I asked my colleague Chef Harold Caldwell to write about the process of butchering wild game in the colonial and antebellum periods. This is a real treat full of detail about how our Ancestors survived. Our forefathers and foremothers made the original “soul food,” from the ingredients around them: squirrels, possums, raccoons, rabbits, groundhog, eels, catfish, bass, trout, suckers, sturgeons, deer, rail, snipe, partridges, grouse and wild turkey. They made it all taste good because they had to. We know that but we aren’t too sure about how it was all done. Lucky for you Chef Harold and I are preserving this knowledge, and I’m pleased to share this excellent essay he has prepared with you.
The colonial and antebellum periods were a time in history where most people survived from the land. But land wasn’t the only source for food. Nourishment also came from oceans, bays, lakes, and rivers.
Some of the fish in the rivers and oceans were a bit unusual like the sturgeon or eel. Sturgeon looked like a fish from the prehistoric era. And eel looked like a snake that lived in the water. During the colonial and antebellum periods, people were accustomed to eating foodstuffs that some would consider today as “weird.” One of the animals in particular was groundhog. But there were also meats that was more common than some of the food sources mentioned here. And that example is turkey. The wild game of turkey and groundhog were plentiful during the colonial and antebellum eras. Particularly amongst the enslaved. And the primary way for folks of the period to eat, was first through processing their own food. This article teaches how to prepare eel, ground hog, and wild turkey by way of butchering.
AMERICAN EEL: ANGUILLA ROSTRATA
First, get a sharp paring knife. Then cut just below the head and the gill all the way around. But make sure not to cut too deeply. Insert the knife between the the meat and the skin. Cut around the body enough to get your fingers under the skin. After cutting, nail the eel to a stump through the body, beneath the head.
Begin to pull the skin down very slowly so not to pull the meat from the bones. Pull the skin all the way down until it completely comes away from the body. The next step is to put the knife into the body below the head and gills. Cut on the underside of the eel. Do not cut deep. Gently cut down the the center all the way to the anus. Then open the cavity and let the guts fall out or pull them out of the body. Wash the insides out with water and the eel is ready to cook.
GROUNDHOG: MARMOTA MONAX
Ground hog is not too difficult to process. First, gather two sharp knives. One should be a paring knife. Second, cut beneath the head around the neck. Cut all the way through the meat to the bone. Then take a paring knife and cut just under the fur all the way around. Third, take the fingers and put them under the skin in order to free the meat from the skin. Put one hand one each side of the groundhog, and pull the fur gently down the body, until the fur reaches the feet. The fur should come off the feet. Fourth, separate the head from the body. This step might require an ax, hatchet, or cleaver. The next step is removing the innards.
Start with the knife just below the rib cage, and with a shallow incision, cut down to the anus. Lift ground hog up to let the innards fall out. There might be a situation where the hands will be utilized to free some of the guts from the cavity. After the body has been cleared, separate the feet from the body with a knife, hatchet, small ax, or cleaver. From this point, clean the meat with water. Then the groundhog can either be roasted whole or chopped into pieces (cut almost like you would chicken pieces) to be stewed, fried, or baked.
WILD TURKEY: MELEAGRIS GALLOPAVO
The wild turkey is a bit easier to butcher but the buchering is a little different from the other game animals. It will be first necessary to acquire a pot big enough that most of the turkey can fit inside it. Once the pot is found, fill it half or more full of water, and heat until hot. DO NOT BOIL because the turkey is not ready to cook yet! Take the pot off the heat and put the turkey in the pot. Let the turkey sit for a few minutes. Then pull it out of the pot and grab the bottom of a feather quill, and pull the quill away from the body. Be careful because the turkey will be hot! If the feather comes loose, the turkey is ready to be plucked. Be aware that sometimes the feathers do not pull out so easily. The turkey will have to be soaked again but the water has to be hot in order for the feathers to come away from the body. Plucking the turkey could take a couple of soaks, so keep a fire going to reheat the water. After all the feathers have been pulled, the gutting can take place. First, turn the bird on its back and check for the anus. Then, on the breast side where the flabby skin is, make a cut from one side of the flabbyy area to the other. After the cut, make another cut from the middle of the horizontal incision down to get a hand inside the cavity. Insert the hand inside the body and pull the innards out. After the guts are cleaned out, rinse the inside and outside of the body with water. The turkey can now be cooked by roasting or baking with or without the head. Or the turkey can be processed into thighs, legs, breasts, and drumsticks. And don’t forget to cut the feet at the joint where the skinny and meaty portions of the leg meet. When y’all coming to dinner next?