Wild game meat. Wild edibles. Wild food. These are not exactly the standard items consumers put on their grocery lists along with onions and potatoes each week, but that is changing. According to some market researchers, consumer demand for large and small game is on the rise. Consumers are increasingly framing their purchasing decisions around health, ethics and moral values.
Game Meat Consumption on the Rise
Concerns for shoppers include animal welfare in factory farming, the high level of saturated fats, cholesterol and hormones in beef and environmental sustainability. Meat eaters are turning on to the idea of eating game instead. They are actively seeking out alternative protein sources such as pulses, white meatand fish, and now lab research is attempting to create meat from manmade sources. (That gives new meaning to the term, “tube steak,” doesn’t it?) Regardless, game meat, although once considered “exotic,” is more widely available than ever before: I figure if I can pick up camel, kangaroo and ostrich in one shopping trip downtown, then it’s not really that exotic, is it? Game meat is going mainstream. It is lean, high in protein and better tasting than domesticated meats, many would argue. But this food consumption trend is not without its issues.
Wild Game and Restaurants
Provincial regulations reagarding wildlife vary from one province to the next, but all provinces set out to prohibit overharvesting of wild game and prevent health hazards (from the consumption of parasite-contaminated meat). Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act deems it illegal for Ontario restaurants to sell wild game. (It makes no difference if the animal was hunted legally by a StatusIndian.) The same is true in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec and New Brunswick, but not in Newfoundland, where restaurants commonly serve wild game such as ptarmigan and moose. The Newfoundland moose population is legendary, which helps explain why it is a common menu item (much to the envy of chefs outside Newfoundland).
Similarly, in Nova Scotia, chefs can obtain licenses to sell bear, beaver, rabbit, pigeon and raccoon, among otherwild game. Occasionally, when the government culls herds of animals such as the musk ox in the Northwest Territories, it regulates the processing of the meat for sale, so that is how some restaurants are able to source it; but that doesn’t mean the processed meat can leave the province.
In Ontario, restaurant chefs have to get a little more creative to get their hands on wild game meat. At one time, wild game could be served at nonprofit charity dinners in Ontario (and Alberta) so long as the meat was donated; to raise funds at these dinners, cheeky organizers would legally charge guests for everything on the menu other than the meat. This practice is not allowed anymore. Getting wild food for personal use is much less complicated if you have outdoorsy friends.
A few hunters that my chef husband David and I know are happy to trade produce from their seasonal activities for foods we make at home. They show up at the door with fish, duck, goose, deer, elk and moose – and sometimes with nothing more than a brief text to say they are on their way over! David fillets the fish, cleans the small game, butchers the large game, vacuum seals the food, freezes it, and smokes it or cooks it, using recipes from our new cookbook. He makes sausages and meat pies out the meat and stock and sometimes trades spice mixes he concocts for cooking meat, birds and fish in exchange for these raw ingredients. This is a fine arrangement for small numbers of friends and family during hunting season, but not a practice that the average person can engage in.
For the most part, we, like most urbanites and non-hunters, rely on local butcher shops for our rabbit, bison, and musk ox, when available. Whatever we don’t see available in the windows of butcher shops can typically be purchased by special order within a couple of days, keeping in mind that not every kind of wild animal meat is available in a farmed version. (The last time I checked it wasn’t feasible for farmers to raise moose or bear.)
Wild Game versus Farmed Game
Any differences in the taste, colour or texture between wild game and farmed game, however, are due to the animal feed that farmed animals receive and the fact that “they don’t have to work for a living to find their next meal,” as my better half likes to tell people new to game meats.
When animals run wild, living off the land, they are more active, eat a more diverse diet, and consequently build up a higher ratio of muscle to fat than farmed animals. That build-up of muscle enzymes in the meat is what often comes across as a gamey flavourand it’s what turns a lot of people off. We are so used to eating the meat of animals that have never run wild, seen the light of day, or eaten anything remotely akin to natural grass, bushes, leaves, seeds, berries, bark, or reeds, etc., that we don’t realize what natural food actually tastes like. It’s wild!
Wild game is prone to gaminess if it is poorly field dressed. This is not an issue with farmed game that is slaughtered in provincially approved processing plants (or federally approved processing plants if the animal had to cross a provincial border first).
Another difference between wild game and farmed game is the fat content. Wild game is super lean and can be quite a bit chewier than farmed game, when cooked. (It is easier to burn for this reason too, so you need to know what you are doing in the kitchen and can’t expect to cook it like beef.) I have met a lot of people who crinkle their nose at the thought of eating wild game because they had it once but found it so bad that they are afraid to try it again…until they try it properly prepared. David patiently explains this at our cooking demos and teaches people how to match cooking methods to the cuts of meat they have on hand. In any event, for the average consumer, farmed game is generally more palatable and more easily prepared than wild game.
Farmed Game and Restaurants
Purchasing farmed game meat for restaurants is a little more complicated than calling up a local butcher. Not only are the supplies seasonal, but there are minimum size orders which can get interesting depending on the types of cuts available. As a chef, David is resourceful enough to know that if he orders a certain cut, he can make “this” or “that” out of the meat, bird or fish and then have the option of doing various other additional things with the leftovers and the bones, etc., (like make his fleur de sel garnished roasted buffalo “canoes” or batches of stock). But things can change when ordering large volumes of game for large events. In general, the larger the event, the less feasible it is to make anything very costly or labour intensive.
For example, when David was designing a menu for the Indigenous Food Truck for the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in Toronto in 2015, he wanted to serve bison ribs, and I jokingly suggested he go ‘cave man’ style and serve them full size. (Being the marketer that I am, I could see the endless fun media would have taking photos and video of international visitors to Canada sucking the meat off Fred Flintstone size rib bones.) He decided to go with barbecued turkey wings instead; they were still very meaty and very much an unusual introduction to Indigenous cuisine, but much more practical from a budget and finger food perspectives. Similarly, you can buy a bison tomahawk steak which is amazing when done on the barbecue since the attached rib bone provides added flavour and juiciness. But at 20 ounces and over $100 retail per steak, there isn’t a whole lot of demand for that cut.
When we did restaurant consulting for Saugeen First Nation on Sauble Beach in Georgian Bay, Ontario, to establish a beachfront restaurant a few years back, David set up purveyor contracts with multiple suppliers in order to serve the menu he designed that featured large game meat, seasonal wild edibles and fresh fish. A couple of menu items that people simply adored were bison stroganoff, musk ox carbonara and elk carpaccio. He toured local farms and made arrangements with individual farmers for purchasing directly from them and arranged for a local fisherman to provide fresh catch. These supplies supplemented the food staples that he ordered through a large food supplier that shipped fresh and frozen goods to the restaurant on a twice weekly basis.
As a seasonal Ontario restaurant where tourists are eager to sample a rotating menu of Indigenous cuisine, this was the logical, business-like, professional way to establish the supplier contracts; however, purveying meat, fish and vegetables from multiple suppliers with fluctuating levels of goods and limited availability from one season to the next requires the utmost in planning and skilled communications between restaurant and suppliers, between management and chef, and between staff and customers. Anyone who understands restaurant ordering can appreciate the expertise and personal creativity involved when introducing local, seasonal items to the menu. Most would agree that those who do this well demonstrate artistry and resourcefulness as well as good economic sense by supporting the local economy, but there is risk-taking involved as well.
Not only do restaurateurs run the risk of inconsistency in their food supplies when adding game meat or hand-picked mushrooms to the menu they are also vulnerable to criticism, if not more active forms of protest, by animal rights activists and environmentalists focused on sustainability. Consumer knowledge about food has advanced in recent years thanks in large part to these powerful forces who educated the masses to be more discerning and discriminating in their food purchases, and they have succeeded in influencing the business model. Protests work in raising awareness, and if it weren’t for these efforts to change our habits as a society, we probably wouldn’t change how and where we shop. I include myself in this group, even as an Indigenous person, because I recognize that there is a lot to learn when it comes to sourcing food these days.With knowledge comes responsibility. We need to remember that game represents different things to different people.
Cultural Identity and Food Security
Hunting, trapping and fishing activities remain closely tied to cultural identity and tradition among Indigenous peoples, and the protection of these land rights are also part and parcel of agreements Indigenous nations made with the government through treaties and land claims. Aside from the social, cultural and recreational aspects of hunting and fishing, there is the harsh reality of hunger. As a country that produces food to feed nations around the world, Canada is still oddly food insecure, and a large part of the rural, remote, northern population in this country depends on hunting, trapping and fishing for physical survival – yes, even now, in this day and age, in Canada, and not just in the Indigenous population! As much as game might be an exotic luxury to some, it is just supper to others.
First Nations didn’t ask to be put on remote reserves but agreed generations ago, in many instances, due to starvation, disease, and crowding by settlers when the government opened up the country to development. These remote communities now struggle to access food and water, so they rely on the land even now. My Cree ancestors were among those whose primary source of food, the bison, was deliberately overhunted, with the blessing of the government, to open the way for immigration. The bison population went from what some say numbered nearly 70 million to less than 100 within a century. How is that even possible? Thankfully, the species survived. So, when market researchers tell us that game meat is in demand, that is true, but it’s just part of the story. This is what I reflect on when I am fortunate enough to sit down to enjoy a plate of bison meat.