Tasty Critters 

A survey of Idaho's wildest dishes

Idaho's backwoods are full of potential meals. Whether it's big or upland game you're after, the Gem State is literally crawling with tasty critters that, with a little guile, some small arms and some patience, might end up on your dinner table.

But just how do they all taste?

Looking for something more than a comparison to chicken, Boise Weekly went on a quest through Idaho's hunting hangouts and culinary corners, looking for answers.

The Cabela's Guy

Where else could we start, but Cabela's? Tears gleamed in the eyes of many local men when this sporting-goods giant came to Boise. But after visiting the warehouse-sized store on Franklin, it was discovered that Cabela's isn't just for outdoor enthusiasts. On the contrary: Cabela's is a reservoir of time suckage, whether it's in their 132,000-square-foot showroom, perusing the museum of stuffed animals in scenes of their natural habitats, or the 14,000-gallon aquarium with 15 species of freshwater native-to-Idaho fish. If there is an expert on wild game to be found in Boise, odds are good one might be found at Cabela's.

BW spoke with Derrek Bailey, Cabela's floor manager.

BW: What's the draw for someone to eat mountain lion or wild hare?

DB: I don't like to eat predators. But cottontails aren't bad.

Why don't you eat predators?

What the animal eats basically constitutes what the animals taste like. I prefer elk and deer, birds like chukars.

Do you think hunting is financially important to Idaho?

Of course. Hunting brings huge commerce for the state. Factor in out-of-state tags and licensing costs. Hunters have to eat, buy gas, supplies. They all stop in here.

What makes people spend all that money?

Good times! It's a man's hobby. It's tradition, guy time.

Are there more trophy hunters, or hunters who are out there to feed their families?

Most people eat their meat. I'd say 80 percent of the hunting community are out there for the food and sport.

We're going to give you a list of Idaho game meats. Tell us what you know about them.

Elk: It's less gamey than deer--along the same lines, but less gamey.

Deer: Whitetail is the best eating deer, very lean beef. Mule deer from around here is sagier, drier. No fat. All of the running game's fat is on the outside of the meat, so it's lean.

Moose: Very good, better than beef. It's like beef but sweeter.

Antelope: I haven't had any yet. But they stink and I've heard they're pretty gamey. ("They're raunchy," someone calls out in the background.)

Bear: Spring bears taste different than fall bears. Fall bears eat berries and acorns and are better. You want to prepare bear like you do pig. Smoke the hams and make ribs and sausage, hocks. It's greasier than pork but very similar.

Big Horn Sheep: Never tried it. It's really hard to get a tag for those. I've put in every year for one since I was 12 and I've never drawn a tag yet.

Mountain Lion: Again, I don't like to eat predators.

Mountain Goat: Never had one. They stink.

Rabbit: Cottontail tastes like chicken (three hunters gave the same answer, in unison).

Hare: Not bad, it's all right. Kinda stringy.

Pheasant: It's good.

Chukar: (Bailey has already expressed a preference for chukar over pheasant.) It's easier to clean and prepare and more flavorful than pheasant. It's like a big, giant quail.

Quail: Very good but very small. More fun than the actual eating of it is going out with the dogs for them.

Prairie hen: Yuck.

Turkey: Real dry. You have to be really careful how you cook it.

Duck: Flying liver. But if you make it into sausage, it's not bad.

Goose: Same thing as duck, real strong liver taste. But goose jerky's not bad.

The Serious Hunter

Todd and Kim Carruthers' garage looks like Cabela's blew up in it. Kim Carruthers takes it all in and announces, "We should've had shares in Cabela's." Todd Carruthers, a longtime hunter, agreed to sit down and talk turkey. And a few other things, besides. Kim sat in.

BW: Why do you hunt? Is it for the sport or the food?

KC: He's a freak.

TC: (makes a face at his wife) I always have. I like being outdoors. Even if I'm not out hunting I'm out taking pictures and stuff.

What's your least favorite wild game to eat?

TC: Probably duck.

BW asked Carruthers about the same wild game meats.

Elk: Some of the best jerky there is.

Deer: The tenderloin steaks are good, but I pretty much [make] jerky [with] all of it.

Antelope: It's very good, very tender. It fell apart in my mouth.

Bear: It's my favorite, it's pretty fatty.

Mountain Lion: It was OK, the sausage was great.

Rabbit: Pretty good, tastes like chicken.

Pheasant: Very good.

Chukar: Very good.

Quail: Tasty. I like to wrap it in bacon and barbecue it.

Turkey: It was pretty good. I didn't mind it (the gaminess) at all.

Duck: It's stringy, the only way to eat it is to make jerky.

Goose: A little better smoked, again, it's like duck. The only way to eat it is to make jerky.

(Carruthers said he'd never had mountain goat, hare, prairie hen, moose or big horn sheep.)

The Chefs

So, what if you don't want to head up into the hills to kill yourself some meat, but you're anxious to try wild game? There are many restaurants in Boise that offer local game. Of course, these cuts of meat are from animals that are farm- or ranch-raised. It's illegal for restaurants to serve wild game.

The Cottonwood Grille on River Street proudly carries elk from Black Canyon Farms in Emmett and their venison comes from Black Pine Farm in McCall. Occasionally, they have rabbit, pheasant or other local birds as well.

Head chef and owner Peter Blatz orders small quantities of meats. The Cottonwood Grille butchers the meat themselves and makes every bit count. They even make their own sausages from elk meat.

"Yes, we make our own sausages in-house," says Roger Carpenter, Cottonwood Grille's manager. "We have lots of soups with elk and venison also. We're proud to use the full-service, old-method style of processing [the meat] ourselves. The meat is cleaned and inspected when it comes to us, but we pretty much have the whole body of it. Again, we get small orders and things that come in are served right away. The turnover is fast so everything is always very fresh."

Hankering for a thick slab of elk steak or venison? The Boise Co-Op meat department offers local venison and buffalo steaks that are locally raised as well as pheasant, quail, duck and goose, although these feathered friends are usually not from local farmers.

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