The moose head cheese tastes like tuna fish.
Flaky, pale pink, and surprisingly light, little about this cold-cut loaf seems traditional to me as I try a thin slab of it atop my bite-size square of pumpernickel toast. It isn't gelatinous; I don't detect any of the aspic that would normally hold a head cheese together—hence, its pleasingly delicate texture.
The hors d'oeuvres presentation from which I sample this delicacy, inside a banquet room at the Hotel Vermont in the city of Burlington, is inexplicably stationed on a low table underneath a mounted deer head. When I finish fixing my plate, I can't avoid knocking my noggin into its humongous snout. I therefore nix the idea of going back for seconds, even though I'm also jonesing for another round of the salt-cured moose jerky and pickled vegetables. Having never attended a game dinner before, I'm unaware of proper etiquette, but striking a dead deer on the nose strikes me as just a bit too on the nose.
There's roughly 100 people packed into the room, which has been outfitted with wall-to-wall communal tables for the hotel's first-ever "Wild About Vermont" dinner. The atmosphere is buzzy and news crews are crammed into every corner. When the event—an upscale facsimile of the decades-old game dinners common in smaller New England communities—was announced in late October, it went viral thanks to the titillating promise of professionally prepared roadkill. As cocktail hour ends and we take our seats, the friendly woman to my right bluntly informs me, "The venison is the only thing that's roadkill, but the moose was illegally shot."
Normally, anything served at a game dinner has been trapped, hunted, fished, or harvested legally by those in attendance, but tonight's poached moose and mowed-down deer have been provided by the state's Fish and Wildlife Department, which has long run a program supplying such meats to food banks, needy families, and fundraising events. Other individuals have donated beaver, fish, and game birds.
"This is the first game dinner that I'm aware of, at least in Vermont, that any sort of licensed establishment has done," I was told the day before by chef Doug Paine, who runs the kitchen at Juniper, Hotel Vermont's in-house restaurant. "Typically, it would be done at a church or a town hall and it would be potluck. I grew up in Vermont so I have experience cooking moose and deer and bear, but I've never had the whole animal in large volumes to work with." Paine's friend James Ehlers, who heads the local conservation group Lake Champlain International, approached him about doing the dinner as a benefit. (Selling wild meats as a commercial venture isn't legal anyway.) "He wanted me to bring a chef's perspective into game meats," Paine explains, "to showcase the kind of quality meat that can be had from the wild."
Probably because an average moose can weigh well over 1,000 pounds, four of tonight's ten courses (including that cocktail-hour head cheese) feature moose meat. After the head cheese, my favorite moose dish is easily the grilled moose backstrap. The tenderloin-like cut, treated with a demi-glace, checks all the boxes: It's tender and buttery and a touch sweet, but also just coriaceous and funky enough to assert its inherent otherness; this is not an everyday protein you'd chuck into your cart at the supermarket.
In comparison, moose sausage plated with braised cabbage and a ragout of moose leg with egg noodles and wild mushrooms comes off as pedestrian. Both simply taste like beef.
Venison arrives in two courses, each offering a pair of deer preparations that are, quite frankly, profound. One platter contains barbecue deer ribs with spicy deer neck. The fatty rib meat yields from the bone with barely a nudge and pairs fantastically with its mild, tomato-based sauce. The spicy deer neck is stringy, served like pulled pork. It's been seasoned to within an inch of its life; as a result, it's perhaps the most piquant barbecue I've ever tasted.
Then there's the roasted bone-in whitetail venison loin and leg. Woah.
The loin, phone-book thick and so pink inside it's practically magenta, could pass for a steakhouse filet. It's been flavored intensely with horseradish (with some kind of rub? I don't actually see any horseradish), imparting an unexpected headiness. The dark meat on the leg cut is its polar opposite. The gamiest meat on the menu, it ranks as one of those culinary experiences where the adjectives that best characterize it—gritty, dry, almost murky-tasting—work against conveying how alluring and irresistible it is. I'd do this dinner all over again the next day for the whitetail venison alone.
The bust of the night is the beaver hand-pie. The beaver meat is gray and crumbly, and the overly cloying pastry shell overpowers it anyway. But at least the twentysomething to my left kept me entertained throughout the course with "beaver hand-pie" jokes.
"We don't want to commercialize wildlife. That's not what our goal is," chef Doug told me on the phone the day before. I'd been pondering this point ever since, wondering what, exactly, was the point. That question was answered when Chef Doug told the crowd, "To get people to really care about their environment, they need to eat it."