us crazy with temptation.
Dad had a strict rule about his venison jerky; it had to cook for three days on that old stove. We were forbidden to touch it or taste it before that. Still we'd lift the grate and stare at it longingly for a few moments each afternoon.
Then, at last, one evening he would come home from work, lift the grate and carefully examine the puckered slices of venison - testing its texture with his fingers, smelling it, and taking a small bite from the end. We'd watch in fascination as he slowly chewed with an intense expression in his pale green eyes. I invariably hovered by his side, eagerly waiting.
Suddenly, "It's done!" he'd announce, and my hands seemed to jerk forward of their own free will, looking for that sweet gift of jerky that made a mockery out of the variety so falsely named at the convenience store.
We had deer meat most years. Sometimes a good deal of it, and when that was the case Dad would use all kinds of cuts for his special recipe and give jerky to many of our neighbors and friends. At any rate, it was not a good year until Dad placed meat on that wood-burning stove that provided heat, the secure feeling of home...and jerky!