When Alabama’s regional winners compete on August 8 for the AWF Wild Game Cook-Off State Finals, their recipes will give new meaning to the term “Finger-lickin’ Good”
When the Alabama Wildlife Federation (AWF) began the wild game cook-off contests over a decade ago, the primary purpose of the event was to recruit new members into the AWF. Today, the wild game cook-off is still used to recruit new members, but it has also become a fundraiser for the various AWF programs.
Regional cook-offs are usually held in locations where the AWF has strong support. According to Tommy Tidwell, AWF wild game cook-off coordinator, the cook-offs have various functions; one of the primary ones is to promote harvesting and eating wild game.
"We want to educate non-hunters to wild game and to educate the public on how good wild game tastes, and how the harvesting of wild game is an ethical and necessary part of our conservation process. It also offers a social vehicle for people to get together in a fun-filled, festive event where they compete to find out who is the best wild game cook," Tidwell said.
Tidwell said a lot of people don’t realize how healthy wild game is. "For instance, venison, one of our most popular entrees, is very lean with a lower fat content than you find in other meats. It is so lean and fat-free that if you are cooking burgers you may have to add just enough beef or pork fat to them to make them stick together. We have three categories: fish, fowl and game, but there is probably more venison dishes cooked than any other meat. Our members who really know how to cook venison try to educate others that one of the most common mistakes made when cooking venison is overcooking it. Since it does not have as much fat as other meats, it does not hold the heat as long, plus over-cooking dries venison out and it does not taste as good. It is also important to eat it as soon as you take it off the grill because it will cool off faster than beef or pork because it doesn’t have the fat content to hold the heat."
Venison cooking has slowly evolved into a culinary art here in Alabama, in part the result of the expertise acquired by trial-and-error through cooking competitions sponsored by the AWF. Tidwell said he and many other accomplished venison cookers don’t put much credence in many of the of the old wives tales relating to soaking the meat in certain solutions and other unproven methods of meat preparation.
"I treat venison much like I would when cooking beef. I like marinades as simple as just adding salt and pepper to using a good port wine. The most important thing is how soon the animal is field dressed after harvest and then aged with the hide on for seven to ten days before cooking. When you hear someone say venison tastes ‘gamey’ it is usually because the deer carcass wasn’t cared for fast enough or the meat was over-cooked," Tidwell explained.
The annual AWF cook-offs were the brainchild of former AWF executive director, Dan Dumont. Dumont later recruited Dr. Bud Cardinal, DVM, to run and promote the cook-off project. From a meager beginning to a very popular statewide event, the AWF cook-offs are held statewide and the interest is still growing.
"It’s not just the cooking, but the camaraderie that goes along with the cooking of wild game. Most contestants are hunters and fishermen and they just enjoy each other’s company," Tidwell said.
Cook teams can enter up to three dishes in the fish, fowl or game categories. There are approximately 15 regional cook-offs across the state. Tidwell said there is a cook-off within a relatively short driving distance from anywhere in the state. Local winners then compete in the state cook-off finals. Competition is keen in the regional cook-offs, but it really gets intense at the state final cook-off. Judges are selected from local citizens.
"We don’t necessarily recruit professionals to judge the contests. We just want people who know when something is very tasty when they sample it," Tidwell stated.
Venison may be among the most popular dishes entered, but a few unique dishes find their way into the competition also. One of the regional winners from Barbour County this year will be competing in the state final with a raccoon hash spring roll dish.
"We have had rattlesnake, nutria, opossum and others, but venison, wild turkey and quail are among the most popular. All kinds of fish are also entered and prepared in a variety of ways," Tidwell explained.
One of this year’s regional winners who will be competing in the state cook-off on August 8, 2009, in Millbrook is Tim Wood, general manager of the Central Alabama Farmers Co-op in Selma, and some of his employees. Wood said his group will be entering a smoked specked trout dish covered with shrimp and topped off with a good Cajun seasoning.
"We’ve cooked every thing from venison to wood duck wrapped in bacon in previous cook-offs. This year Russell Gibbs, Jeff Cogle and my daughter, Blaire Wood, will be helping me with our trout entry. Alabama Farmers Cooperative enjoys their close relationship with the AWF. It is a wonderful organization and I encourage anyone who is not a member to join," Wood said.
Tim Gothard, executive director of the AWF and Maria Sloane, AWF membership coordinator encourages wildlife lovers to join the AWF. Maria said the AWF has a wildlife biologist, Claude Jenkins, who assists members with their wildlife program.
"We also partner with the Alabama Black Bear Alliance to promote conservation of the black bear in Alabama and promote women getting active in Alabama’s great outdoors. We have a lot of programs anyone interested in the outdoors will appreciate," Sloane said.
Over 8,000AWF members can’t be wrong. After all, where else can one taste a sample of succulent raccoon hash fresh from the treetops of Barbour County or enjoy delicious speckled trout from Mobile Bay? Members also receive an AWF front license plate, AWF decal and a quarterly magazine for a mere $25 annual membership fee. The magazine alone is worth much more than that. To join the Alabama Wildlife Federation, give them a call at 1-800-822-9453.
Ben Norman is a writer from Highland Home.