In a woodsy dining room rich with the aroma of roasting meat, servers in festive dirndl dresses offered the hungry hunters and fans of hunting an abundance of appetizers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s bear on the menu,” said Cody McLaughlin, a public relations guy from Mercer County who invited me to the third annual Wild Game Dinner of the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance. “After all,” McLaughlin added, “you’re standing in the middle of bear country.”
I was grateful to be safely inside the Black Forest Inn, a picturesque German-Continental restaurant in Stanhope, Sussex County, where there indeed are plenty of bears — and “Ztegediner Bear Goulash With Black Forest Sauerkraut” was on the special dinner menu.
More than 160 hunters, trappers, and anglers from around the state attended the Sunday afternoon repast. It was a chance for a community of like-minded folks to raise a glass and swap stories amid surroundings that called to mind a European hunting lodge.
The better to enjoy an array of rustic fare elegantly prepared by chef Heiner Aichem, who’s a hunter, too.
“It’s a pleasure to see so many outdoorsmen and women here to celebrate our heritage,” said Pete Grimbalis, the chairman of the alliance. The nonprofit, which also has a political action committee, serves about 250,000 constituents statewide, McLaughlin said.
Politics were very much on Sunday’s menu: The alliance presented New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney with a Conservation Leadership award. The West Deptford Democrat gave a shout-out to Sen. Steven Oroho, a Sussex County Republican who received the honor two years ago, and also is an alliance supporter.
“I have the greatest respect in the world for what you stand for,” Sweeney told the crowd. “You stand for conservation. You care about our environment. You’re about America.”
His words were well-received — no surprise, given the common feeling among hunters of being misunderstood, if not, beleaguered, by those who would further regulate, restrict or even ban their outdoor activities.
Gov. Murphy’s plan to kill bear hunting in the state in favor of combating the ursine population explosion by encouraging the use of better garbage cans? Please.
“People that are not educated have misconceptions. They view hunters as bloodthirsty,” said Ray Szpond Jr., president of the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs.
Like most of the people I spoke to at the dinner, Szpond, of Scotch Plains, Union County, grew up hunting in the days before so much of suburban and rural New Jersey was covered by sprawl.
These hunters see their sport not as an uncivilized pastime, but as an enlightened pursuit, embodying respect for the environment, sustainable wildlife management practices, and locally harvested food.
Hunting, trapping and fishing are a form of family-friendly recreation that gets kids away from their phones and into the great outdoors, Maryann Webber said.
“I grew up in Jersey City, and I appreciated wildlife, and I support anything having to do with wildlife,” said the West Milford, Passaic County. resident. “Any time I shot a deer, I would take him down with one shot, right above the heart, because I didn’t want to waste any of the meat.
“If you’re going to take down a deer, you need to know how to shoot, you need to know how to gut it, you need to know how to utilize every aspect of that deer, which I did. I always respected them.”
Despite passing on the boar, pheasant and buffalo tongue on the buffet at Sunday’s feast, I went for a venison slider appetizer and a sample plate of bear, pickerel and more venison.
Yes, I’m a committed carnivore. And while I’ve held a firearm exactly once in my life — at some Boy Scout shindig in Vermont where doing so presumably was legal in 1965, but might trigger a Homeland Security investigation today — hunting by trained, licensed, law-abiding adults is just fine with me.
I recognize that New Jersey’s deer, raccoon and bear populations pose a risk to the environment. Including the human one, and I understand that more animals are slaughtered by industrial farming operations than all the hunters in the world could ever bring down.
“Friends of mine would say, ‘Wow, could you shoot a deer? It has such beautiful eyes.’ Well, a cow has beautiful eyes too,” said Webber, adding that beef doesn’t materialize by magic in supermarkets.
Can’t argue with her there.
But I honestly can’t comprehend how someone can profess to deeply respect an animal, and yet kill it.
“I’d say 99 percent of hunters are killing the animal in order to consume it, not to have a thrill killing an animal,” said Tom Connors, the alliance’s legislative liaison. “They’re thankful that the animal has given its life for [human] sustenance.
“I would look at it from a biblical perspective,” said Connors, who lives in Washington Township, Gloucester County.”Animals were placed on the Earth for our use.
“You don’t want the animal to suffer, like they do at factory farms where they live in cages and are force fed and pumped full of antibiotics.”
Now there’s some food for thought.