One night when I was a child, my mother blurted out a dark secret during a party that threatened to fracture the foundation of our family.
My father, a longtime whitetail deer hunter, had been going on and on about how great her venison recipes were. Burgers, goulash, roasts, it didn’t matter. She made magic with his fresh kills, or so we thought. Maybe she just wanted him to stop talking.
“That wasn’t deer meat. It was ground meat. I fed the deer meat to the dog. All of it,” she said, more or less.
When I asked her why this morning, she was fairly blunt.
“I didn’t want to eat it,” she said.
My dad has cooked his own venison, the proper term for deer meat, since then, and now everyone in America can have some, too, thanks to, uh, Arby’s. The meat-loving fast-food chain released a limited batch of venison sandwiches in a handful of “hunting-centric” states last year. America ate them up — in minutes at some locations. So Arby’s is doing it again on Saturday at all of its 3,300 restaurants, and, based on a news release, customers yearning for a taste of the wild might want to pitch a tent and stake a claim in line.
“The positive response to our limited offering of venison last year was so widespread and passionate that we knew we had to find a way to offer it nationwide,” said Jim Taylor, chief marketing officer of Arby’s Restaurant Group Inc.
Last year, Arby’s offered its venison sandwich at a few locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Georgia. Pennsylvania has 136 locations, and 914, 244 registered hunters, so it makes sense.
Here’s what you get, according to the Arby’s, for $7: thick-cut venison steak, crispy onions topped with a juniper berry sauce on a toasted specialty roll. The venison is marinated in garlic, salt, and pepper, and then slow-cooked under vacuum seal for three hours. The juniper berry sauce is a cabernet steak sauce infused with juniper berries.
Asked how he prepares venison, Andrew Wood, owner and chef of Russet on Spruce Street, mentioned juniper berries, too, so maybe the chain is on to something. Wood, 42, hasn’t been to Arby’s in decades, and he’s not rearranging his schedule to get there on Saturday, either. A hunter from the Finger Lakes is his supplier.
“I personally like wild venison quite a bit,” Wood said. “It’s a little bit gamier. It’s usually very lean. They are all muscle. It tastes kind of foresty, like a mushroom or a spice, mostly what their diet consists of.”
Pennsylvania is second only to Texas for the number of deer farms. The animals are raised for trophy hunting, venison, and even their urine, but Arby’s gets its venison from farm-raised, grass-fed deer in New Zealand. An Arby’s spokeswoman couldn’t immediately tell me what type of deer the venison came from.
To up their “We have the meats” ante, Arby’s is also offering an elk sandwich on Saturday at just three locations: in Wyoming, Colorado, and Montana.
“Absolutely not,” my mom said about all of it.