Kindest Cuts of All: Ag Society Hosts Deer Butchering Basics
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
Years ago on Martha’s Vineyard, when a person posed a question to another human, not to a gadget named Alexa, and when emojis were just a flicker in some coder’s dreams, folks just “made faces” at one another. Islanders then were more familiar with what it took to put dinner on the table. Butchering animals was common in everyday rural life.
[If images of dead and butchered deer disturb you please read no further.]
On Saturday, October 26, visitors to the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society Fall Festival had the opportunity to watch two experienced West Tisbury hunters skin and butcher a deer and learn about what it takes to put high quality venison on the table. The new Ag Society community deer cooler was also open for inspection, much to the delight and fascination of several little boys looking ghoulishly for Halloween inspiration.
Ag Society president Brian Athearn and builder Joe Capece wielded the knives, with an assist from Michael Scarborough (he’s Brian’s neighbor, so it’s no surprise that he’d get sucked into one of Brian’s projects). The pair of West Tisbury residents fielded questions from onlookers of all ages.
The first question was no softball. It was delivered by a little boy as Joe elevated the deer, a small button buck, on a hoist set up on the back of his truck in preparation for skinning it.
“Why do you kill the deer?” he asked.
Joe, who has an education background in wildlife conservation studies, said that hunters killed deer to provide good food for their families. He also explained that with no natural predators on-Island, hunters helped keep the deer herd in check. Too many deer damage the environment, and state wildlife biologists have determined that the deer density per square mile is well above the optimum number.
The deer that was the focus of attention began its journey to center stage one week earlier, during archery season, when I spotted it early in the morning at the head of a ravine on a property I hunt in Chilmark. As the deer walked slowly in my direction I reminded myself to be patient and pick my shot.
I waited. When the deer was no more than twenty yards away and standing broadside I let the arrow fly. I’ve learned the hard way that shot placement is the critical factor in a quick kill and recovery or a lost deer. Shot through both lungs, the deer died forty yards away. Happily, it fell near a walking path.
Rigor mortis sets in on a freshly killed deer and lasts up to 24 hours. Hanging a deer in a controlled temperature environment for five days or longer for an older animal ages and tenderizes the meat. In the past, my immediate problem would have been finding a cooler to store the deer.
The new storage facility, a cooperative venture between the Ag Society and Island Grown Initiative and funded by an anonymous donor, has solved that dilemma for Island hunters. Hunters only need to register and pay a fee, donate a doe for the food bank or join the Ag Society to use the cooler. The necessary information is available on the Ag Society website.
The demonstration began after Mike fished the deer out from among the ten or so other deer hanging in the community cooler, a trailer converted for that use by a team of volunteers led by Brian and Joe.
The first task was to remove the hide. Brian and Joe skin from the neck down. Some hunters start the other way, with the hind quarters. There is no right or wrong way. The goal is to keep the meat as clean and free of hair as possible.
As Brian tugged the skin down and made small strokes to free it from the flesh, he explained that a dull knife is preferable for the job. The idea is to avoid cutting into the meat as much as possible.
The entire process held the rapt attention of a group of kids from the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. Heather Capece, Joe’s wife and a teacher at the school, answered questions and helped explain the process.
Once the skin was off the anatomy lesson began in earnest. A skinned deer hanging from the back of a truck is not for everyone, but members of the small crowd on hand for the demonstration were curious. I heard no shrieks when John Packer drove by with a new load of hayride passengers.
Joe and Brian removed the deer’s shoulders. They pointed out the lack of a joint — only muscles connect the shoulders to the body. Next came the prized backstraps, the two muscles that lie along the backbone and are the equivalent of fillet mignon. Last came the hind quarters.
“You’re just trying to go from bigger to smaller and smaller,” Joe said about the process of breaking down the deer.
The overriding message Joe and Brian delivered throughout the demonstration is that butchering deer themselves gives them control over what they and their families eat. They could be as particular as they wanted to be, and far more than a professional butcher might be, particularly with the cuts and trimmings destined for the burger pile, meat that would later be ground.
Brian said no meat gets turned into anything he wouldn’t want to put into a frying pan then and there. Joe added that the reason some people complain venison is gamey is that they received a poorer cut or it was not processed well. Perhaps the skin or fat ended up in the grinder.
“When we butcher our own deer we take the time to get all that stuff off,” Joe said.
It takes time to do it right. How long, one woman asked. Depending on the size of the deer and the cuts, the entire butchering process could take from four to six hours, Joe said.
Another questioner wanted to know about the yield. How much meat do you get off a deer? Figure about one third of its weight.
Joe said there is no magic to butchering a deer. He taught himself how to do it. Youtube is a great resource.
“Trial and error,” he said. Make a mistake with a cut, just throw it into the burger pile. You can’t go wrong.”
As they packaged the various cuts with a vacuum sealer, Joe and Brian emphasized the care that needs to be taken when cooking venison, which is very lean. Joe said it goes from delicious to dry “in a fraction of a second.” Don’t overcook it.
“That was good,” said a woman who had watched the whole demonstration. “Thank you for taking the time to do this.”
Photo Gallery: 1. Shot placement is critical to a quick recovery; 2. Deer hang in the new community cooler. 3. Lisa Ben David (R), Heather Capece (L) and two children examine the cooler; 4. Joe Capece fields questions from onlookers; 5. Brian Athearn (L) and Mike Scarborough skin the deer; 6. Teacher Heather Capece explains the butchering process; 7. Removing the shoulders is just a matter of separating the muscles; 8. Brian Athearn removes a backstrap; 9. (L-R) Grayson Sipe and Rachel Hawkins of Boston, and Elizabeth Ricketts of West Tisbury watch the butchering process; 10. Removing the hind quarters takes precise knife work; 11-12. Joe Capece works on the smaller cuts; 13. Brian Athearn packages the venison with a vacuum sealer; 14. venison cuts labelled and in the freezer.
Nelson Sigelman is the author of “Martha's Vineyard Fish Tales: How to Catch Fish, Rake Clams, and Jig Squid, with Entertaining Tales About the Sometimes Crazy Pursuit of Fish” and, “Martha’s Vineyard Outdoors, Fishing, Hunting and Avoiding Divorce on a Small Island,” available at local bookstores and major book retailers.