Wild game has sustained humanity since the beginning of time—long before man gave a thought to the hidden dangers of omega-6 fatty acids or clogged arteries. Amid the medical community's warnings about the dangers of a high fat diet, choosing elk and deer meat (venison) as a healthier source of red meat is gaining appeal.
"I often recommend wild meats for a number of reasons," says nutritionist Kia Sanford with Kailo Nutrition and Counseling in Ashland. "Deer and elk eat the wild foods that are the healthiest for them to eat. When killed humanely and processed with care, this translates up the food chain to healthier humans."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists both elk and venison as higher in protein and lower in fat than many domestic meat sources. A 3-ounce portion of raw elk meat has 94 calories, nearly 20 grams of protein, 1.23 grams of fat and 47 milligrams of cholesterol. Similar portions of conventionally-raised beef or pork often have higher fat and cholesterol levels. A nutritional bonus is the mineral content that elk provides in iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, copper and magnesium. Venison contains iron, phosphorus, zinc and copper.
Nutritional experts attribute eating greens in the wild to a lower content of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and a higher content of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. According to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, omega-6 fatty acids increase markers of inflammation in the body, and chronic inflammation is associated with health conditions including obesity, diabetes, cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, wild game animals ingest no growth hormones, steroids or antibiotics.
While game meat is traditionally provided by hunters, it can also be purchased commercially. Elk meat is available through several local butcher shops, but deer meat is not quite so readily available.
Carol and Leonard Ferrara of White City own one of the few deer farms in Oregon that raise the animals for meat. "We raise fallow deer, which is really a domestic breed of deer," says Carol Ferrara, whose deer are fed alfalfa hay and pasture only, without grain products or additives of any kind. "The flavor is very mild. They don't taste gamey like wild deer." The Ferraras sell to the general public, with the option to buy an entire carcass or purchase individual packages of steaks, stew meat, backstrap or ground meat.
Can commercially raised game meat compare with what comes from the wild? Yes, says Alan Ross, owner of Rosse Posse Elk Ranch in Molalla. Depending on feeding practices, farm-raised meat can measure up, with the added benefit of being slaughtered and processed through a USDA-inspected facility.
"We feed our elk hay and pasture," says Ross. "We worm them, supplement with minerals, and keep them free of ticks and lice. Other than that, I think the only difference is that when we slaughter the animals, they are taken to a USDA-inspected facility and handled in a clean environment. They are cooled immediately so you're not dealing with any of the conditions that are typical when you're field dressing game."
For hunters, proper handling, or field dressing, once the animal is down is critical. A veteran of the sport for 41 years, Medford resident Darrell Flora, Sr. has field dressed deer and elk many times. "A lot depends on the outdoor temperature," Flora says. "If it's warm out, it's important to get the meat dressed quickly and hung someplace where it can cool. There are different opinions about removing the hide, but I do that immediately. When I finish the rest of it, I use a game bag to protect the meat from flies, bees and dirt."
Recipes and cooking methods for wild game abound. Because of the lean texture and lack of fat, cooking deer and elk requires care to ensure moist, flavorful meat.
Sanford cautions against overcooking any meat. "Burnt meat and fat is carcinogenic," she says, "so strive for gentle, slower cooking using lower temperatures rather than char-broiling."
Cameron Callahan, co-owner of the Butcher Shop in Eagle Point, explains how he retains the nutritional value when making elk sausage, pepperoni, and salami. "We have to add some pork to the sausage because the meat is so dry, but we use pork shoulder, which is pretty lean," Callahan says, emphasizing that his elk jerky is all natural. "It has no sugars, no nitrates, no preservatives whatsoever. It's made 100 percent naturally."