For ordinary dining, there is the supermarket, with its plastic-wrapped arrays of limbs, cuts, and carcasses, from the four-legged and the two-winged, anything you could want. Before their owners gave their lives, they had been bred to be well marbled, big-breasted, or whatever quality their consumers prize, as had their ancestors for hundreds of generations. As a result, tameness ensues. Extremism in defense of consistency is not so nice. So for dining on special occasions, there is the game farm.
Game farms embrace a paradox. The creatures they market are not stalked in the woods, à la Leatherstocking; they too are raised, on-site. But their lineage is ye olde. If you put one on a plate in front of John Adams he would recognize it. The flesh tends to be leaner, darker, tangier: gamier. Eating it, you feel like a pioneer, even though you can buy it with your Amex.
Once a week the game farm sets up a stall in my neighborhood green market in the city. Apart from it the green market is a vegetarian’s paradise. Everything has roots, nothing has faces. (There is an urban honey-seller but he is not selling bees, only what they produce, and that comes from flowers.) In the midst of this peaceable kingdom sits the stall of the game farm — a long table supporting a row of coolers, each devoted to a particular body or body part. If a cooler runs low, salesmen clamber into the open end of their backed-up truck to rummage around for more.
In high-volume holiday season it is wisest to call the farm itself, to place an order. The experience can be disconcertingly immediate. One year my wife was connected to the family matriarch, who was in the slaughterhouse at the time. My wife said what she wanted — a wild turkey of such and such weight. “Oh,” said the matriarch, angel of death striding among her helpless votaries, “here is a nice one!” Urban cooking, even with the help of a game farm, typically puts carnivorousness at more of a remove.
This year, however, there was a foul-up. The telephoned order ahead, for another wild turkey, had been misplaced, and when we went to the stand in the green market there was no bird for us. Dinner was not for us alone, a friend would be coming. What to do? Dinner was going to be cooked and consumed upstate, a further complication. (Plan A had been to shlep the bird in a duffel bag along with us on our 90-mile bus trip.) The helpful salesmen arranged a solution: Once we arrived upstate, we should drive to the game farm, where the last bird would be awaiting us at their farm stand.
The drive would be about an hour each way — no problem in the country, where it is three miles to a gas station or a bottle of aspirin. It would, however, be a drive to a different world.
For the game farm is on the east side of the great river — the upper upper east side. As the city grew its suburbs flowed north; then wealth, hopping over a county, settled north of them. With the envy and reverse snobbery of the not-wealthy everywhere, we of the west side of the river disdain the other bank: horse country, Palm Beach without hurricanes. The one time I had gone there seemed characteristic. The woman who had laid out our garden — a shy, red-haired Wiccan priestess, very west-side — had gotten a permanent gig working on the garden of the east-side farm of a city real-estate scion. The scion was an aesthete — a lover of pumpkins and squashes, who grew the comeliest varieties and posed them, like odalisques, for a coffee-table book. The book was lovely. The farm, less so. Though the farmhouse was 18th-century it shone as if built yesterday; our Wiccan wore a uniform, a monogrammed shirt; besides, I knew how the real-estate fortune had been made. I fled.
In this land of luxe sits the game farm and its farm stand. How they endure there is a mystery. Clearly they are grandfathered in. The owners are Italians, who stick wherever they settle. The stand is a low building, divided into two parts. There are tables outside, where two young men in camo were eating sandwiches they had just bought, despite the winter weather.
One part of the stand is the store: an old-fashioned grocery store, selling cereal and milk and so on, with an Italian emphasis. In the back of it is the meat counter. Vegans would be unhappy (also Jews and Muslims — lots of pork products). Here was a line of customers, waiting like us to pick up their birds; this time we were on the list.
Animal-rights activists would be unhappy. Not only was the store doing a brisk business in the departed, its walls were decorated with hunting trophies. There were several heads of stags and one entire wild turkey, which all might have been hunted locally. But there was also a cougar, an animal that has not lived in this state for a century; in honor of the season, this one had a candy cane in its mouth.
The other part of the stand is the gun shop. Shotguns, rifles, pistols. Hunting gear, camo, waterproof: Milan for the woods. Feminists would be unhappy: There were two posters of naked young women, one as if just branded on her haunch. There were more trophies displayed, one African (gnu?), one a moose with a hallucinatory spread of antlers.
At the checkout counter we were greeted with a “Merry Christmas!” Not pundit contentious, just Bing Crosby hearty.
So many taboos were violated: geographic, dietary, sexual, secular. If you want edgy, forget stand-up; you have to go to the game farm.
We had our bird. In 32 hours, and after much work, it was dinner.