SARANAC LAKE - Matt Burnett's family enjoyed their Thanksgiving turkey with a side of venison this year.
"It goes back to when I was a kid growing up," Burnett said. "We had venison way more than we had beef. It wasn't just extra in our diet; it was more of a supplement."
Burnett comes from a long line of hunters, so serving venison at Thanksgiving is as commonplace as serving stuffing and mashed potatoes.
Artist/guide Matt Burnett, of Saranac Lake, talks about how the friends and family members he depicted in this painting shaped his ethical view of hunting.
(Enterprise photo — Shaun Kittle)
"My dad is an amazing hunter, very successful and very ethical, but he pretty much cooks venison one way," Burnett said. "It's fried in butter and onions over the stove, as rare as anyone can take it because that's how it tastes the best. Simple is fine because venison has such a great flavor already."
Sometimes Burnett likes to stray from the simple approach and get creative. He experiments with various marinades and said those containing red wine, fresh basil or soy sauce are among his favorites.
He also recommends eating the deer's heart, which is considered a delicacy, especially if it's from a younger deer. That, too, was served during his family's Thanksgiving dinner Thursday.
"Venison is like steak, but it's leaner," Burnett said. "The organ meat is a different set of parameters. It cooks the same way as regular venison, but it has to be cooked through."
Serving venison is not something Burnett, who works as an artist and an outdoors guide, takes lightly.
One large painting hanging in his studio depicts a time when the food on the table had a direct connection to the land. He painted it based off a photo taken in 1985 that shows six men standing in front of a hunting cabin in Camp Bliss on Little Tupper Lake with a row of deer strung up behind them.
"I grew up going to that camp," Burnett said. "I would have been about 10 that weekend that photo was taken."
That property was owned then by the Whitney family, for whom Burnett's family worked as caretakers. Camp Bliss was acquired by the state in 1998, and the buildings were subsequently destroyed to make it part of the William C. Whitney Wilderness Area.
Although he was young at the time, Burnett still remembers what camp life was like. More importantly, though, he still remembers the lessons he learned there.
"A lot of people see a kind of gluttony when they look at this painting," Burnett said. "It's a different value. You can't look at their values with our lens. They're carrying on a tradition of providing for themselves."
Burnett pointed out that the second man from the right in the painting is his grandfather, Wilford, who grew up during the Great Depression. If Wilford's parents gave him a bullet, he was expected to return with a deer.
"We never lived like that," Burnett said. "Venison to my father was, 'Now I don't have to spend money.' For my grandfather it was, 'We're going to have meat more than once a week if I get a deer.'"
Wilford has since died, but the rest of the men are still active hunters. When Burnett showed them his painted version, he said the response was unanimous - it brought them right back.
Burnett said the photo probably represents a moment during a once-in-a-lifetime week of hunting.
"When you've done something for a while, you begin telling stories about that time that happened 15 years ago," Burnett said. "For this gang, this is the place where that story took place. It's a mixture of that place and their own particular story. They loved that land and really took good care of it."
Burnett said the reasons for hunting are often lost on non-hunters. He described it as a personal connection to the land, to the animals and to the people he shares the experience with.
"People just see the carcass first, and that's their introduction to hunting," Burnett said. "They're usually pretty removed when they buy a hamburger at the store. Anybody that hunts becomes aware of the responsibility of taking a life and making it worthwhile, of making it mean something. Everybody has to find their own meaning in that."
For Burnett, that meaning hit home recently and ended up on his Thanksgiving table. He was driving between Long Lake and Tupper Lake when he saw an injured doe struggling on the side of the road.
Burnett pulled over and reported the animal to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. After assessing the situation, officers issued Burnett a permit to keep the deer.
Burnett used a knife to kill the suffering animal.
"We have a lifestyle that means animals are going to die along the highway," Burnett said. "Most of us are a part of that without choosing to be a part of that."
Although it was an uncommon way for Burnett to obtain venison, his reasoning seems to strike the core of hunting ethics.
In talking to him, it became clear that hunting is a skill set that's shared with friends and handed down to younger generations. It's a closeness to the land that is reflected in swift-moving streams and still mountain ponds. It's the simple premise that you never take more than you need and you always use what you take.
He expressed all of those things, but perhaps more than anything else, he expressed the way hunting brings those things together.
"I've never taken down a deer with a knife," Burnett said. "That wasn't fun, but making that useful, I feel that I did something proactive. At least I made that one life become part of something else."
Contact Shaun Kittle at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or firstname.lastname@example.org.