The only meat that we know for certain was served at the so-called First Thanksgiving in 1622 was deer meat. It was accompanied by “fowl,” which in the New England autumn can encompass quite a number of feathered creatures. Most of us assume that included turkey because like to have turkey on our Thanksgiving.

Some of our island neighbors are growing turkeys for the big day, but I’m pretty certain most of the un-bridged islands no longer have wild ones unless someone has fostered their existence. But we could, like the Pilgrims, eat deer meat, though I doubt many families will do that. Most of the deer meat hunted on our island is freezer-bound for winter consumption, or steak on the grill now, and even later when it seems like it ought to be too cold to grill outdoors.

Right at the end of the regular recreational bow-season this year, our island commences its third year of a special hunt to reduce our numerous deer herd to something like ten deer per square mile in hopes that that will make scarce the large animal blood meal that ticks need in order to reproduce. Humans also offer up sufficient skin-acreage to satisfy the ticks, but we don’t like getting Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, so we are taking steps to ruin the ticks’ dinner by subtracting servings of deer.

Apparently, we don’t want to do this too hastily because we had an offer, which the town resolutely turned down, to do it quickly and efficiently with donated funds with all the deer meat made available to islanders. The problem is, was, and will be for a little while yet, I suspect, two deer in the bush are worth one in the hand, from a food point of view. No doubt some wonder why this came about.

In Merry Olde England, the deer belonged to the nobility and the peasants had better keep their paws off the goods. From medieval times to settlement in the American colonies, hunting deer was a past time for the elites who probably enjoyed the hunting as much as the resulting meat.

If one was a gamekeeper in Elizabethan England, one received the head, skin, umbles (guts), chine and shoulder—not much, really, but ingredients there for a Christmas mincemeat pie, plus some. Everyone else hoped, wished, or longed for a taste of venison.

The English physician, traveler and writer Andrew Boorde, who died in 1549, wrote, “I pray God to send me part of the flesh to eat”¦ I am sure it is a lord’s dish, and I am sure it is good for an English man, for it doth animate him to be as he is, which is, strong and hardy.” And that goes twice for modern islanders.

As long as deer meat was elite fare and generally forbidden for the lesser sorts, it was the ideal item to poach. Once shot, it was imperative to “disappear” the meat as quickly as possible, hence the continuing, charming and necessary custom of distributing it to friends, neighbors and relatives whom the hunter trusted not to rat him out. There does have to be honor among thieves, sometimes in scarce supply when most needed, honor sometimes undermined by bounties offered up by the nobility, or, in Maine, by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife which, as regards deer meat, play the part of the nobility in the present time.

Try to imagine what it was like to settle in the colonies where there were lots of deer roaming wild, not in game parks, free for the taking by anyone—even the Native Americans whom most English colonists regarded as savages. When the Wampanoag king Massasoit contributed four deer to the feast that the Plymouth colonists were enjoying in 1622, it may very well have been the first deer meat that some of them had ever eaten. Colonists enjoyed it so much that by the late 1600s the first ordinances governing the taking of deer in New England came into effect to protect the herd from extinction. As the country settled from east to west, the deer population (and turkey, too) was pretty quickly depleted.

Venison carried a certain imprimatur. In the late 1700s in colonial Williamsburg, one elite household ordered up a special pan for making venison pie, only when modern archaeologists dug up the back yard they didn’t find any deer bones. The importance of at least the appearance of a venison-like item meant that lacking the real thing, cooks made mock venison out of mutton. Nowadays, mutton is so scarce—when was the last time you saw it in the meat department of Hannashaws?—we could be making mock mutton out of our more plentiful venison.

Venison, once you have finished paying for your compound bow or shotgun, and tree-stand and camo, and that special cologne you have to wear so deer don’t know who you really are, is free, except for the hunting license, tagging fee and, unless you do it yourself, butchering. Blessed be all of us who receive meat from our friends, neighbors, and relatives who go forth in pursuit of deer meat. It is not to be taken lightly, and in the dead of winter when the cash flow is as frozen as any stream, it means some of us don’t have to rely on rice and beans for all our protein. So, of course, it makes no sense to kill all the deer too quickly, have to eat it every meal, and not have much to hunt the next year.

If you want to have plenty of deer meat and reduce the herd to a reasonable size, say, enough that we might see young hardwoods spring up again, the browse line disappear, and have some peas and carrots to go with our deer meat without having to spend money on fences, not to mention letting the kids go play in the woods without having to strip search them every half hour for ticks, then we might have to reinstate the conditions we had here on Islesboro back in the ’90s when we played peasants versus the nobility. Shhhhh.

Sandy Oliver, a food historian, lives, cooks and writes (but doesn’t poach) on Islesboro.