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13 august 2014

Paula Lee's Game arrived in timely fashion, since a friend had just given us a packet of frozen pheasant breasts. Somebody'd shot them somewhere ("watch for shot!" was inscribed on the packet), and the instructions were to brine and cook them. This left some leeway. I could have treated them like chicken – proverbially, they were going to taste like chicken no matter what I did with them. But I needed some sort of reference point to start from in turning this remnant of wild animal into food.

As Lee notes throughout her global history of game, human approaches to eating meat depend sensitively on conceptual and verbal definitions. Why was I told to brine my pheasant breasts? It seemed an obligatory precursor to however I was going to cook them. With chicken, I might or might not have marinated the meat as an initial step. There can't be much physical difference between the breast of one bird and another, can there? Yet for game birds, brining and/or hanging, to tenderize and properly set up the meat, is often strictly prescribed. The fact that somebody bagged that critter puts it in a different cultural category, and thus a different culinary practice.

The difference between game and domestic birds might seem to be a simple one: the bird is either raised by people or it isn't. But animals that we eat can be managed as much in the "wild" as they are in the backyard or the feedlot, and there's a substantial grey area between the tamed and the untamed. "Reality is messy," as Lee notes. "The lines between domesticated, wild, native, feral and foreign animals are remarkably blurred" (111).

"Game" connotes sport, even competition, and as Lee points out, "game is correctly 'game' when the animal is taken for sport or leisure" (83). The Sport Literature Association, among other groups devoted to the study of sport and culture, has always included hunting and fishing among its subjects, even though we realize that the "blood sports" are grouped with athletic games more by linguistic accident than procedural resemblance. Sustenance, however, is no sporting matter. It's life or death for both hunter and prey. Hence, as Lee goes on to observe, not all animals taken from the wild and eaten are "game." Some are roadkill. Some are snared, tricked into the human larder. Social class defines that boundary. Inveigled animals are the sphere of serfs and slaves. Game animals, larger, more feisty, coded as nobler – though not necessarily any more nutritious – are the province of the upper classes, with their leisurely and rule-bound attitudes toward killing their fellow creatures.

How an animal is killed, and who kills it, thus defines whether it's good to eat, a delicacy or a varmint. Lee quotes a British colonial surgeon of the 19th century, amazed that people in India would sell snared pigeons and parrots as convenience food (76). Amazed that they would eat them at all, that is, even though back in London top chefs were probably preparing sybaritic concoctions involving both as he spoke. As often, one man's refuse is another man's gourmet delight.

"Meat is only straightforward to the starving," Lee puts it. "For just about everyone else, meat is a vexed substance precisely because it used to be an animal" (117). "Wild" is a marker of either refinement or abjection, something to be prized or consumed as a last resort. But here the messiness resurfaces. What populations of land animals or birds truly are "wild" anymore? Hunting, for millennia, has involved conservation, management, introduction and reintroduction of stocks. The profession of game warden exists to stop some people hunting so that others can hunt by the rules. Hunting against the rules (here the other sense of "game" re-emerges) is not hunting at all but "poaching," which Lee notes is somewhat out of her scope.

There is little doubt that hunting has eliminated many species. But it has certainly preserved a select few that fit human notions of the privileged game animal. "The individual dies, but the species lives," Lee says (124), so it may be good advice: "To save the species, eat it" (122). Lee expresses puzzlement about a North American story from the Yokut tribe, where the Eagle tells the Deer that he will become food for humans, but then live on. (120) But that seems to me just another way of expressing the basic equation: deer die, but Deer lives. And deer live in the United States in insane abundance, just as kangaroos do in Australia. Human disruption of natural food chains has led to a glut of such game animals that we now manage and cull, preserving as we destroy.

Lee includes recipes for impala, alligator, and aardwolf, which I think I'll skip. But she also has one for grouse seared with apples, which I adapted for my pheasant breasts. This was a simple preparation that complemented the savory (and quite unchickeny!) brined game with mild apples and sharp scallions. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will revive it the next time somebody shoots a bird for me.

Lee, Paula Young. Game: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2013.