For 364 days of the year, the little Vermont town of Bradford chugs sleepily along in its anonymity, just one of many diminutive, totally unpretentious New England villages along the lazy flowing Connecticut River. Other than some deer hunting and skiing, not too much really happens here.
Then, every November on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, along about mid-afternoon, the cars, pickup trucks, vans and tour busses start to show up in droves. Parking soon becomes difficult for blocks along Route 5, which passes right in front of the stately but modest United Church of Christ. Starting at about 1:30 in the afternoon and on into mid-evening, there is a line of people going into the church.
It’s the weekend of the Bradford Wild Game Supper. Traditionally a thousand or more people from all over the country and several foreign countries appear at the church to wait patiently in the pews until their number is called for their seating in the basement.
This was my sixth year at the Wild Game Dinner, or “the beast feast” as my buddies and I have come to call it. The Game Supper has become a ritual with us just as it has with hundreds of others.
Our reservation numbers, which we were assigned back in early October, are finally called and we file down in groups of 20 to the church basement. The florescent lighting here instantly bleaches all ambiance from the place.
We cue up in a chow line and at each station a dollop of “game” is plopped unceremoniously on our plates. The meal consists of “game chili,” bear sausage, roasted moose meat, buffalo jerky, venison medallions, wild boar sausage, rabbit pie, “our own venison sausage,” and last and very definitely least, beaver! Each little blob of meat is skewered with a different colored toothpick and you’re given a color chart so you can tell what animal you’re eating.
Over the past 40 years or so, this event has been covered in the New York Times, Boston Phoenix, Diversion, House & Garden, the Washington Post, Yankee Magazine, Sports Illustrated, the AP and UPI and many other magazines and papers – not to mention a score of TV shows.
We sit down, elbow to elbow with local loggers, beauty parlor ladies, dairy farmers, politicians, judges and shade tree auto mechanics. I start with the game chili, which is as good as almost any I’ve had. The buffalo jerky, which looks like a wallet that’s been run over by a tour bus, is not bad – not too salty and a lot more tender than it looks. The bear sausage is surprisingly mild and tender. The shredded moose is watery and tasteless. The grilled venison medallions are tender and not too gamey. The wild boar sausage is a delicious, smoky blend of flavors. The pheasant with rice is moist and very tasty. The venison sausage is so good they could package it and sell it in supermarkets. The rabbit is done kind of like a pot pie with a nice flaky crust. My more intrepid friends who like really gamey meat tell me that the beaver is great again this year. (Unlike the off-color jokes that go with it.)
Church members in rumpled aprons hover around the tables filling our paper cups with sweet, refreshing apple cider and coffee. Dessert is a square of homemade gingerbread with a swirl of hand-whipped cream. The whole meal takes maybe 25 minutes but you’re still digesting it for a good three hours afterwards.
And that’s about it. Not exactly a “religious experience,” even though it takes place in a church. Along with your meal, which costs a “donation” of $20, you get a Xeroxed cookbook with the authentic Game Dinner recipes plus a history of this yearly ritual that attracts a thousand people or more from all walks of life with its simplicity, candor and total lack of pretension.