Relish Austin: Learning about parisa, hunting and the morality of meat

A few weeks ago, I went to Castroville to try to close the loop.

To skip the euphemisms, I wanted to kill a deer — not for sport, but so I could have a direct hand in the harvesting of meat that I would eat.

After many years of increasing curiosity about hunting, I’d sweet-talked my way into a trip with Marvin Bendele, the director of Foodways Texas, and Jess Pryles, the meat maven behind her eponymous website and a fall event called the Carnivore’s Ball.

Even though I grew up in a rural area surrounded by hunting culture, I’d never shot a gun. My parents were peace-loving hippies who, after my dad was drafted and spent four years in the Air Force, chose to spend most of their outdoor time camping and canoeing.

Living in Texas for a decade, I’ve had plenty of chances to think about why I’ve been stuck on the outskirts of hunting culture. My family members own guns but not the land on which to hunt. We eat meat but have spent our professional lives working to earn money to buy it instead of spending that time acquiring it by our own means.

Since I started writing about food in 2008, I’ve enjoyed all kinds of forays into knowing more about where my food comes from. That has included building garden beds and chicken coops, fermenting kombucha and sourdough, putting up jams and salsa. I’m now in the phase of wanting to know more about the existing food infrastructure rather than attempting to disrupt a very well-oiled machine and do it all myself.

But all this time, as I’ve contemplated the meat system and my own choice to eat meat, I’ve been itching to hunt. There are plenty of commercial hunting excursions I could have taken, but I held out, hoping for more of a familial introduction to a ritual that for millennia has been, and continues to be, a knowledge and skill passed down from one generation to the next.

That’s how the Bendeles learned to hunt. They are among many Medina County natives who descend from settlers from Alsace, a region of eastern France, who founded Castroville just west of San Antonio in the 1850s and whose culture continues to influence this region of Texas.

I know Marvin Bendele Jr. through our food work in Austin. A few weeks ago, I drove down to his family’s ranch and met his brother, Brian, and Marvin Sr., who have been hunting on their family’s land for decades and had already bagged a number of deer this season.

As the hunting season was coming to a close, they offered to show two curious newbies how it’s done. But before the first shot of rifle practice, we had to make a requisite stop to Dziuk’s, the popular meat market and processing facility in Castroville. There, we found an Alsatian specialty I’d never heard of: parisa, a hyper-local specialty of finely chopped raw beef or venison mixed with shredded cheese and minced onions. Dziuk’s sells parisa both with and without jalapenos for less than $8 per pound. Parisa isn’t the kind of dish you eat with a spoon, so most folks buy a sleeve of saltine crackers for a buck at the counter.

I spread a little parisa on a cracker and immediately thought of the Midwestern cheese balls that grace every holiday party I ever went to. I spent about 20 minutes trying to figure out how parisa might be related to both steak tartare and my beloved cheese ball, but then the Bendeles started making a move toward the door. Sunset was a few hours away, so it was time to hit the deer stands.

That’s when I encountered the first real surprise of the trip: how much technology modern hunters use. Each Bendele has his preferred hunting app, which in addition to the weather, sunrise and sunset, can predict feeding times based on the moon cycles and rate how good the hunting will be at any given time, based on cloud cover, wind speeds and the like. It’s the kind of information that lifelong hunters can feel in their bones, but they’ve come around to the fact that it’s nice to have an app to validate those gut instincts.

Having a phone handy means they can also text each other from the blinds if they see something or hear a shot in the distance. There’s plenty of good-natured ribbing and jokes going back and forth, too.

But I was relieved that even with a certain amount of connectivity, we were all able to leave our work lives behind. I tweeted or posted on Instagram a few scenes that were too good not to share, but I didn’t spend near as much time as I thought I would wrapped up in what I had to do when I returned to Austin. Usually, my mind works a mile a minute finessing my to-do list or figuring out more efficient ways to get stuff done. But once I was in the deer stand, my eyes were on the woods.

We hunted in pairs four times over the course of the next 24 hours. It’s vital that you not scare off the deer with loud noises, but I was able to get to know each of my co-hunters through (very quietly whispered) conversations about the history of the land, family life and experiences hunting. I found out about the nieces and nephews and grandkids and first hunts and first forays into life outside Castroville and, ultimately, what draws them back year after year.

We talked about the technicalities of where to aim on the deer, how to clean it, how to store and cook the meat. We commented on the sights and sounds all around us, the topography of the land, the details that you couldn’t pick up from an app.

More than a few times, I fantasized about what it would be like to have my own deer stand in the woods. What would I do with a quiet space and a view like this? Sure, it would be nice to have the ability to go hunting every fall, but what was really appealing was the idea of having my own treehouse in the woods, where I could read or write or meditate while somewhat protected from the elements but also completely immersed in them.

Brian Bendele asked me on the first morning, “Can you do it?” I thought he was asking if I thought my shooting skills were good enough to actually hit the deer with a single shot. I told him I thought I could, but then he asked again, “No, can you do it?” — as in, will your conscience allow you to kill an animal?

I’d been thinking a lot about this question, not just in preparation for the hunt but ever since I started thinking critically about why I eat meat in the first place. Long ago, I decided that if I’m going to eat meat, I can’t shy away from the reality of what is involved to produce it. I’ve been a part of processing chickens and rabbits, but not anything bigger, and even though I was absolutely ready to pull that trigger on this hunt, I didn’t get a chance.

By the end of the second day, we’d only seen deer far off in the distance, and I had to get back to Austin. Sure enough, the next morning, Jess bagged a doe, which she cleaned and broke down herself. I regretted missing out on that experience with her, but I did get a few deer steaks she was kind enough to share.

I left Castroville with a much better understanding of hunting culture, but I’m still eager to know that I have what it takes to harvest my own meat. Until then, I want to continue to be honest with myself about what meat is, where it comes from, and what it means when I eat it.

For me, it boils down to this: Meat is muscle, and eating it requires the loss of a life. For many eaters, vegans and omnivores alike, this isn’t a pleasant thought. But I choose to focus on it to honor the animals and the age-old tradition of hunting and harvesting them.

I respect that not everyone wants to have such an intimate relationship with the food that sustains them, but for my own moral consciousness, I can’t be both a meat eater and willfully ignorant about what that requires. And if harvesting my own meat requires another quiet, contemplative weekend in a deer blind with other hunters who are as thoughtful about their own food supply chain, I’m even happier to do it.

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