The Tao of Deer Disassembly

Al Cambronne thinks of a certain Taoist proverb every time he butchers a deer—especially when he removes a hindquarter by severing that final tendon at the deer’s ball-and-socket joint.

If you’re gearing up to begin butchering your own deer, you won’t need to buy lots of special tools and gadgets—at least not for the actual butchering part. Instead, save your money for accessories such as a meat grinder, vacuum packer and sausage stuffer.

For skinning and butchering, you’ll need a gambrel to hang your deer from its hind legs, a rope to hang the gambrel from the rafters in your garage, and a sharp knife. That’s about it. Strictly speaking, you’ll probably want more than one knife—but the one tool you won’t need is a bone saw.

These days, most hunters butcher their deer with a more modern technique that doesn’t require any sawing. (For that matter, so do most butcher shops.) This means you won’t end up with roasts, chops and steaks like the ones you’re used to seeing at the grocery store; your cuts of venison won’t include any fat, gristle or bone. Instead of T-bones, for example, you’ll be eating lean, luscious, boneless backstrap.

Better yet, you won’t need to saw through bones and you won’t be spraying “sawdust” and bone chips all over your venison. Rather than cutting through bones, you’ll cut through the spaces between the bones. You’ll still need to cut through tendons and connective tissues, but with a sharp knife, however, you’ll be able to slice right through them. If the edge of your knife hits bone, then you’ll need to explore a little and try for a different angle.

It's All In The Wrist
Back in about the third century B.C., Chuang Tzu described the mindset of a skilled butcher. Taken just slightly out of context, his words describe perfectly the essence of deer disassembly:

“ ... Trusting in the Tao, I send my knife slicing through cavernous crevices; it touches neither joint nor bone. A good cook needs a new knife once a year; he chops. A poor cook needs a new knife once a month; he hacks. I’ve used this same knife 19 years. It has butchered a thousand oxen, and it’s still like new.

“ ... There are spaces in the joints; a sharp, thin blade can slide right through. When I get to a more difficult joint, I pause to consider it. Then I move my knife slowly and carefully, and bam! The part falls away, landing like a clod of earth.”

And that, grasshopper, is the Tao of deer disassembly.

Al Cambronne is co-author of “Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.: The Deer Hunter’s Guide to Processing and Preparing Venison.” His most recent book is “Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.” On Twitter: @AlCambronne.