The hunt is on

“Are you cooking balls yet
Are you cooking balls yet?” This is one of many codes for asking a fellow hunter about the success of his or her hunt, a euphemism for “Get yer elk yet?” In this case, the one being questioned happens to have a tradition of cooking and eating elk testicles soon after the kill. To other hunters, you can inquire “How’s your hunting season going?” or “Been out yet?” One acquaintance of mine asks, “Are you bloody?”

Welcome to Chef Boy Ari’s hunting preview for autumn, 2006.

Hunting season arrived early for me this year because I drew a rare rifle permit to hunt elk in my local wilderness. For the first time, I’m simultaneously hunting and warm, hunting and dry, and hunting and frolicking in the flaming autumn bushes in the high forests of home.

Chasing elk during the rut is a different game from tracking them through the snow. And my friend, who I’ll call Bugle Boy (and who isn’t, incidentally, the ball cooker) has initiated me into the clan of the elk talkers. He got his elk with a bow on opening day, but he loves chasing elk so much he’s happy to join me when he can. It seems like every time I go out with Bugle Boy, we’re surrounded by elk.

When you bugle, it’s like calling out to all the elk within earshot: “Where are you?”

“We’re over here!” bugle back the bulls, hopefully surrounded by cows.

When Bugle Boy hears that sound, he looks like an 8-year-old at the candy store.

On our first hunt, we found a herd and I had a big one in my sights. But not everything was still enough, including my heart, and I didn’t pull the trigger. Not cooking balls yet.

In fact my tag is for a cow elk, so even when I’m successful I won’t be cooking balls — which, incidentally, is fine with me. Rutting bulls can be pretty stinky, and I suspect their balls are no exception.

Since I can’t bugle very well, when I’m out alone I don’t know where they are. Since the elk could be anywhere, I try to be silent enough to hear them before they hear me. But no matter how quiet I am, everyone in the forest seems to know I’m there. Every step is like walking into the only bar in a small town; everything gets quiet and watches. Then a squirrel starts chewing me out. That’s when I blow my cow call, which makes them think I’m an elk, and I can hear the forest relax around me. The birds start chirping, and the squirrels chill out.

And then there is my sausage, one of the great pleasures of my hunting experience. Made from last year’s deer, it’s a summer sausage, which means it’s already cooked and ready to go — which isn’t to say that my sausage isn’t divine on the grill, or crumbled into a hot pan a la bacon. But out there, with a pocket full of sausage and some pickled, homegrown peppers for eating atop a chunk of home-baked bread, it all seems very right. I’m totally immersed in my food chain, eating last year’s deer while hunting this year’s elk. I also eat Snickers bars.

Hopefully I’ll have my proverbial balls cooked and my literal freezer full by opening day of rifle season, because I’d rather go on midnight patrol in Fallujah than suffer that chaos. OK, not really. But regardless of what permits you have, now is the time to grill, braise, jerk, give away, or otherwise dispose of the dregs of last year’s meat.

Last night I thawed a packet of neck meat from a buck I shot last year. After browning the chunks in oil, adding water a few times when it dried up, I put the chunks in the oven, covered, with a little garlic, vinegar, soy sauce, and water, and let it braise for an hour at 375 degrees. Then I added a bay leaf and coarsely cut garlic, onions, and carrots, and gave it another hour, adding water whenever it started to dry up. Then I added some of the following plum sauce, and gave it another hour, seasoning with salt and pepper and adding a little more garlic:

Slice and pit 10 plums, coat with honey, and lay face down on a cookie sheet. Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. In separate pans, simmer one bottle white wine and 1 quart chicken stock over low heat to reduce to half their original volume. Add the reduced wine to the reduced chicken stock. Puree your plums, add to the wine-chicken mixture, and let simmer for five minutes on low heat. Salt and pepper to taste. Finish with 2 tablespoons of butter.

The meat fell apart, sweet and savory, in my mouth, and I can’t wait to do it again. So if you want to know how my season’s going, just ask, “Are ya cookin’ neck yet?”

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