Moose Balls, Anyone?: Sharing the Hunter's Bounty at Vermont's Benefit Game Suppers
The weather has cooled. The guns have been cleaned and readied. The orange vests and camouflage suits are hanging by the door. That's right: hunting season has begun and it's time to eat.
Every year during the fall hunting season, local volunteer fire departments around Vermont bring out a sampling of local hunters' best catches for a unique Vermont tradition: the benefit game supper.
Preparations are made a year in advance: recipes gathered; cooks and servers assigned; firehouses and church halls cleared and set with long tables. And on the night of the supper, everyone from the town clerk to tourists turns out for the chance to pile a plate high with delicacies like bear, elk, wild rabbit and buffalo.
For good reason: the annual game supper is a rare opportunity to celebrate the bounty of nature in a uniquely Vermont way.
One blustery night last fall, my husband, son and I ventured to Rupert, Vermont for their annual game dinner of venison, moose, bear, elk, caribou, rabbit and wild turkey, to name a few advertised specialties.
We had never been to a game supper before and as borderline vegetarians, wondered why we were driving through an early snow and sleet for the prospect of gorging ourselves on more meat than we ate in a year.
The answer was simple: it's hard to consider yourself a real Vermonter if you've never eaten a hunter's catch. And besides, some of the exotic game mentioned had peaked our curiosity: I'd never eaten bear before.
We arrived at the Rupert firehouse at 5:00 p.m. with our wine bottle in hand (BYOB), and already the line was out the door. Hardy types in hunter plaid and city folk in designer parkas, senior citizens and kids, all stamped their feet in the cold, waxing poetic over the delicious scents coming from inside.
"I drove 50 miles to come here tonight," said one bundled New Yorker. "It's like Girl Scout Cookies. You only get 'em once a year!"
My husband and I looked at each other: this ought to be good.
After paying our unbelievably low per-plate fee, we joined the buffet line.
"What's that?" I pointed to the first entree that looked like something akin to Swedish Meatballs.
"Moose balls," said the server cheerily.
"Moose balls?" Maybe this wasn't such a good idea, after all.
"Yep. Made with the meat of moose killed right down the road here!"
"Oh! Moose balls!" I laughed and, relieved, held my plate forward to receive a heaping spoonful of small round treats in a creamy brown sauce.
Seven or eight platters later, my paper plate was heavy with rabbit stew, elk meat, moose meatloaf, venison, roast wild turkey and caribou, each distinguished by a different colored toothpick for easy identification. And squished between these taste treats were piles of homemade mashed potatoes, squash, vegetables, hot yeasty rolls and farm-fresh butter. I'll never be able to eat all this, I thought. But I'll try.
Looking for a place to sit, we wove our way through the long tables crowded with diners patting their bellies, sharing wine and chatting merrily. There were easily a hundred people already eating and another hundred still in line. And it was only 5:30! I wondered how many animals it took to feed all these people and what would happen if they ran out before the last pilgrim got his plate. I was glad we had arrived early.
We spotted our neighbors Tony and Lynn at a far table and surprised, sat down beside them.
"What are you guys doing here?" I asked, convinced they were hard-core vegetarians and anti-hunting types.
"Are you kidding? We come every year. Where else can you get Elk a lorange?" Lynn mumbled, her mouth full.
Where had we been?
An hour later, we sat back, full as could be, our plates as empty as if they had never been used. I had finished every last bite and each delicacy had been surprisingly tasty, with just enough gaminess to tingle the taste buds without overpowering them.
It was tempting to get in line again for more, but there were still dozens of homemade pies waiting. So we pushed ourselves from the table and headed for oversized slices of blueberry, pumpkin, apple and mincemeat pie. With flaky crusts and fresh fillings, the pies were a perfect ending to a meal unlike any other I'd ever had.
Once all the food was gone, I turned my attention to the conversations around me. People were laughing and talking amiably, making friends with strangers who shared their tables. At a nearby table, several of the hunters whose prizes we had consumed were proudly reliving the kill with their neighbors.
Suddenly, it felt as if I were attending some primitive tribal feast like the ones you read about in National Geographic, in which the entire village sits together after the hunt, eating and reveling in the glory of their hunters and the goodness of the gods for providing the animals.
The lesson wasn't lost on me. By the time we rolled out late that evening, my full stomach and warmed heart deeply appreciated the skill and generosity of Rupert's hunters who shared their trophies, and the countless others who planned and prepared such a wonderful meal.
These days, I wait hungrily for November and the next game supper to come around. Not just because I find myself craving bear balls, but also because it seems an important ritual of the season.
Like an early Thanksgiving, Vermont's game suppers remind us to be thankful for nature's bounty and the skill of those who bring it to us. At the end of the harvest and hunting seasons, a game dinner makes us mindful of the cycles of life and gives us an opportunity to share time with our neighbors before the long hard winter separates us each to our own homes and kitchens.
But, even more important, attending an annual game dinner is a fun way to experience one of Vermont's unique fall traditions. Just remember to bring your hunter's appetite when you come. And leave your gun at home.
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