Food is an integral part of any culture. For many, the first thing that comes to mind about Jackson Hole’s food culture is the sparkling array of world-class restaurants throughout the valley. And while these eateries are a distinctive facet of the community, there is a local history and tradition that runs much deeper than the area’s string of acclaimed restaurants: hunting.
For many, hunting is a way to forge a relationship and exchange with the landscape itself. And it keeps people nourished through the cold, barren months of winter.
For those who rely on wild game as sustenance, big game animals — elk, deer, bison, and antelope — are the target of choice. The season to legally hunt these animals begins in the fall, and depending on the species and method of hunting — bow and arrow, rifle, or other — can stretch into the winter months.
Chuck Harris, a longtime local hunter, strikes out solo every fall with his bow and arrow and a goal of taking down an elk. “This is our renewable resource,” Chuck says.
When it comes to produce and other foods, everything is imported this time of year. But harvesting wild game? “It’s just part of my soul,” he says.
With many successful hunts under his belt, Chuck has it down to an art. When he shoots his elk — typically less than a couple of miles from his vehicle — he makes quick work of getting it out of the wilderness. “I get all the edible meat down from the base of the skull, along the spine, the quarters. Then I can get the elk turned over and get the second half.”
Chuck notes that “We process it all ourselves,” referring to his wife, Karen, and other hunters. Together, they break down the animal and carefully wrap and freeze the steaks, roasts, and ground meat for the coming year.
With just one animal providing a hearty supply of meat, Jeromie Traphagen, a patrol sergeant for the Jackson Police Department and avid bowhunter, says, “We don’t usually get through all of an elk in one year … Big game is a big part of what we eat just because it’s a good protein, plus you know where it comes from.”
“I take a lot of pride in making a meal from that meat,” Jeromie continues. “It’s something that took time and work to harvest. The fact that I had the chance to harvest it makes it that much more fulfilling of a meal.”
When it comes to cooking the meat, Jeromie says his family has some standby favorite dishes but takes advantage of opportunities to get creative. “We don’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to what to do with wild game.” Go-to meals for his family include meatloaf, tacos, and spaghetti using ground elk. He does, however, enjoy tinkering with sausage blends and flavor profiles. “The cool thing about our valley is that we have a lot of cool butchers that can give you access to pork fat or beef fat — you can experiment with adding in those different fats to get different flavors.”
Ultimately, hunting is much more than a seasonal pastime for many families in Jackson Hole. It’s a way to forge a meaningful connection with the landscape and to participate in an age-old cycle — to meet the opportunity of harvesting wild game with gratitude and gravity, and to share the fruits of that labor with the community.
“We’ve been given this gift,” says Chuck, reflecting on his decades of hunting and sharing game with friends, neighbors, and family. “And part of the gift is being able to share it.”
Cooking wild game
Nicole Walker has years of experience as a butcher processing wild game during hunting season in Jackson Hole. She says that it’s important for home chefs to understand that wild game is different than commercially-raised meat, and to get the best results, there are a few tips to keep in mind.
Wild animals tend to have leaner meat (with less fat throughout the muscle) than domestic cows or pigs. “When you cook wild game fat, it’s not bad, but it doesn’t handle the cooking process very well,” Nicole says. She recommends incorporating other kinds of fats — like beef or pork — into sausage or ground meat to keep it from getting dry and tough.
Another approach for success? “Low, long, and slow is a great way to go,” she says. Look for recipes like Chuck Harris’ favorite Mississippi Roast (below) to spice up wild game.
Inspired by The New York Times recipe
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
¼ cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons neutral oil, like canola 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 16 oz. jar of pepperoncinis (with juice) 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
½ teaspoon dried dill
¼ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon buttermilk, optional Chopped parsley, for garnish
Step 1 — Place roast (elk, deer, bison, or antelope) on a cutting board and rub the salt and pepper all over it. Sprinkle the flour on the seasoned meat and massage it into the flesh.
Step 2 — Heat the oil in a large sauté pan set over high heat until it is shimmering and about to smoke. Place the roast in the pan and brown it on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes a side, to create a crust. Remove roast from pan and place it in the bowl of a slow cooker. Add the butter and the pepperoncinis (with juice) to the meat. Put the lid on the slow cooker and set the machine to low.
Step 3 — As the roast heats, make a ranch dressing. Combine the mayonnaise, dill, and paprika in a small bowl and whisk to emulsify. Add the buttermilk if using, then whisk again. Remove the lid from the slow cooker and add the dressing. Replace the top and allow it to continue cooking, undisturbed, for 6 to 8 hours or until you can shred the meat easily using two forks. Mix the meat with the gravy surrounding it. Garnish with parsley and serve with egg noodles or roast potatoes, or, as per Harris’ preference, alongside a heap of crisp Tater Tots.