The steam that rises from a deer’s entrails on a cold December morning is equal parts comforting and barbaric. On one (literal) hand, you might have a warm liver warming your cold fingers. On the other metaphorical one, you’ve emptied an animal’s rib cage of everything that kept it alive, the organs spilled onto the dirt like an overturned laundry basket. At 16 years old, I hated the hunt because it was freezing and I couldn’t talk for fear of scaring the deer away. But once we made the kill and did the field dressing and dragged it home, it was worth it, even if I didn’t realize it yet.
I haven’t been hunting in over a decade, which is probably best for all involved: the deer, me, and my dad, who had to drag me out into the woods surrounding Douglas Lake in east Tennessee for six years in a row. It took twelve different trips for me to finally kill my own deer, and by that point, my dad and I agreed that it was a miracle that it had happened at all. But even after retiring my hunting boots and leaving Tennessee, I can’t imagine a Christmas without a deer ham. Your Christmas ham is salty and tastes like a grocery store. Mine has more of a gamey, umami flavor. Deeper than the flavor itself, there’s also a sense of accomplishment, because I know how it came to feed our family.