Crackshot cooking: Deer camp cooks' time to shine

Associated Press • Nov 16, 2015 at 1:00 PM

TRAVERSE CITY — A sign in the Dunckley deer camp kitchen reads, “Gino’s Café.” It’s both a tribute to the camp cook and a warning to those who might encroach on his territory.

“He’s the boss of that place,” said Steve Dunckley, who runs the deer camp on family property near Frederick. “No one dares mess with his kitchen. They all respect it. He’s like a God over there.”

Thousands of hunters headed for the woods Sunday for opening day of firearms deer season. But for many, the tradition is as much about the food and the camaraderie around the cabin table as it is about bagging a buck.

Friends lucky enough to be invited to the Dunckley camp on the Au Sable River could feast on dishes like corned beef and cabbage, charcoal-grilled steak with baked potatoes, salad and vegetables, and breaded pork chops with potatoes, applesauce and corn. They’re all specialties of camp cook Eugene Morin.

“He’s a marvelous friend. He doesn’t hunt, so he goes and cooks,” said Dunckley, of Interlochen, a hospital operating room nurse who hand-picks the 15 or so friends who make the trip each year. "His fried chicken is the best meal we've ever had."

The hunters each kick in $100 to help cover the cost of meals. Dunckley prepares breakfast — from French toast and hash browns to bacon and eggs — morin lunch (grilled ham and cheese, clam chowder) and dinner.

“Most hunters might go out to a restaurant to eat, because nobody has a camp cook,” said Dunckley, who helps plan the menu and shop for ingredients with Morin and another friend. “It’s always exciting for all the guys at our camp. It’s great when you (come in from the woods) and you’re cold and wet and starving and there’s this incredible hot meal waiting.”

Deer camp is the one time of year Marvin Radtke Jr. gets to man the kitchen, which makes deer season twice as much fun.

“It’s the only time I’m allowed to cook,” said Radtke, one of two hunters who cook at the camp south of Buckley that he owns with four others. “The rest of the family at the house doesn’t like what I cook. And at deer camp I don’t have to be quite as clean or cautious.”

The five men, plus assorted sons and fathers, will go through 150 pounds of red-skinned potatoes, 25 pounds of bacon, 12 dozen eggs and 10 loaves of bread in just one week. Favorite meals include pork chops, ham and scalloped potatoes, goulash and chili, all turned out in Radtke’s cast iron pans.

Backstrap venison tenderloin — cooked in butter and bacon grease with garlic, spices and onions — is a must-eat.

“We’ll have it for every meal if we have enough,” said Radtke, of Grawn, whose preferred venison seasonings include sea salt, pepper and cinnamon.

The Paradise Township Supervisor learned to cook through “trials and tribulations” and now is passing on the camp recipes he carries in his head to his oldest son Zachary, 21.

“And of course you’ve got to taste test what you cook,” Radtke said. “By the time (fellow cook Roy Volkening) and I are done cooking, I don’t need to eat.”

Deer camp at Garret Leiva’s family property near Hale is steeped in tradition, though its base will move this year from the waterless "Red Shed" with its concessions stove and outdoor grills to a 35-foot RV with all the amenities. There’s a wild-game dinner night, a (deer) liver-and-onions night and an opening night stew.

“We rarely eat anything resembling a vegetable, but I have to say we do usually have a salad with dinner,” said Leiva, of Traverse City, a computer designer who hunts with his brother-in-law, his cousin and a mutual friend.

Wild game is provided by cousin Mark Parkinson, who also hunts out West. It can include buffalo, moose, elk and mule deer, the star of a deer heart-and-liver dish.

“We throw in yellow onions, mushrooms and petite white potatoes. It’s not part of my usual diet, but deer camp is only once a year,” Leiva said.

Lunch and breakfast are simple affairs, one featuring sandwiches, chips and leftovers, the other sugar cereals, donuts, coffee cake and other foods “a 13-year-old boy would like.”

“The person making the list has very specific tastes,” said Leiva, who shares shopping and cooking duties. “I’ve been instructed that I must get Frosted Flakes — and not the off brand, but Kellogg’s. It would not be the list my wife would give me. It’s heavy on things that are ungood for you and very light on things we tell our children they have to eat.”

– By Marta Hepler Drahos, Traverse City Record Eagle

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