The Northland Sportsmen’s Club Wild Game Dinner

Review by Max Grace, former professor of molecular gastronomy at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Northland Sportsmen’s Club Wild Game Dinner
40th Annual All You Can Eat
Saturday, Sept. 28, 2023. Dinner at 6 p.m., drawing at 7.
Duluth Farmers Market, Duluth MN — as fine a farmers market as you could find in the U.S.!
$15 adult, $5 children under 10

~Silent Auction~
All proceeds to charity

Serving venison, bear, beaver, pheasant, duck, goose, salmon and other fish, along with wild rice and many other exotic dishes.

Thank you for your support!

Raffle: Ticket price $5. Tickets available from club members and at the dinner.
– 1st Prize: Henry Golden Boy brass-framed 45-70 lever action rifle
– 2nd Prize: Deep-fryer kit ($800 value)
– 3rd Prize: $200 cash
Many other prizes will be drawn at the Wild Game Dinner

The long rustic-red Farmers Market shack stood on bare dirt. A sunken glade of lower Chester Creek gurgled down below the treeline at the edge of the lot. The trees, conflicted about turning, flirted with the idea. Under a Jovian umber and orange cloudscape, I bought ticket #452 at a gate of day-glo-pink plastic web fencing.

Billed as a wild game dinner, the locals called it a game feed. The shack was lined inside with wooden stalls, staffed by members of the Northland Sportsmen’s Club at fryers and rotisseries. Portable generators could be heard out back. After getting food, the crowd funneled through the side doors, into a large open event tent full of picnic tables. Regional elected officials from city, county, and state (including Wisconsin) held court at their tables like little fiefdoms. A guy barked out raffle numbers on a mic, giving away prizes: meat cuts, coupons to local businesses, donated arts and crafts. Outside the tent’s edge, people milled around or sat on the grass by the sidewalk.

The least-welcome attendant was present in a professional capacity: an inspector from the Minnesota State Department of Agriculture, wearing a lab coat, openly carrying a clipboard and a meat thermometer. Monitoring and enforcing food safety regulations, he got no love from the sportsmen. But the crowd sure was a lively bunch — the community really celebrated these foods.

I entered the Farmers Market building determined to try something from every stall. I didn’t get that far.

Stall #1: Spring Black Bear Ribs

Ingredients: Racks of bear ribs, trimmed, sawn in quarters. Spice Rub: brown sugar, salt, black pepper, smoked paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, cinnamon, celery salt, cayenne pepper

Charcoal barbecue over post oak smoke wood brings out this tender young bear meat’s sweetness.

Made by Ramrod Auto Parts Family Restaurants, Douglas County

I was served by two of the Ramrod sons in marsh camo. They gave their first names as Flex and Chunky. I’ll admit I had not heard great things about bear, so I was curious to try a rib. The spice rub formed a light brown sugar crust which delighted me. Then I tasted notes of honey in this barely gamey meat. I’d expected a stringy texture, so when it fell off the bone, I asked Flex what the secret was.

“These baby bears died with their bellies full of berries and honey. Once they get older, they eat more carrion and garbage, but if you get ‘em young, you get ‘em sweet. The meat has to be lovingly treated of course, the fat carefully trimmed. Have a napkin.”

The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspector came within earshot and spoke up: “And I made sure these have been cooked to 170 degrees so all the roundworms die.”

After he moved on, Chunky grumbled, “That pencil-neck doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 165 is the rule. At 170, the ribs dry out. But they’re still pretty good.”

They were a little dry.

Stall #2: Wild Rice Goose Hot Dish

Ingredients: Chopped smoked goose, goose-fat cooked wild rice, butter-sauteed wild-harvested morel mushrooms, heavy cream, toasted sliced almonds, diced celery, bay leaves, onion, peeled diced carrots, white wine, salt, black pepper, thyme, parsley

Made by Hendriksen Farms, Carlton County

I took a sample cup but accidentally called it “casserole” before being corrected by Mrs. Hendriksen, who wore a black and white Scandinavian sweater with red trim.

At first taste I exclaimed, “Mmm, schmaltz! Excellent flavor enhancer.”

“Ope — there’s nothing Jewish in it,” she replied.

“The goose-fat, I meant.” I openly smacked my lips. Schmaltz is peerless with morels.

“Well, it’s Lutheran goose fat,” she said.

As is the heavy cream, I suppose. “Is a splash of white wine traditional in hot dish?” I asked.

“You bet it is, sweetie.” Salt of the earth.

As I made my way to the next stall, I bumped into the county sheriff. Which county, I could not tell you. He was in plainclothes. This was turning out to be a real who’s who of regional jurisdictions. It made sense the rural sheriffs supported the wild game crowd. I wouldn’t have known him except last month he pulled me over on my vespa. I never forget a face, I just couldn’t remember where that actually happened. You’d be swerving too if you’d met the same Merlot with its pretentious nose of baked blackberry, dark fruits, and flower petal potpourri, its body heavy on my palate. How can you only drink half a bottle of wine? You wouldn’t finish sex halfway through, would you?

“I didn’t think you ate meat,” the sheriff said. “Try the beaver bites. Stall #16.”

I didn’t dignify him with a response.

Stall #3: Potato-topped Crock Duck Stew

Ingredients: Salt-and-pepper-seasoned Dutch oven duck, duck stock, duck fat, water, mashed Yukon gold potatoes, onion, peas, carrots, celery, garlic, whole milk, vermouth, tomato sauce, salt, sage, bay leaves, chives

Stew spooned around potato mounds in bowls.

Made by Bee Better Farm, Ely

I asked for a cup instead of a bowl, which I was served by the fit Bee Better man. Sporting a baseball cap branded with the name of his farm, he warned me that in a cup it was “harder to create the effect of potato islands in a sea of duck stew.” I promised to use my imagination.

“This duck isn’t going to be tough, is it?” I asked with a smile. He watched as I popped a morsel into my mouth. It was everything I’d expect from Dutch oven duck: tender, moist if not juicy.

“It helps to prepare the meat in its own fat,” he said.

I wish they grew more like him down on the farm. “And the vermouth?” I wondered aloud.

“Ah,” he said, and I pretended he was speaking with a French accent, “Just like weeth a good martini, eet ees only necessary to whisper zee word vermouth over zee crock pot.”

How can I whisper vermouth if my mouth is full of your duck? Did I say that out loud? I glanced around — uniformed city cops here too. A pair of them passed by, slapping each other on the back, raving about the buffalo jerky in stall #12.

“Now you have to try the elk,” one said.

The reply: “Is it loaf, patties, or chunks?”

Stall #4: Wood Duck Salsa Salad with Acorn Dumplings

Ingredients: Medium-rare crispy duck-fat-fried duck breast slices, leached acorn dumplings, egg, nutmeg, roasted hazelnut oil, diced Jerusalem artichokes, peeled diced carrots, diced fennel, diced celery, chives, thyme, lemon juice, salt, garnish

Made by Trevor “T-Bone” Baker Jr., Eveleth

I would take a human life for these acorn dumplings. It’s the hazelnut oil. The artichoke-fennel salsa also inspired me. I ate around the duck because I’d just had some. But I stuffed myself with dumplings and I was only on stall #4.

A city councilor shook my hand, but I hated myself too much to remember what he said.

The smell of roasted fat filled the air. Night was coming.

Stall #5: Venison tacos

Ingredients: Shredded flank venison, warm soft white flour tortillas, caramelized onions, tomato paste, garlic, kosher salt, lime juice, ancho chili powder, oregano, cumin, beef tallow

Back-county bounty from the Cloquet family, Hibbing

“We’re famous for these in Hibbing,” chirped Papa Henry Cloquet, sizzling venison on a propane stove, “Jeannie, get the lady here a taco.”

I said, “Actually my pronouns are he/him, but as long as these are gluten-free, I’m gonna let you off with a warning.”

He froze.

“Just kidding,” I said, “I’m not gluten-free.”

He called to this Jeannie person, “Jeannie, get the man his taco, Jesus where is everybody?” Jeannie appeared in a puff of Captain Crunch-flavored CBD vape-smoke: “Coming right up, Pops.”

I sucked the taco down. The meat was smooth and firm, with a bramble-and-hedge thing going on. As I detected a whisper of sage among the earthiness, I overheard the Department of Ag inspector speaking to the city councilor: “Every one of these vendors is under court order to be here. It’s part of their plea deals. These poachers are serving their ill-gotten gains to the community. That’s why you see the presence of the FDA, county game wardens, and city health inspectors … There is no Northland Sportsmen Club. Concocted by compliant law enforcement, it’s a front for regional criminals to launder their records with community service.”

Papa Cloquet interrupted my eavesdropping, offering me a poutine with venison heart and Hoops Brewing Best Brown Ale gravy, cheese curds, and Kewpie mayonnaise. Don’t judge me.

Stall #6: Moose sliders with black walnuts 

Ingredients: Moose, grated black walnuts, minced onion, diced garlic, salt, thyme, paprika, melted Jarlsberg on mini white buns with lettuce, pickle, mayonnaise

Served with a side of moose spleen pudding with dark chocolate sprinkles.

Made by J.J. Emmental, Virginia

I asked this lively retiree about the pudding.

“Good for the yang. My wife swears by it, demands I schlorb it down.”

Moving on to these patties. “Moose meat is so lean, does it even make a good burger?” I asked.

“That’s where the black walnuts come in. They add fat, structure … Try it.”

“Well I’ll just take a nibble – Oh my god. Mellow aftertaste, but my umami sense is tingling.”

“That may be the Jarlsberg.”

The meat was so iron-rich it tasted metallic. A bit dry, but that’s what mayo is for. The cheese was a good pairing.

I schlorbed down a cup of pudding too, a human truffle pig off the chain.

Stall #7: Organic Vegan “Pleasant Pheasant” Wild Rice Soup

Ingredients (all organic except where noted): Handmade artisanal pulled seitan “pheasant” sautéed in single-origin extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil, seitan “pheasant” stock, full-fat oatmilk, native-harvested wood-parched wild rice (not organic, but pesticide-free and fairly traded) cooked in vegetable stock instead of water, non-dairy heavy cream (unsweetened soy/coconut blend), porcini mushrooms (not organic, but wildcrafted), diced carrots, celery, onions, garlic, Celtic sea salt (not organic, but raw), cracked four-peppercorn blend (black, white, pink, and green), rosemary, bay leaves, finishing salt blend of fleur de sel sea salt flakes and coarse red volcano salt (not organic, but raw)

Contains wheat, soy and tree nut (coconut).

Made by Iron Will’s Produce, Grand Marais

This all-woman stall was led by the formidable Iron Will, rocking a straw hat, overalls, and a terfy mullet. I asked her, “Is it true you smuggled 100 pounds of contraband corn into Mexico inside a custom fat-suit, designed by a Hollywood special effects artist?”

She replied, “That cultivar was bred to resist gene flow from genetic engineering. But what does that have to do with the terroir of my mock duck?”

“What makes your seitan ‘pheasanty’?”

“The seasoning. We manufacture the wheat gluten ourselves in a refurbished hydroponic mine shaft. Is that legal or cheap? No. But it’s the authenticity our customers demand. And it’s organic, so you have to add your own chemicals if you want ‘em.”

“This is certified organic?”

“We don’t respect the patriarchy’s fascist organic standards.”


Stall #8: Midwest Snapping Turtle Soup

Ingredients: Roasted snapping turtle, Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, Campbell’s cheddar cheese soup, half and half, chicken stock, sauteed onion, celery, carrots, salt, pepper

Made by Bob and Janet Engelbright, Backwoods Meats & Goods, Moose Lake

“The meat is so pink,” I volunteered to Mrs. Engelbright, despite myself.

“Thank you!” she said straightening her red Minnesota Wild apron. “We soaked it several times, discarding the black water until it ran clear. That’s also the secret to boiled skunk, stall #13.”

I had tuned out the ongoing raffle announcements since my arrival. But then Mr. Engelbright turned up with a ticket in his hand.

“Excuse me for interrupting,” he said, “But Janet, I think we just won the deep-fryer kit.” They embraced, hard. You would think they’d won the rifle.

Stall #9: Hippo Steaks

Ingredients: Boiled roasted grill-finished hippopotamus steaks, proprietary spice rub, salt, parsley garnish, ghost pepper hot sauce

Made by Emu-You Bar & Grill, Superior: Menno Zwonk, proprietor

Night had fallen. Most people skipped the hippo out of fear. But many tried it. The law enforcement crowd came back for more.

Menno Zwonk is the hulking restauranteur Amishman of Emu-You Bar and Grill, the roadhouse restaurant outside Superior on Route 53. He is a legend in the Northland culinary scene for his exotic meats. A big-game hunter, animal trainer, and rumored gangster, I guess he didn’t have a permit for the hippo. Law enforcement hung around his stall and got a little rowdy to be honest. They found him hilarious, seemed to know him from the roadhouse.

Zwonk wore a white apron over his traditional Amish garb, roasting a hippo flank on a spit over an open fire of African citrus wood, carving steaks off to finish them on a grill. Amid the hustle and bustle of this party stall, although I was full to bursting, I stepped up to try a sample.

Zwonk eyed me from under the brim of his black felt hat like a hooded cobra. He pushed me a sample plate with his oversized hands.

Nibbling a hippo cube, I narrated my taste journey: “Hmmmm … mild sweet … not unlike beef … buttery-oily aroma. Chewy, yes — but a succulent mouthfeel. I’m also getting hints of (smacks lips repeatedly) … what is that, in the aftertaste? … beneath the barnyard, under the forest floor … bitter … alkaline … Hydrochloride salt. It’s back there, but I swear, it’s practically numbing my mouth.”

“That’s just the hot sauce,” Zwonk rumbled like a rousing volcano. His accent had formed in a Midwestern Amish community, but it had finished on the seven seas, seasoned with foreign adventures. He sounded like a Minnesota Scottish Irish Australian pirate.

I asked, “Where did you get this hippo?”

“It’s not local, but it is from the Americas.” Fat sizzled as it dripped into the fire. “I boiled it first to tenderize it — ‘and the hippos were boiled in their tanks,’ am I right, lads? More hot sauce? Careful, it’s one million heat units — or as I like to say, ‘only’ one million heat units.”

A shoving match broke out between the hard men at Zwonk’s stand and the Ramrod sons, who had multiplied. Some intemperate language occurred regarding control of the Twin Ports garbage market. Iron Will’s stall jeered them on, wanted them to fight — damn vegans.

Zwonk stood there smiling as chaos swirled around him. A state trooper took over the PA and started playing electronic dance music. I thought, “This game feed is turnt up.”

I leaned across the stall’s countertop while the fracas played out behind me. “Mr. Zwonk,” I said, under the noise, “This hippo meat is marbled with cocaine. You can’t fool me, I’m a molecular gastronomist. This is one of Pablo Escobar’s feral cocaine hippos, isn’t it?”

His eyebrows perceptibly raised. Then he spoke in a slow growl, with the hair-raising ultrasonic rumble of an apex predator. “Aye, a wee Sherlock Holmes ye are. This hippo snorted a mountain of cocaine, it did. Have ye ever seen a hippo snort a mountain of cocaine? I have, lad. The hippopotamus has some of the biggest fooking nostrils in the animal kingdom. Magnificent, cavernous nostrils. I took the most coked-up one of the bunch.”

He leaned closer, and we were already pretty close: “But look here: It wouldn’t do to have this getting oot, all public-like.”

I overheard someone at the back of Zwonk’s stall say, “It’s the Department of Ag inspector … some kids just found him drowned in the creek …”

I glanced down. Zwonk’s boots were wet.

He saw me look.

“170 degrees me arse. Now, as it happens, I could use a molecular gastronomist on staff in me roadhouse kitchen. I’m really trying to take me emu burgers to the next level. Starting salary is …”

I felt like I was going to vomit as he whispered something earth-shattering in my ear.

It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Photos: Dall-E 2. An index of Jim Richardson’s essays may be found here.


Helmut Flaag

about 3 months ago

Interesting. #Jim Harrison. Where can I secure a large undisclosed amount of cocaine hippo flanks?

Jim Richardson (aka Lake Superior Aquaman)

about 3 months ago

@helmutflaag: Available wholesale from Emu-You Bar & Grill

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