You probably know Jeff Houghton as the host of "The Mystery Hour" TV talk show on the local Fox affiliate. He and his wife Michelle have two children, ages 2 and 7. When she and Jeff decided to contact KSMU to get in on our Sense of Community "Table Traditions" series, Michelle told us straightaway: "This may not be exactly what you're looking for, because it's pretty basic food as far as most people are concerned. But--we live and die by 'basic' food as parents with young children."
So this is really more about the family dynamic than it is about the recipe itself, which is simply taco filling (which can also be used for spaghetti sauce and chili) using ground venison--deer meat--instead of ground beef. But even more important is the tale of why Michelle uses venison instead of beef.
"This," says Michelle, indicating a two-pound package of ground venison, "is from my brother-in-law. This is deer meat from one that he got last year. He gave me some to put in my freezer."
Michelle browns the ground venison while adding various ingredients. "I probably would NOT eat this venison any other way, if it didn't have a lot of spices in it," she says. She likes garlic, so she adds fresh chopped garlic; a packet of what she calls "regular old taco seasoning," to which she adds a bit of cumin "because I just like the flavor a lot." Then, some salt and pepper, and then a product called "Tajin" (pronounced "tah-HEEN"). She explains, "This is my favorite addition. It's like a Mexican seasoning that you can find, and I know you can get it at different stores. But it's really good, with just a sprinkle of that. It's powdered, and it's chili pepper, sea salt, dehydrated lime juice. That's usually it, and then kind of mix it around a little bit, and it's usually pretty ready to serve."
So that's basically it... except for the vexing question: why venison instead of beef? We'll get to that point in a moment. Michelle does use ground beef part of the time, buyt otherwise she likes to use the venison that her father and brother-in-law supply to her.
Michelle seems to greatly enjoy relating the story. "The story goes that, my sister--we're twins, and we were born in 1982. And my dad has always been a big hunter and fisherman. He moved down to Springfield, Missouri so that he can hunt and fish a lot. I never went hunting with him. He did it all the time, but I never went with him. And so, my sister and I never really thought to ask about what we were eating, or what he did with the deer. In retrospect," she admits, "I can understand how silly it was that I didn't think about that. But I wa a child, and you don't really question things that your parents do sometimes.
"It was around Christmastime, about this time of year," she continues. And I think I was probably 25-ish. We're going over to my parents' house to do some Christmas-type things. And my sister, the story goes, was with my dad, and they were talking about menu items for what we were going to eat, as we were all spending time together for Christmas. So my sister went looking through their cabinets to find all the ingredients that she needed to be able to make tacos. And my sister goes, 'I don't see any ground beef in the refrigerator, so I'll go make sure that we have ground beef for the tacos.' And my dad, supposedly, looked up from--he was sitting and reading a newspaper--he looked up from his newspaper and said to her, 'Daughter, you haven't had ground beef in this house your whole life!' And (he) looked back down to his newspaper and kept reading!"
Understandably perplexed by this, after dinner Michelle's sister mentioned it to their mom. "She said, 'Hey Mom, Dad said something weird earlier today"--Michelle relates the story with a chuckle--"he said that we've never had ground beef EVER in this house!' And my mom got this huge worried look on her face, big eyes--they got really big--and then she put both of her hands over her mouth and was, like"--Michelle imitates a stifled scream--"like this big thing had happened! And we were like, 'What?!' And then my dad was like, 'You've never had ground beef in this house--it's always been venison!' or something to that effect. And we were like, 'WHAT?!'" He just up and spilled the beans right there... and Mom and Dad finally came clean, explaining the often elaborates lengths to which they had gone to keep this "big secret" from 25-year-old Michelle and her twin sister all these years: they had been eating venison in their tacos instead of beef!
"I don't know to this day," Michelle says, "why they thought it was such a big deal. I think that they knew that we probably wouldn't like it, as children, thinking that we were 'eating Bambi.' But I think part of it was just that they wanted to keep the Big Secret." Jeff Houghton adds, "That's years of deceit!" "Years of deceit," repeats Michelle, "about something rather insigificant." Jeff reminds Michelle, "Well, you (and your sister) reacted as if it was (significant)." "Yeah, well, I mean, I had been lied to my whole life!" Michelle says with mock indignation. Jeff explains, "It was more about the 'lie' than the meat!" I ask Michelle if she and her sister would really have been appalled by the idea of eating deer meat, and might have thought, "Oh my God, I'm eating Bambi!" "Honestly, probably not," says Michelle, "which is the funniest thing about thinking of the story."
Michelle Houghton does feel she's carrying on a family tradition by using venison instead of beef for her own family. "Whenever I make any venison, especially when it's given to me by a family member, and then I cook it and use it to feed my family, there is something kind of wholesome about that."
But for now, she's also passing on the tradition of not telling her own kids it's deer meat. As husband Jeff Houghton says, "That's the tradition: it's not cooking the same meal, it's not telling them! They'll do it to their kids." and Michelle laughs and agrees.