SKOWHEGAN — Elk stew, partridge lo mein, bear meat jambalya and wild boar sliders are just a few of the items on the menu Friday at a community dinner celebrating Maine’s hunting tradition.

For those who are curious, the wild game dinner at the Church of the Nazarene is preparing an all-you-can-eat dinner of wild game you won’t find during a typical Friday night out. The idea was brought to the parish six years ago by Lead Pastor Brian Hale, who is originally from Michigan and said that wild game dinners were a popular tradition there.

“Given the opportunity to hunt and fish here in Maine, it just seemed like the thing to do, and it’s really caught on,” he said.

Hale said the dinner has grown from about 100 people the first year to more than 200 last year. He is hoping for more this year.

Every year, Hale said, the parish starts selling tickets around Thanksgiving in preparation for the mid-January dinner.

“By that time, most hunters have accumulated the game that will be used, but it’s still fresh,” he said.

The meat — which this year includes 60 pounds of venison, 30 pounds of moose, 3 wild turkeys, 24 partridges and 200 pounds of wild boar — is mostly donated, although the parish does buy some of it from local hunters and farmers who raise wild game.

Youth leader Aaron Hughes takes on the role of head chef as the big day rolls around.

“This is the busiest time of year for me,” said Hughes, 30, of Cornville. He works at J.S. McCarthy Printers in Augusta, but said he grew up cooking and has developed some of his own recipes, in addition to a church collection that he uses to prepare the food.

He hunts for geese, ducks and deer, and also built a meat smoker this year.

On Thursday he said he planned to spend the night in the church kitchen, periodically waking up to check on a venison leg that would take nine hours to smoke overnight.

Hughes said the main thing to take into consideration when preparing wild game is that it is usually much leaner than beef, chicken and pork. For example, he said, fat keeps meat from drying out in the smoker, so he wrapped bacon around the venison leg.

Donald Kenerson, 61, is the owner of Kenerson Farm in Solon, where he raises buffalo. He said he advises cooking the meat at rare to medium rare so it doesn’t dry out.

Other than that, he said, buffalo can be used in most recipes that would call for beef — including stew, chili, spaghetti sauce or grilled steaks.

“There’s not a big difference. It’s not gamy,” he said. “You can do anything with buffalo that you would do with beef.”

Kenerson said he began raising buffalo about 10 years ago because he has high cholesterol and realized there could be health benefits associated with eating the meat.

“It’s really low in fat, it’s lower in cholesterol and it’s high in iron and other minerals,” he said.

Milder options at the wild game dinner include free-range hot dogs and Maine haddock, although Hughes said the dinner is set up so that people can try small portions of many things.

“What I tell my kids when I prepare game at home is that they eat it or they go hungry. Usually they eat it and they like it,” he said.

The dinner is a place to push your palate, said Hale, who had advice for people who never have had wild game.

“Some people can’t get beyond the thought of eating it,” he said. “I would have them try the fried haddock. Ours is the best in town, even if it’s only served one night a year. Then I would tell them to try the wild turkey soup, and then the stir-fry partridge.”

After the partridge, Hale suggested progressing to sweet-and-sour buffalo meatballs, gradually tasting the menu items up to the most unusual, which he said probably would be the slightly spicy bear meat jambalya.

Others stick to what they know.

Carroll Goulde, 68, of Cornville, is a hunter who grew up in Kingfield. At the time, hunters were not allowed to kill moose. This will be the fourth wild game dinner he has attended.

“I’ve eaten a lot of wild game in my life, and I still like venison,” he said. “It’s what I grew up with.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com