Posted by: trevormeers | September 18, 2010

Clan of the Venison Stew

So it turns out there’s this other kid. The younger one has been putting a tractor beam on most of our attention for the last month, but lately I’ve noticed this bigger one hanging around the house, too, rolling around on one Rollerblade and hanging upside down on the back of the couch in Hello Kitty fleece pants.

Normally, we don’t need to plan special interaction days around our house to make sure we’re seeing enough of each other. We try to make a simple habit of actually living together rather than scheduling domestic encounter groups. But on Labor Day, I suddenly realized that over the summer, the stream of family life had shrunk to something like a Nebraska river in August. As I stood at the stove, Allison wandered in and said, “This is the first time I’ve seen you cooking anything in, well….forever.”

To be clear, I’m never much of a cook if you can’t cook it while holding the pot over a Coleman Sportster stove with a pair of Leatherman pliers. But I do have Saturday morning pancakes. Or I did. Every week, I’d drag out the cast-iron griddle and start the coffee. Allison would climb onto a chair, dump Aunt Jemima’s Buttermilk Complete into a bowl, add water and start mixing. The pancakes always turned out tough, thanks to her passion for beating the batter until there wasn’t a rumor of a lump left, and she burned through about a pint of syrup on each short stack. But I admired her enthusiasm for flapjacks, so we just avoided laying anything on the sticky table and took our time finishing the week’s only breakfast that didn’t have me looking at my watch more than the people in front of me.

But then came the long Saturday training runs for a marathon. And turkey season. And Peru. And when none of those squeezed out pancake time, a new Saturday men’s group and a month of hospital time slammed the door. You can’t fault time spent on any one of these things in themselves, but I can’t pretend it’s a great move to quit cold turkey on a kid who likes to spend Saturday mornings sliding around on a chair in purple Grover socks until she finds the right angle on a mixing bowl.

On Labor Day, Allison peeked into the frying pan in front of me and said, “Whatcha’ dooooin?” I told her it was a Southwest venison stew from Field & Stream, and she was all in. The meat and vegetables were already chopped, but there was cornbread to make. She carefully measured out the cornmeal, sugar and baking powder, dutifully scraping the measuring spoon across the metal lip like her mom had shown her. She pulled out an egg and went to crack it against a measuring cup.

“Wait!” I said. “I’ll do that.”

“Dad, I do it all the time.”

“When did you get egg-cracking privileges?” I said.

“Mom started letting me a long time ago.”

And then she popped it open without a sliver of shell in the bowl.

She set herself to overstirring the cornbread batter, and I started talking about the day I shot the deer we were cooking. How it wasn’t the buck hanging on the wall, but could’ve been his son, for all I knew. We talked about the spot in the tall grass up north where I waited for this deer and about the friends who helped me hang it in the barn. And we talked about how next spring she would probably be old enough to come sit with me in the turkey blind and wait for a gobbler to come, but first she’ll have to quit being scared of turkeys. It was a welcome change to prepare a meal with a story drawn from our own life, not a package dreamed up to sell more cans of something.

When the stew started its hour-long simmer, we went down the hill to the brush pile accumulated over a summer of storms. Men in my family burn things like most men go to baseball games or go fishing. It’s where we do our talking. So Allison and I carried on our conversation as I fed limbs into the flames and she put on my old sunglasses to keep the smoke away and set fire to the tips of little sticks so she could write her name in the air with the smoke. Her mom probably wouldn’t want her so near the ember’s red eye, but Alli knows fire by now. She’s found the sweet spot you need for using any powerful tool, where healthy respect holds ground between fear and recklessness. I found myself feeling proud that she’s found it.  

The day aged without marking any hour, just a shrinking brush pile, sunlight growing more golden and the flavor of chiles seeping into cubes of venison on the stove up the hill. When we finally get a taste of such a day, I start thinking that we really ought to take a crack at my dream of all of us spending every day together, making a go of it in some cabin somewhere. No office for dad to disappear to each day, returning at supper time with all his good mood worn away. No malls, or schoolmates to tell you what to buy at them. No time left for complaining about the little stuff because we’re just too happily worn out from living in the real world all day.

But the off-the-grid cabin life doesn’t mesh all that neatly with a kid who needs regular visits to a neurosurgeon and magnetic imaging to confirm everything is where it belongs. So in the meantime, we’ll just try to keep unplugging a little more where we are, making time to burn a few sticks and stew a little of last winter’s venison.



  1. If only every father had your attitude…everyone would be better off for it!

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