Venison jerky: the only meat you can eat out of your pocket all year long

The Deer Hunter

by Sydney Bender

The Deer Hunter

Sybil Teles

It’s the camouflage seat covers and boots in the back of his Toyota Tundra pick-up truck that give it away. The Islandborn, classically French-trained culinarian normally spotted behind the line at State Road Restaurant is a die-hard deer stalker.

Michael Holtham loves to hunt. He scouts and shoots deer, skins and guts game and wraps up venison into big hunky meat bricks that sit stacked in his freezer like firewood. Mike’s friends will tell you he’s the most outdoorsy 28-year-old they know; he’s a guy who likes to scale and sauté fish caught by close waters, an Island boy who bay scallops for fun.

Mike’s friends will also tell you that he makes damn good venison jerky.

His pockets are usually loaded with the ultimate survivalist food, (so ask him to lend you a jacket, you’ll end up getting a snack, too).

“It’s the only meat you can eat out of your pocket all year long,” says Mike’s girlfriend, Jessie Kanozak, who helps him in the kitchen whenever it’s time to make jerky.

Mike and Jessie live in West Tisbury, in a home hidden by the tallest of oak trees. Look up and you can barely find the canopy. His home is bordered by wildlife. “People don’t even know about the wildlife in their own backyards. Animals—squirrels, pheasants, quail…,” he says. “Oh! And chipmunks. Those weren’t even here when I was growing up.” Wildlife, like seasons, change at a rate similar to a dying deer’s heartbeat: first pumping evenly like a trip hammer, then slowly fading into a skidding sound which eventually gets overpowered by a brief moment of silence overtaken by new sounds of other animals and trees and wind and other matter affecting the soundscape.

Restaurant work is in his blood. His father, Will Holtham, owned and ran the Home Port Restaurant, giving Mike an early feel for cooking. When Mike was four, instead of a baseball mitt, his father put a pastry brush in his hand. “He sat me next to him and I took the brush and dipped it in clarified butter.” Perched on the counter, feet dangling, Mike painted the big silver swordfish. He sprinkled paprika onto it before his father took it to broil.

But it was outside of restaurants and in the woods where he connected most with food. When Mike was seven, his father gave him a fishing pole. He taught himself to work within the framework of micro seasons and developed a fondness for foraging. He spent the majority of his childhood outdoors, walking in the woods, breathing in fresh air, and hunting on weekends. “It was a great, great time,” he says.

Miles away from any traffic on the Vineyard and tucked inside his cozy home, Mike mixes the marinade for his venison jerky. Music by The Slip plays lightly in the background and he’s talking about the different hunting seasons on the Vineyard. “It’s important to know about the seasons,” he says, and he talks about shooting methods and the practice needed to have a successful hunt.

Mike favors bow and arrow season. “You need to catch the animal off guard, not startle them,” he says. If you slowly raise your bow and keep aiming without moving, you’ll shoot the animal when it’s serene. “Now a gunshot,” Mike says, “a gunshot an animal hears. It’s loud. They get shot, run, and are suddenly pumping with adrenalin so the muscle is all tensed up.”

Mike pulls out a hunk of venison from the freezer. “This is a nice steak for jerky,” he says, setting it aside. “You get a cleaner slice when it’s half-frozen, and you want to cut the meat slices around the muscle grain.” The sound of slicing half-frozen venison is similar to the noise heard on ski slopes.

Swish, swish, swish…

Mike takes a break from making jerky to tell stories from his current kitchen at work. He reclines in his chair, stretches his arms and smiles. “I love what I do,” he says.

Pulling out of the State Road Restaurant parking lot, you may be tempted to take a peek inside Mike’s truck. Maybe next week’s venison jerky is dead in the truck bed. But maybe not, maybe it’s already been butchered and blocked together in his home freezer. So for now, If you really want to try some of his venison jerky, just ask to borrow a jacket.