The Bambi Syndrome

Texas is overrun with native whitetails, so why do restaurants have to buy their venison from game farms?

The 13 colonies relied so heavily on native white-tailed deer as a meat source that by the time of the American Revolution, game laws were already being enacted to protect the dwindling population. By the end of the 19th century, the American white-tailed deer was nearly wiped out. The loss of so much of our wildlife resulted in tougher hunting regulations in the 1930s and gave rise to modern anti-hunting sentiments.

The 1942 animated Disney classic Bambi gave America's new nature-loving sensibility a cute voice. Duke University biological anthropologist Matt Cartmill called the movie "the most effective piece of anti-hunting propaganda ever made" ("The Bambi Syndrome," Natural History, June 1993). Thanks to the wave of anthropomorphism that Bambi set in motion, Cartmill complains, Americans have come to see wild animals as "cute little people in bunny suits" romping through the forest. One-third of the American public is of the opinion that sport hunting should be made illegal.

Venison disappeared from American fine dining until the late 1980s, but by the 1990s it had become a standard ingredient in haute American restaurants. It turned out that this new venison wasn't wild; it was a product of the rapidly expanding game farm industry. Game farms import non-native species such as Axis deer, Nilgai antelope and red deer from New Zealand, breeding the animals as livestock and selling the meat to restaurants. This process not only sidesteps game regulations, it provides Bambi-lovers venison without guilt -- but not without irony.

Chef Joe Mannke is doing the best job with venison in Houston.
Deron Neblett
Chef Joe Mannke is doing the best job with venison in Houston.


713-977-9524. Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Texas wild game dinner: $24.95
Axis venison medallions: $21.95

2200 Wilcrest

We now have some 250,000 non-native deer on Texas game farms, and the overpopulation of native white-tailed deer is getting out of hand. Texas Parks and Wildlife estimated the 2000 population at over four million deer (compared to 3.5 million ten years ago). The Edwards Plateau ecosystem is cratering as deer devour the oak forests and turn the Hill Country into a cedar thicket.

There are more than 25 million Bambis in America now, more than when Columbus arrived.

Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, Vallone's and the Rainbow Lodge all serve farm-raised venison tenderloins. You'd think they would all taste about the same, but they don't. The cooking technique makes all the difference.

At Rotisserie for Beef and Bird, the Axis venison medallions are lightly floured before they are pan-cooked to medium rare. This allows the surface of the meat to brown and develop a complex texture that absorbs the sauce. At Vallone's, the red deer venison chops are broiled so that the outside is dark while the inside remains rosy. The caramelized flavor is a fantastic complement to the mushroom demi-glace the venison is served with. Meanwhile, at the Rainbow Lodge chef Lance Youngs is roasting a two- or three-inch segment of venison tenderloin in one piece and then carving the roasted meat into three medallions. It sounds like it would work, but in fact, the result is a stack of disgustingly mushy meat slices. The Rainbow Lodge's herb-crusted elk medallions, which are cooked after they're sliced, are a much better bet.

Venison tenderloin (backstrap) tastes better when it's cut into relatively thin chops or medallions, a counterintuitive cooking technique for those of us who love rare beef. But venison has a softer and bloodier texture than beef. More of the surface of the venison needs to be browned to balance the flavor. This is even more true of native white-tailed venison, which tends to be leaner and have a stronger flavor due to the animal's varied diet.

Chef Youngs stopped by my table and confirmed that the red deer came from Broken Arrow Ranch, one of the pioneers of the farm-raised game business in Texas. But he also said he'd heard of a new trend. For the first time in recent history, you can get real wild game in an American restaurant.

White-tailed deer are now being legally harvested in some states. Farmers and ranchers pay the state for the deer on their property and then slaughter and butcher the deer under USDA supervision. The venison is then legal to sell.

I can't wait to try white-tailed venison in a Houston restaurant, and I promise to let you know when I find it. But I wonder how those creative geniuses, the menu writers, are going to deal with it. If farm-raised Asian deer is "wild game," then what's native white-tailed deer? "Really wild game"?

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