by Elizabeth Winslow • Photography by Thomas Winslow
Grassfed or grainfed? Pastured? Cage-free? For Chris Houston, owner of Feral, the best choice for meat is a wild animal you’ve harvested and butchered yourself. For years, Houston was a confirmed vegetarian, but not too long ago, he made the switch to an omnivore diet—willing to eat meat he had hunted himself. “Sustainability and the humane treatment of animals was a big concern for me,” Houston says. “I realized I didn’t need to be a total vegetarian to make sure I was being a responsible eater.”
In his eyes, there’s no better way to ensure that what’s on the plate was raised humanely, without antibiotics and truly free range. Yet, in our modern world, few of us have fired a gun and taken an animal from hoof to stove. Houston, a gentle presence with a deeply patient and unassuming air, hopes to change all that by removing some of the mystery and intimidation many of us feel about the process.
Recently, Houston opened a wild-food workspace where customers can butcher their own game or meats and benefit from hands-on experience in animal processing. “Reading blogs and paying attention to popular culture, I could see that there was a growing interest in harvesting our own meat and getting closer to our food,” he says. “But I felt like that final step was missing. If people wanted to be responsible for hunting and harvesting their food, it didn’t make sense to drop it off at a commercial processor.”
Because the meat processed at Feral is brought in by customers, wild-harvested and for home use only, Houston avoids costly permitting and USDA regulation. An equipment orientation ensures that safe guidelines are followed, and all customers sign a liability waiver before getting started. Customers can use the kitchen and equipment by the hour—supported by Houston’s guidance and resources—or sign up for a full culinary hunting package, which includes guided practice in hunting animals, along with field dressing, skinning and quartering, and a session on butchering and processing.
On a wintry weekend afternoon, I brought in an axis buck that was taken in the Hill Country. Houston was accessible and easy to talk to, and passionately committed to changing people’s relationship to food—essentially, he’s 180 degrees from the leathered outdoorsman you might expect (or fear). The mood in the kitchen was easygoing and relaxed; we laid out our field-dressed deer on long, gleaming stainless tables set with cutting boards, sharp knives and kitchen towels, and Houston walked us through a brief anatomy lesson. With his guidance, the various muscles became apparent, and butchery as a concept began to come to light. To help with the next steps, Houston suggested thinking about what I’d like to cook through the seasons—like roasts and braising cuts for winter, and steaks and ground meat for warmer months. Once the cuts were decided, we set to work. Big trash bins, great knives and stainless surfaces made quick and neat work of a job that in a home setting could be a giant, messy disaster. In fact, when Houston started hunting, his wife—who is still a vegetarian—put her foot down. “Yeah, that worked for about one hunt,” Houston says with a rueful laugh. “My wife pretty much said, ‘Get it out of my kitchen!’”
Once we had the deer broken down into “primals” (larger sections of meat from which the smaller cuts are made), Houston demonstrated how to carefully trim away the silvery connective tissue that would make the meat tough. As we work, Houston leans in close. “You want to get as much of that as you can,” he says, pointing out a bit of the tissue missed. “Some of the connective tissue is found at the seams where muscles come together. When that’s the case, I find it’s best to follow it and cut the meat into portions or steaks right there. You’re letting the meat itself guide your choices.”
Since venison is a lean meat, and can easily be tough if prepared incorrectly, addressing this at the butchering stage was a great first step to tender, savory dishes later. Having a loose plan for desired meals was the starting point for making sure the animal was dressed to specifications. Houston is a good home cook, and while we worked, we chatted about recipes and his favorite cookbooks for meat and dished about local butcher shops and barbecue restaurants. “[Dai Due Chef] Jesse Griffiths is such an inspiration to me,” Houston says. “I attended one of his hunting schools and his Whole Hog butchering class and felt like I came away with a whole new perspective on food.” Griffiths recommended the cookbook, “The River Cottage Meat Book,” by English author Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, which has become a much-referenced butchery and meat cookery bible in the Feral kitchen, along with Griffiths’ own book “Afield.”
As we talked, I began to see the deep connection between this animal that had been wandering the Texas woods just hours ago, and my own family, who would gather around the table through the seasons enjoying meals we had first hunted and then cooked with our very own hands. Soon we had steaks, chops and ground meat in exactly the cuts and quantities we wanted—all in labeled, vacuum-sealed packages ready for the freezer. Houston also has recipes and equipment for making sausage, and can guide customers through that process—even offering information on where to buy casings and locally sourced pork fat. Not a bit of our animal was wasted (we even saved the bones for stock), and we would enjoy a winter’s worth of delicious dinners knowing we were eating the most local and sustainable food available.