Cutting to the chase

Brian Athearn spearheads an effort to teach Islanders the art of butchering their quarry.


A half-skinned doe carcass hung at a diagonal from a winch attached to a ceiling beam in a converted chicken coop at Runamok Farm, just off Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury.

On this chilly Saturday morning, Brian Athearn was teaching Chef Michelle Crabtree how to skin, quarter, and butcher a deer. They had just begun working on a 70-pound doe dropped off by the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe. Mr. Athearn was processing the deer for free. The meat would go to the Tribe’s food pantry.

The former coop has evolved into a co-op, where an informal group of hunters have pitched in to cover the costs of processing their deer.

“This place has organically grown into a very efficient, organized, clean process. We’re constantly making improvements,” Mr. Athearn said, sliding a knife on a sharpening steel. “This is my favorite place in the whole world.”

Ms. Crabtree won the butchering lesson, donated by Mr. Athearn, in an auction for the Islanders Talk Benevolent Fund.

“She got suckered into helping me cut up a deer,” Mr. Athearn joked, which he does often. “Actually, I was really excited a chef wanted to do this.”

Mr. Athearn is a study in contrasts — a vaunted outdoorsman and computer whiz, an unabashed conservative who listens to NPR while he butchers.  

Hunting is in his DNA. The Athearns are one of the oldest families on the Island, settling here when hunting and fishing was for survival. “We go back about 250 years on the Island,” he said. “I’m doing the best I can to respect that.”

To that end, Mr. Athearn is quietly promoting Islander self-sufficiency by sharing his extensive butchering knowledge with hunters, and anyone who wants to learn.

“I want to teach people how to do this so I don’t have to do it for them,” he said, laughing. “I’ll teach anybody who wants to learn. I’ve had a lot of good mentors. I took everything that I learned and kept the good stuff. I learned from Steve Jordan, my friend Brian Welch, probably the best marksman on Martha’s Vineyard, and lots of YouTube videos. I did almost 60 deer last year. That was just for friends. I don’t do it for money. People throw in a few bucks to cover the cost of the electricity in the walk-in.”

The room where he and Ms. Crabtree are working is for skinning and quartering, from which debouch a refrigerated storage room kept at 34° where, about a dozen deer carcasses are aging, and a small, immaculate, butchering room.

Sounds from all manner of fowl, goats, and sheep were constants in the background while the two worked.

Boiling water for sanitizing was at the ready. A sous-vide slowly cooked marinated, vacuum-sealed venison from a previous butchering session, and a well-seasoned gas grill stood at the ready. There are all manner of knives, and a bolt cutter for bones, which he has named “Cindy Loper.”

“It’s great that the EPO (environmental police officer) comes here, because it makes sure people who are hanging deer here follow the rules,” he said. “We’re an open book, we have sheets with confirmation numbers and check-ins; everything is aboveboard.”

Mr. Athearn, dressed in an apron, boots, and rubber gloves which he changed often, pointed to one of several bleached deer skulls — European mounts — perched high on a plywood wall. “There’s a story in every one of these,” he said. “That was my first deer. I got it when I was 16. I ran that thing down like Tarzan.” He pointed to a mount with antlers askew. “If a deer is injured, it affects the way their antlers grow,” he said. “That deer’s front leg was broken, rotated 180° and re-fused; the back left leg had snapped, rotated 45°, pushed up eight inches and re-fused.” Mr. Athearn said the damage was likely from a collision with a car: “They’re incredibly resilient creatures.” The largest rack was from a buck taken on the Onassis property, in Aquinnah. “I hunted in a tree stand that Kennedys hunted in,” he said. “Albert Fisher let me hunt there when he was caretaking. I sat in that stand for a week, looking out over the dunes, at the ocean, Noman’s off in the distance, and thought it had to be the most beautiful place in the world. It was an honor to be up there. I’m a conservative, and I love the Kennedys.”

Following Mr. Athearn’s train of thought can be a challenge. He quickly shifts among gastronomy, biology, taxonomy, politics, ecology, and anatomy, while teaching Ms. Crabtree the finer points of butchering.

“There’s a science to aging deer,” he said. “We age ours two to three weeks. You have to let the rigor mortis drop out of that deer. The muscle tissue is rigid after it dies. After about 48 hours, the [lactic] acid breaks down in the muscle tissue, and the meat begins to relax. Then you can butcher it. If you wait, the connective tissue breaks down, and it turns into butter. When you dry-age it, with the skin on, it’s an entirely different experience.”

No part of the deer is wasted.

“We use every single component of the deer, I can’t emphasize that strongly enough,” he said. “Matt Hayden takes the hides and tans them, and makes tools out of the bones. He uses the ribcages and tendons for projects for kids in his outdoor survival school.”

Even the meat between each rib is cut out, and dried for dog treats.

“We hang on to the bones for a demi-glace,” he said. “Crack them all open, smear them with tomato paste, roast them in the oven with a mirepoix, onions, carrots, and celery. After you brown them, simmer in a pot for 48 hours, reduce it, strain it, reduce it by half, and you’ve got the craziest demi-glace you’ve ever imagined in your entire life.”

There’s also a sense of reverence to his work. “I can’t stomach leaving meat behind,” he said. “I try to make sure we honor and respect every one of these animals. We owe it to them to do it respectfully, and to not waste any of it. That’s the most important part. I thank every animal after I kill it. When I’m done, I leave the carcass outside for a day, for the hawks.”


Network of hunters

The hunting culture runs deep on Martha’s Vineyard. It also serves an increasingly important function. The science is clear — the more dense the deer, the more cases of virulent tick-borne diseases, not to mention collisions with vehicles, the only other predators on the Island.

Mr. Athearn expressed support for the efforts of Dick Johnson, biologist for the Martha’s Vineyard Boards of Health, who’s been working to enlist property owners to open their land to deer hunters, to help cull the herd and reduce disease.

“We have this little hunt club, and I’ll get texts asking what stands are open, what people are seeing on their cameras. It takes me 20 minutes to line people up. Now I can get more people on these properties that Dick is getting permission for. With bowhunting, there’s no gun factor. It’s wicked low maintenance; everybody pools all their resources, and we have an effective hunting group with 20 stands. If I was going to hunt all the properties, I couldn’t afford the stands, or the time it takes to research the locations.”

Mr. Athearn said his day gig, president of MVTech, also indirectly helps the cause.

“As a computer guy, I get a lot of clients who are open to bow hunting on their land,” he said. “If it’s not guns, they’re more open to it. To be an effective hunter, you have to do your homework — put cameras out, know when the deer are moving, if it’s a good place to put up a stand.”

In addition to tree-stand networking and butchering instruction, Mr. Athearn, as president of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, is looking to create a community processing facility.

“If we build something like this at the Ag Hall, forget USDA-certified,” he said. “We have to think outside the box and try to have a facility that people can use. I think the responsibility I have as an Islander and as president of the Agricultural Society is education. If I can teach a handful of people how to do something on their own, it’s not skin off my back, pardon the pun; I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Correction: Hanging meat breaks down lactic acid, not lysergic acid as the story previously stated. Brian Athearn was quoted accurately by a Times reporter, but misspoke during his demonstration of butchering a deer.