Until recently, the only game that came to the table was the kind carried on a hunter's back.
Things are different now.
With few exceptions, game sold in markets today is farmed, not hunted, to meet the increasing consumer demand for exotic foods.
Bob Alcorn of Alcorn Wholesale Meat Co. in Cypress, a wholesaler of commercially farmed game, thinks that consumers' rising interest in exotic foods has caused a rise in his business.
"Interest in these products has grown 100% in the last 10 years," he said. "Five years ago, you never heard of farm-raised venison. Today you can find it the year-round in fresh or frozen state."
Consumer interest in game could be traced to the inspiring dishes prepared by increasing numbers of professional European chefs coming to our shores.
"When I was in the non-specialty meat business, I used to run into European chefs who would ask if I could locate some game," Alcorn said. "I decided to branch out to specialty game meats exclusively when the demand became clear."
Health consciousness is yet another factor in the acceptance of game by the public.
"People are more aware of game, and today more high-quality game is available," said Brian Reff of Reff Brothers Food Co. Inc. in North Hollywood. "People are also becoming more health conscious. Venison has less fat than beef; game birds are also less fatty. People want to go out and eat what they can't cook at home."
Most game meats are less caloric and higher in protein than domestic meats, depending on the type of meat and cut. For each 100 grams of venison, for instance, there are 20.6 grams protein, 218 calories and 10.9 grams fat, compared with 16.9 grams protein, 313 calories and 26.9 grams fat for the equivalent amount of sirloin beef. Similarly, pound per pound, rabbit is higher in protein and twice as low in fat and calories than beef, but almost equivalent in protein, fat and calorie values as chicken.
Where does the game come from if not from the hunting bag?
Commercial farms breeding game are popping up throughout the country to supply a small percentage (less than 1%) of total meats to markets. However, much of the game sold in markets also comes from other countries.
There is wild boar from Australia, venison from New Zealand and the large red deer and the smaller fallow deer found in Bavaria and other places in Central Europe. There is rattlesnake from America's desert lands, snapping turtle from the British West Indies, quail from South Carolina, squab from Louisiana, pheasant from Pennsylvania and guinea fowl from Canada.
California is the only state to require inspection of farm-raised game poultry. Certain farm-raised game animals are exempt from federal inspection, according to veterinarian Leslie G. Billingsley, chief of meat and poultry inspection branch of the California Department of Agriculture. However, federal regulations govern most of the game marketed in California or brought in from other states or foreign countries. With few exceptions, only farmed game--not native wildlife species--can be marketed in California. Many states in the nation do not permit marketing of wildlife species. Of those states that do permit it, certification of origin is required before farmed game may enter the state, or else it faces confiscation. Farmed game should carry a federal or California inspection label when sold. Another assurance of legality and safety of farm-raised game sold in markets is the reputation of the breeder and seller, Billingsley said.
"Such laws have been established to preserve wildlife in America and also because a large illegal market in wildlife parts is threatening natural wildlife," said Larry Sitton of the Wild Life Management Division of the California Department of Fish and Game.
In California, where large illegal poaching rings dealing in wild lions, bears, deer and game birds were seized only recently, poaching is a serious offense.
Gavin Thompson, trade commissioner of the New Zealand Consulate, reports that New Zealand, which supplies the United States with 500 tons of venison along with other products such as orange roughy, John Dory, mussels, lobster and lamb, will be exporting wild boar as well.
"New Zealand venison is grass-fed and less gamy and you don't have to cook it as long," Thompson said. "We realize we have to educate chefs, particularly Europeans accustomed to tougher wild game." New Zealanders, in fact, are beginning what promises to be a major Angora and cashmere industry, which also will provide wild goats to the marketplace.
Although most of the game sold goes to the restaurant trade, supplies are available all year at most upscale and specialty food stores, at no small cost. But for those who can afford cooking with game, the cost may be well worth the adventure.