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Close to the bone



Wayne Dow pulls the backstrap from a white tail deer he and Martha Barth killed on their recent hunting trip. In the background, Barth places freshly butchered meat in a cooler while Chavela the dog struggles to make sense of it all. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Wayne Dow and Martha Barth take hunting to its logical conclusion

It's a warm, sunlit December afternoon in south central San Antonio. The only adjective that feels adequate is "glorious." Even the trash tree pushing into the fence - a paperleaf mulberry whose yellowed teardrop leaves are refracting the light into honey - looks ravishing.

Despite the day's perfection, things are not going so swimmingly at the grill that's parked smack in the middle of the brightest spot in the yard. Martha Barth, an elegant 70-something, is trying to fry venison steaks in a cast-iron pan over a coal fire and, while the grease is popping like gunfire, it's not browning the flour coating properly. "Well, it's a new experience," says Barth, upbeat despite her position between the Scylla and Charybdis of the grill and sun.

Barth is the picture of a Texas ranch grand dame in pressed jeans, a pastel plaid shirt, perfect gray curls, and a touch of blush. Commonplace around these parts, perhaps, except that she's less than six hours off of a hunting trip that culminated in a five-hour midnight run with three deer in the back of a pickup truck. She'll add two more sets of prongs to her collection, from the white tail bucks she shot.

"Martha always wants her rack. She's got 44 in her garden," laughs her hunting companion, Wayne Dow, 52, who's charged with the "gross" task of removing them for her.

Barth smiles. "Some of them are on the wall."

Dow and Barth have been hunting together for six years, cementing a friendship that grew from the death of Barth's grandson, Dow's neighbor. "I never would have gotten through it," says Barth, who had already lost her husband with whom she hunted for almost 40 years. Dow was interested in learning more about hunting, and he has the use of an 18,000-acre ranch in West Texas that has been in the same family for generations. The deer there are relatively tame and they aren't enticed with feeders. It's a luxury he realizes not everyone has, he says, and he was excited to share it with Barth. "It wasn't for her that I took her hunting," jokes Dow. "I knew that I could get training."

"If you're really shooting to put food on the table,

it affects everything you do from beginning to end."

— Wayne Dow

That first trip tested Barth's skill and Dow's resolve. Thrilled at the prospect of a real hunt, Dow picked out a spot that was a long, rugged hike from the road. Barth asked him, "Well Wayne, if we shoot a big buck, how are we gonna get it out of here?" We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, he replied. "An hour later, it's pitch dark, and I've got a 115-pound buck on my shoulders."

Barth also taught Dow how to prepare venison, and while they are as comfortable together as an old pair of shoes, their approach to hunting diverges a little because, for Dow, the meat is the main goal. "If you're really shooting to put food on the table, it affects everything you do from beginning to end." He primarily harvests young deer, and takes head and neck shots that a trophy hunter wouldn't risk, he says, to avoid spoiling any of the main meat sources: the backstraps, which run along either side of the spine, the tenderloins which are just inside the backbone, and the shoulders and hams.

Earlier in the day, Dow had Barth's first buck strung up on a large metal A-frame in a shady corner of the backyard (the vegetarian neighbors whose windows face the ersatz butcher shop had been consulted). Chavela the dog sniffed tentatively between a severed head and the cooler that held the freshly severed meat. Beginning at the hind legs, Dow stripped the hide and methodically began to remove the muscle from the bone. First he pulled the backstraps: "They almost fall right off." He separated the shoulders and hindquarters, which he'll finish processing later. Peering into the chest cavity it was easy to see where the bullet's entry and exit shattered the symmetry of the rib cage. Some of the flesh on the right shoulder may be lost; blood ruins the flavor of the meat, as does the white fat that lies under the skin.

Deer have very little fat on them, but each muscle is enveloped in silverskin - a shimmery membrane that is responsible, Dow says, for the gamy flavor many diners complain of in venison products. He painstakingly removes all traces of it from the muscle before drying it into jerkey or blending it in a 50/50 split with wild pig meat and a nitrate and spice blend from Mertz for sausage. Sometimes he'll make a 60/40 blend with Boston Butt from Boehlner's Meat Market. Barth's son, who hunts and processes all of his own meat, has a grinder and extruder that Dow uses when he makes sausage.

It took a little stoking, but the grease was cracklin' hot. Martha Barth fries venison steaks in a cast-iron skillet over a bed of coals.
The steaks Barth is frying are thin medallions cut from the backstraps of a mule deer she shot on a recent trip with her son to Colorado. We aren't eating this trip's haul because they will hang the meat in a refrigerator to age it - just like the more expensive cuts of beef - which allows the natural enzymes to begin breaking down and tenderizing the venison. Impatient folks will skirt this process by soaking the meat in buttermilk before panfrying it.

Dow likes to take a backstrap, butterfly it, fill it with dried apricots, or maybe chilis, wrap it in bacon, and grill it. When the bacon's done, so is the meat. Dow's partner, the artist Anne Wallace, comes out on the stoop to advocate for taking some of the meat to a woman on the South Side who makes venison tamales. "I don't do any of the work," she says, "so I don't really have any say."

To preserve the venison's flavor, Dow works to get and keep the meat as cold as possible from the moment the deer is shot. Barth explains that the carcass needs to be field-dressed and cooled down quickly so that the meat doesn't begin to spoil. That's also the reason for the wee-hours drive home: In the wintery night air the carcass holds the meat locker's chill. Even after Dow has carefully worked on his doe for an hour - I'm slow, he says, but there isn't so much as a nick on the hams - the heavy hindquarter he hands me is cool to the touch.

It's in marked contrast to the grill, where Barth has finished with the steaks.

A few more shovelfuls of hot embers produced the desired golden-brown crust.

She makes a gravy with the cracklin's, flour, milk, and a little sugar that is close enough to a roux to raise blood pressure in a five-block radius. Ladled over the chicken-fried venison and Dow's country-style mashed potatoes, it tastes like silk velvet feels. The meat is firm but not the least tough or chewy, and the flavor is "clean," as Dow describes it; there's none of that slight aftertaste that accompanies beef.

Dow and Wallace arrange a semi-circle of chairs in the shade next to the now-empty A-frame and we are silent while we stuff ourselves with second helpings of everything. Chavela rests quietly on the grass and, for a brief moment, it seems that all is right with the world.

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