Our wine glasses clink across the table.
Each of the smiling women reaches her fork into the cast-iron skillet and removes a slice of meat. As they top the delicate pieces with cream and fresh cilantro, my heart swells. These five women have come together on this night to learn to make fire. They also will prepare a meal over that fire. This is no ordinary campfire cookout: Tonight’s four-course menu will include a variety of muscle and organ meats from wild game. I personally participated in the harvesting, cleaning, butchering, or cultivating of almost every item on this menu.
The meat on this table has a story, and to share it in community with these women feels right in every way.
My business, Deep Roots Nature School in Lakeland, has one aim: to connect people, at every age, in every way possible, to the beauty and provision of the natural world. The Women of the Woods events are specifically designed to bring women back outdoors, to hand them the threads of ancient knowledge, and to help them weave these experiences into a life of modernity. It’s not about romanticizing the past. It’s abut holding onto it, honoring a time and a way that was slower, and weaving that into the fast-paced lives of today.
Cooking a meal over fire takes time and attention to detail. Cooking wild game does, too. But the combination is well worth the effort. Venison, aged to form a crust, presents an array of nuanced flavors. Wild hog, cooked in coals for hours and brushed with vinegar-kissed sop, dances across the taste buds. A metal grate heated in the flames creates a spectacular sear, while a cast-iron skillet allows the cook more flexibility with temperature for vegetables or fruit crisp. The crispy edges and caramelized topping brings us the smoke-tinged flavors of a time past.
These women are making fire the old way, with a flint and steel. They crisscross the tiny sticks, Lincoln Log style, and fill the center with dried Spanish moss. As they shave some pine on top, the distinct aroma fills the air. Getting the fire started is just the beginning, though. With coals to stoke and wood to chop and sop to brush on the meat, there is always something to do and no one wanders too far. These are methods that bring people together. Each person has a hand in the process, and at the center of everything is the fire.
Some of the foods look familiar to them, like pesto flatbread. Other foods push the edges of their comfort, like Mexican spiced pig heart with sriracha cream. The clear favorite is the mojo-marinated venison backstrap and garlic Brussels sprouts. And then comes the apple crisp. One of the women picks up her wine glass and brings it to the center. The other raise theirs, as well.
It seems as though something has gotten lost amongst the hustle and bustle of progress, something that feels vital and true. It’s written in our DNA. The effort, the process, the methods, and the communion of a meal like this link us to the thousands of generations prior. But the knowledge and the memory are fading like the last smoldering embers of a fire. This is the flame I’m trying to stoke tonight.
Mojo-marinated backstrap with garlic Brussels sprouts
- Brussels sprouts trimmed and quartered
- 3 cloves garlic chopped
- oil or fat of choice avocado oil or bacon grease work well
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 cups juice from sour oranges or 1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice combined with 1/2 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice and 1/4 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
- 1 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
- 5 or 6 cloves garlic chopped
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds Venison backstrap or whole beef tenderloin
- salt and pepper to taste
- Place trimmed Brussels sprouts in a bowl with the chopped garlic. Add tablespoon of bacon grease or avocado oil and toss to cover. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Tear off a large piece of aluminum foil and then another to match. Layer the foil pieces on top of each other. Position the Brussels sprouts in the center like a hot dog bun and roll down close to the center. Roll the sides similarly to make a closed packet. Place this off the direct heat on a metal grate or nestled in the coals beside the fire. Check and turn the foil packet every 10 minutes for 30 to 40 minutes.
- Combine the marinade ingredients into a glass container or plastic bag. Place the meat inside and allow to marinate a minimum of four hours and up to 24 hours. Remove the meat from the marinade and salt and pepper generously. Heat a cast-iron skillet directly over the flame or a metal grate until sprinkled water dances violently. Place the meat on the heated surface and allow to sear for two minutes. Use tongs to flip the meat and sear for another two minutes. Move the meat away from direct heat for an additional 3-to-5 minutes.