Venison
Photo: Zoonar GmbH/Alamy

Seldom remembered facts: our first Thanksgiving was celebrated in October and turkey was not the only meat course. Venison, or deer meat, a kind of tangy, gamey, musky alternative to beef, also graced the feast—even if it wasn’t as notable to European guests already familiar with its charms.  

Autumn remains a natural time to indulge in this storied, if underappreciated, cut of meat. In many parts of the United States, deer-hunting season occurs in the fall (when the animals have matured as well as fattened). However, unless you hunt it yourself or have friends that do, you are unlikely to encounter deer as game meat. Venison bought from a butcher or ordered at a restaurant has been farmed, or ranched, in large fenced in areas and then safely prepared and packaged under USDA regulations. 

But certain compensations come with ditching the back-to-our-roots esthetic. This sort of free-range production contributes to a tastier (at least to many modern palates) cut. Farmers use selective breeding to strengthen the herds. The deer still enjoy a steady diet of the things like alfalfa, acorns and wild herbs that contribute to their interesting flavor, but their feed can also be supplemented with protein. The farmed animals aren’t as lean as their wild cousins, owing to a steady diet. Furthermore, while recipes for hunted deer often call for marinating to soften more muscular cuts, when you’re buying farm-raised deer you can select meat that’s already tender.

Farm-raising also makes venison available all year, especially as much of it is imported from New Zealand. Plus, buying this way allows you to choose the most tender cuts. Backstrap is similar to rib-eye steak, while tenderloin is like a filet. We enjoy it simply grilled (medium rare please; well-done venison is notoriously tough) with some black pepper and plenty of salt. While it won’t likely push aside your Thanksgiving turkey, adding it to your autumnal menu will serve as a palatable American history lesson.