For those unaccustomed to pursuing or eating wild game, attending Big Al’s Wild Game Dinner for the first time can be a bit overwhelming.
Throngs of men, women and children, many dressed in camouflage and hunter orange, descend on a hand-built, log home nestled in a remote valley north of Spokane to feast upon unmarked dishes of game taken from the woods, waters and skies of North America and beyond.
Newbies eye offerings spread across 10-foot tables suspiciously, occasionally prodding at the contents, hoping to identify a familiar feature – a chicken wing, perhaps.
“What do you think this is?” a smartly dressed woman says to her companion, hovering over another mystery dish nearby.
“I have no idea,” he answers, allowing a quick glance. “Mine looks like it still has claws. Might be bear. That’s OK to eat, right?”
A lumbering man of 6 feet, 4 inches, wearing a vintage coonskin trapper’s cap and orange flannel, appeared from behind to lean in and offer his opinion.
“Doubtful,” says Big Al, host and founder of the annual event. “Those claws are way too small. Probably badger. Enjoy!”
What started as a simple get-together in 1989, a means to clear freezers and share the year’s bounty among a handful of friends, has since morphed into a major logistical undertaking that feeds more than 100, with plans beginning as early as January.
Big Al is actually Alan Liere, the Outdoors section’s Fish and Hunt columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He’s also my father, which made obtaining exclusive interview rights a breeze.
“This actually began at Loon Lake, where I was living between marriages,” he said. “It was an impromptu idea between me and a few close hunting and fishing buddies. Back then, spring fishing opened on Sunday; we were looking for something to do on Saturday, so we decided to have a wild game potluck of sorts and, well, here we are, 29 years later.”
Most attendees are seasoned veterans of the event, which has grown exponentially since its initial launch and is typically held near the first week in May. Folks from as far as Alaska, North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, have made the trek to Spokane, some arriving as early as five days before the event to help out, or conveniently squeeze in a spring turkey hunt with hopes of feasting on the spoils.
“It’s kinda like Thanksgiving – a lot of planning and preparation – and then it’s over pretty quickly,” Big Al said. “But it’s less formal, with a lot more food and people, and we shoot sporting clays over the hill with anyone who wants to after. The kids, especially, love it. Nothing better, I suppose, except maybe seconds on desserts. And a nap. In that order.”
True, the probability of lapsing into a culinary coma by the end is not unfathomable. Guests have access to a variety of host-provided staples – fresh rhubarb crisp, Lake Roosevelt Dilly trout and deep-fried turkey, bacon-wrapped duck and goose shish kabobs – as well as a slew of surefire guest dishes. Standouts include marinated elk nuggets and moose meatballs, spatchcocked duck with a caramelized pepper jelly glaze, sautéed wine-soaked morels, grilled oysters, spicy mustard pheasant bites and tangy, pulled-venison sliders.
In the early years, more than a few perhaps more interesting dishes made the rounds, too. Muskrat stew and pickled Spokane River sucker made appearances, but “unless it’s really good, we usually don’t see them again,” Dad admits.
“Smoked rattlesnake was a big favorite, and frog legs are standard fare now – always the first to go, but I don’t think we’ll ever see beaver again,” he said, visibly shuddering. “I’d always heard trappers loved it, but they must have been starving. Or drunk. Probably both. Even my dogs wouldn’t touch it.”
Sides and desserts usually own two tables of their own, options for those wishing to supplement overburdened plates of game, or to accommodate the odd vegetarian that might happen to stop by hungry.
This year, Big Al’s plate buckled under the weight of its load as he turned away from the dessert table, scanning the yard for a decent spot to sprawl out among his invited guests. Huckleberry ice cream pie, pumpkin cookies, German chocolate fudge and blackberry shortcake were difficult to pass up. Big Al’s sweet tooth was large as his name, and after that second round of desserts, a nap in the sun sounded pretty good.
Spicy Pheasant Bites
This recipe was derived from an impromptu meal assembled in a duck blind in the Louisiana marshland. The yellow mustard was originally used to help remove some of the more intense flavors of particular wild ducks, but also serves nicely as a marinade and tenderizer. I have found it to be excellent on a wide variety of meats, including moose, wild turkey, and if desired, for some reason, chicken.
2 whole pheasants, breast and legs, cubed in 1-inch pieces
1 to 2 tablespoons spicy brown mustard
Splash Tabasco or favorite hot sauce
1 squirt Sriracha (optional)
Johnny’s or Tony Chachere’s Creole seasoning, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Oil (peanut, corn, soybean preferred)
Place boneless pheasant chunks into bowl or zip-top bag with enough yellow mustard to cover completely. Add a tablespoon or two of spicy brown mustard for added flavor, if desired. Splash Tabasco or other hot sauce in with the mustard and let marinate for 2 hours minimum, but preferably overnight. Add a squirt of Sriracha to the mixture for a kick. Refrigerate if marinating overnight.
Bring to room temperature when ready to cook. Shake some of the excess mustard from the meat and roll or shake in flour generously pre-seasoned with Johnny’s or Tony Chachere’s. The flour should smell spicy when inhaled, not floury. Add black pepper to taste.
Cook in a deep pan of 350 degree oil. Remove when nuggets turn golden brown and float. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Serve and eat immediately for best results.
Yield: enough for 2 to 4 adults