Venison on the menu when Hunt.Fish.Feed. visits New London

Scott Leysath, chef on  the television show 'The Sporting Chef', wipes his forehead as he prepares 60-pounds of processed venison for venison Sloppy Joes, in the kitchen of the New London Community Meal Center in New London on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Leysath is working with Comcast in the Hunt.Fish.Feed., created by the Sportsman Channel, which is an outreach program taking advantage of an underutilized food source–game meat and fish donated by sportsmen in an attempt to feed those struggling with hunger.
Sportsman Channel launches annual tours to assist cities with an ever increasing homeless and poverty-stricken populations. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Scott Leysath, chef on the television show "The Sporting Chef", wipes his forehead as he prepares 60-pounds of processed venison for venison Sloppy Joes, in the kitchen of the New London Community Meal Center in New London on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Leysath is working with Comcast in the Hunt.Fish.Feed., created by the Sportsman Channel, which is an outreach program taking advantage of an underutilized food source–game meat and fish donated by sportsmen in an attempt to feed those struggling with hunger. Sportsman Channel launches annual tours to assist cities with an ever increasing homeless and poverty-stricken populations. (Tim Martin/The Day)

New London — The reactions among diners at the city’s soup kitchen when they found out venison was on the dinner menu ranged from, “bring it on,” to “I’m not eating Bambi!”

More than 100 people, some struggling with homelessness and others just down on their luck, lined up at the New London Community Meal Center on Thursday for a special dinner of venison sloppy Joes served up by a group of volunteers whose mission is to bring awareness to the nationwide fight against hunger.

The volunteers pitched in their efforts as part of the Hunt.Fish.Feed. outreach campaign, annual tours that started 10 years ago by the Sportsman Channel to visit areas of high poverty and homelessness to showcase game meat and fish as an underutilized food source. Comcast, the local sponsor for the campaign’s first visit to Connecticut, provided much of the kitchen help.

Hunt.Fish.Feed. Executive Chef Scott Leysath, host of the Sporting Chef and Dead Meat, said he’s been traveling across the country in part to showcase the generosity of hunters and the outdoor community as they donate locally sourced meat and fish for a worthy cause.

Leysath has been involved with the campaign since the start and said the program also helps people understand the hunting community a little bit better and educates the public about how natural resources can combat the problem.

Deer meat, one of the more frequent meals the group prepares, is expensive to purchase but often locally available from hunters. It also is better in many ways than beef — leaner and lower in saturated fat and higher in protein and vitamins and minerals. Leysath knows something about preparing it, being the author of The Sporting Chef's Better Venison Cookbook.

“People worry about whether their game meat is safe to eat. Really, it’s the chicken they should be worried about…the way it is raised,” he said. “There’s also a stigma that it will be gamey when it’s really not.”

Leysath offered tastes of the meat to anyone who was initially hesitant to try it.

There were few complaints in the dining room at Thursday’s meal, and for those who did not care to try the deer meat there was Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, a donation of leftovers from Brigaid’s Wednesday night community meal at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School.

“I’m down with the deer. I wouldn’t have known if they didn’t tell me,” said one man who declined to give his name.

During some of the more than 15 stops across the country this year the Hunt.Fish.Feed. campaign has prepared meals that have included wild turkey, elk and wild boar. In a recent stop outside of Seattle the group cooked up 150 pounds of Chinook salmon donated by the Nisqually Indian Tribe.

The venison served on Thursday did not come from local hunters, since it is just the start of hunting season locally. The deer instead was farm raised, Leysath said.

Comcast has remained the primary partner in program, setting up locations to visit and providing the manpower to prep and serve the meals.

New London Community Meals Center Kitchen Manager Peta Madry said she’s prepared venison on occasion, whenever it is donated.

The meal center serves in the neighborhood of 72,000 meals in a year, anywhere between 150 and 300 meals between the weekday lunch and dinner services. The vast majority of the food served comes from the Gemma Moran United Way Food Center.

Madry said the meal center accepts food donations from all kinds of places. She recalled a time when the freezers at Grossman’s Seafood were on the fritz and they immediately contacted her to see if she would accept a donation of 100 pounds of scallops. She did.

She said Salem Valley Farms Ice Cream contacted her this year to let her know they were welcomed to the whatever is leftover when they close at the end of the month.

The Gemma Moran United Way Food Center, an organization that operates more than 80 programs in New London County, takes pride in offering a wide variety of fresh produce in addition to the proteins for the meals, said Jennifer Blanco, the group’s member services manager. About 60 percent of the food is donated, while financial donations cover the purchase of the rest of the food needed on a daily basis.

“We’re very lucky to have such a generous community,” Blanco said.

Madry said visitors to the meal center are not all homeless, but rather a mix of people who have either fallen on hard times or situations where they’re forced in some cases to choose between food and rent.

Over the eight years she’s run the kitchen, Madry said she’s seen an increase in younger people, some with substance abuse issues.

The background music for Thursday’s dinner was provided by violinist Joan Winters and violist Barbara Wiggin, part of a pilot outreach program of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra. Thanks to a grant from the New London Rotary, the orchestra is trying to bring music into more locations in the community, said the orchestra’s Executive Director Caleb Bailey.

g.smith@theday.com

Scott Leysath, chef on  the television show 'The Sporting Chef', prepares 60-pounds of processed venison for Venison Sloppy Joes, in the kitchen of the New London Community Meal Center in New London on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Scott Leysath, chef on the television show "The Sporting Chef", prepares 60-pounds of processed venison for Venison Sloppy Joes, in the kitchen of the New London Community Meal Center in New London on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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