A first taste of wild meat at Richland fundraiser (w/ photos)

By Jeff Morrow, Tri-City Herald sports editorMarch 29, 2012 

RICHLAND, Wash. -- I felt so guilty at first.

Let me stress this: At first. I felt like I was cheating.

But I got over it pretty quickly.

I have always been fond of the ducks who fly into my backyard and eat the seeds scattered out there. I like to just watch them.

And I have scolded my two dogs for chasing the birds away.

"Chase the crows, even the quail. But, dammit! Leave the ducks alone!" I have yelled at my two canines.

Look, I'm no Tony Soprano, who loved the ducks in his swimming pool. But I love mine just as much as he loved his.

Which is why, when I came across Duck Poppers at the Richland Rod & Gun Club's 62nd annual Wild Game Dinner at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Richland on Saturday night, I was hesitant to try them.

But the club was nice enough to invite me and Herald copy editor Jake Dorsey to its dinner, that I felt I needed to have an open mind and try as much of everything as I could.

"Our club's event is an actual dinner where everything is provided by Mother Nature and the club," said club president Jeff Gardner. "It's a great way for us to celebrate the harvest of the year."

And so, with more than 200 people present, a table full of hors d'oeuvres -- smoked duck, goose and salmon; teriyaki-skewered venison; and assorted game sausages -- provided a generous sampling for a man who wasn't worried about his colon on this night.

All of the meat is donated by club members.

"We (as a club) probably donated 60 pounds of elk, 20 pounds of deer," Jeff Gardner said.

All of the preparations and cooking are handled by club members and coordinated by Marilyn Steele.

"We have some guys who have been cooking their special items for years now," said Gaylord Pyle, a club member since 1995 who has had two stints as club president. "One guy takes care of the pheasants. One guy does the duck poppers. Another does the fried steaks. Soup is one person's job. It's just a good group to work with."

Howard Gardner -- no relation to Jeff Gardner -- is 83 and joined the club in 1953. He missed the first few dinners, including the inaugural one in 1950.

"The main thing back then was we wanted to provide meat for a dinner, so we subsidized some hunters to go shoot some big game for dinner," said Howard Gardner. "They got a moose in British Columbia."

Back then, the club didn't prepare the dinner.

"It was catered, sometimes by hotels and sometimes by restaurants," said Howard Gardner. "We just had an annual banquet and sometimes they had awards for some of the hunters. We had it at some places that no longer exist. Like where the old Hanford House is, now it's the Richland Red Lion. Before that it was the Desert Inn."

And during the years, the proceeds of the dinner have gone to youth activity.

On this night, the money would allow club members to take kids who passed their safety test to a free shoot.

Last year, the club was able to send five kids to an Orcas Island conservation camp, where they learned to tie flies, learned CPR, had to live off of the land, learned what flora and fauna were edible. Basically an outdoors camp.

With a membership of about 230 people getting older, the Richland Rod & Gun Club is trying to find ways to get younger people interested and involved in the outdoors.

It's why it sponsors such things as Lunker Lake at the annual Tri-Cities Sportsmen's Show, the Family Fishing Pond habitat, Salmon in the Classroom and monthly training for hunter education.

In fact, 300 students passed their hunter education course this week, taught by the club.

Jeff Gardner says the club's pledge includes the sentence "I will help educate future generations to be responsible caretakers of the resources of America."

And so, this dinner is no only a harvest celebration, but an avenue toward the club's long-term goal. It's also a labor of love for this group of outdoors lovers.

"I work 80 to 100 hours a week so I can get a day of fishing in," said Jeff Gardner. "As long as I can get some time in the outdoors. That's my vice."

Oh, the dinner?

It started with Mandarin orange glazed coffee goose over rice, a wonderful pheasant jambalaya, a venison pie tamale and an alder-smoked Yukon keta.

I even tried the Breaded Steak Surprise (it turned out to be venison) with country gravy.

There were baked potatoes, green beans and dinner rolls. But I am here for meat and am not wasting stomach space on these things.

The main entree was the roast baron of elk, shot by Jeff Gardner's wife, Jennifer, in Oregon.

"We got three elk and three deer as a family this year," Jeff Gardner said.

Dessert was cake and a venison mincemeat pie, but I was so stuffed from dinner I could not try them.

But I still found some room for more duck poppers -- these wonderful delicacies of a slice of duck meat, a slice of jalapeo and a slice of garlic all wrapped in bacon, working magic with my taste buds -- and Jake and I took some back to the office with me.

I can't lie: I loved those duck poppers. So I hope my backyard ducks can forgive me.

But I will never look at them quite the same way again.

* Jeff Morrow: 509-582-1507; jmorrow@tricityherald.com

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