Dinner: Where the wild things are

February 28, 2012

Elk lasagna, antelope burgers laced with blue cheese and spinach, BBQ beaver: These were among the highlights at this year's annual Wild Game Dinner at the Harvard Sportsman's Club in pastoral McHenry County.

That last item was gone by the time I reached the hot buffet at the all-you-could-meat meal, but I did not leave hungry. In fact, I had barely arrived at the end of a long line that snaked out of the club house into the parking lot, when I was greeted with an outdoor amuse bouche station — at least that's what I called it.

A standard kitchen sized stockpot held wild turkey gumbo, while two huge pots served buffalo chili and venison heart stew. The stew was actually more of a soup, spring green with celery, with chewy bits of heart, which taste a lot like chicken gizzards.

On the door of the club house, the posted menu teased the offerings inside. All the fish and game was donated and cooked by club members. Most of it was local, some was not.

Other signs gave ample warning to anyone who just happened to wander by, join the long line, and enter the ultimate man cave. The club was founded in 1946 "to encourage its members to practice game and fish conservation." The club also hosts Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Hunter Safety instructor-led courses and certification of competency.

This year's wild game dinner was actually the 10th annual thrown by the club itself; previously the Kiwanis Club held a similar event on the premises. The Harvard Sportsman's Club will host its 66th annual Smelt Fry on April 20, 2012. Members told me it's said to be the single biggest one day smelt fry in the country. This year they'll serve 1,700 pounds of the little fish, which they deep fry in pancake batter. Unlike the game dinner, the smelt fry is also all you can drink, which at only $15, I suspect may account in part for its popularity.

The game dinner appetizer table was impressive enough itself, in both product and preparation, with spicy antelope meatballs, pickled bluegill, pickled northern pike, goose pâté, salmon spread, hot smoked salmon, hot smoked trout, and venison sausages (the latter two items not on the menu). The steam line was a serve-yourself affair and was constantly replenished when possible. The elk Stroganoff was replaced by elk lasagna, but beaver was not seen again.

The "venison Italian Beef" was venison only, with bread on the side to make and dip your own wild Chicago-style sandwiches.

I took a taste of everything available, including a couple of things I'd never tried before: Busch and Old Style beers. They were the perfect pairings.

Wild Game Dinner Menu 2012

Wild turkey gumbo

Wild turkey sliders

Hunter stew

Venison Italian Beef

Venison heart stew

Venison Salisbury steak in mushroom gravy

Spicy antelope meatballs

Mild antelope meatballs

Mule deer cube steak in tomato sauce

Mule deer cube steak in mushroom sauce

Goose pâté

Goose stir fry

Salmon spread

Smoked salmon

Elk Stroganoff

Elk lasagna

Grilled venison tenderloin wrapped in bacon

Grilled goose breast

Antelope, blue cheese, and spinach burgers

BBQ wild boar ribs and sauerkraut

Smoked pheasant legs in Asian sauce

Pheasant egg rolls

Pheasant in peach BBQ sauce

Pheasant fajitas

Pickled northern pike

Pickled bluegill

Fried bluegill

Buffalo chili

BBQ raccoon

BBQ beaver

(Smoked trout)

(Venison sausages)