Chefs' Game Point: Just What's Legal?


I ate some squab. It was definitely delicious but I wondered about its legality.

The delicious flavor had to do with the way the squab was prepared. It was roasted and stuffed with authentic, skillet-cooked corn bread, and with country ham. Pan juices figured in the preparation as well.

The legality issue had to do with whether, under Maryland law, farm-raised squab could be considered "game taken from the wild." The law, written some 40 years ago, prohibits the sale or purchase of "any game bird or game mammal taken from the wild." Exceptions are made for muskrat, raccoon and nutria -- animals that some Marylanders not only consider edible, but regard as delicacies.

The squab that I ate was anything but wild. It came from a game farm, Palmetto Pigeon Plant in Sumter, S.C. There it had been fed grain, dispatched and shipped to Baltimore. It was cooked by Cindy Wolf, chef at Savannah restaurant. The occasion was a game dinner, a "marrying meal" if you will, designed to match Wolf's favorite game dishes with the big red wines of a California winery, Ridge Vineyards.

I later learned that squab, young pigeon, is considered domestic fowl, not game under Maryland law, and is therefore as legal to eat as chicken.

Although the distinction between game that comes from the woods and game that comes from a farm may seem obvious to many, Maryland chefs say they have to proceed cautiously when serving game. The state law regulating the sale of game is antiquated and confusing, the chefs say. And so, fearing fines and the wrath of state officials, they have been uneasy about putting a lot of farm-raised game on their menus.

Serving some dishes, the chefs say, like farm-raised duck, does not ruffle any feathers. But serving farm-raised pheasant and xTC venison could raise the hackles of state regulators, they believe. And so the chefs have tended to keep "gamier" dishes off the public menu, and serve them only to private gatherings.

It doesn't make much sense, the chefs say. And some of them are trying to change the law.

This year, a delegation of chefs, including David Rudie of the Milton Inn in Sparks, Jonathan Charmatz of the Polo Grill in Baltimore, Michael J. Wagner of Piccolo's in Columbia, Victor S. Piazza Sr. of Chef's Expressions in Timonium and Robert Carney of the Annapolis Yacht Club, visited the Maryland General Assembly and tried to get the legislators to allow farm-raised game to be sold in the state.

In addition to testifying that farm-raised game is safe and popular, the chefs also served the legislators some venison imported from New Zealand.

Two years ago the state Senate narrowly defeated a proposal that would have allowed Maryland restaurants and grocery stores to stock imported venison. Animal-rights advocates who had urged the defeat of the bill said they feared that such a measure could be the first step toward allowing the farming of game animals in Maryland and argued that keeping animals in captivity is cruel.

In the last few years, farm-raised game has become popular in many restaurants throughout the United States. Most game is low in fat, which appeals to health-conscious eaters. It is expensive -- a fillet of venison costs about $15 a pound, compared to $10 for beef. But some adventuresome eaters are willing to pay the extra money to experience the unique flavor of game.

Craig Hamilton, a salesman for A. M. Briggs, a wholesale meat operation in Washington, D.C., and an advocate of game-law reform, told me that selling farm-raised game is already legal in many states, including Virginia and Pennsylvania. Maryland, he said, has been slow to update a law that was written before farm-raised game existed.

This General Assembly session, state Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, who represents Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties, and Dels. James M. Harkins and Donald C. Fry of Harford County, have introduced bills to change game-sale law. The proposed legislation would allow farm-raised, officially inspected, lawfully obtained deer meat to be sold in the state.

To guard against local hunters selling deer meat to restaurants, the measure prohibits the sale of the meat from white-tailed and sika deer, the two types of deer commonly found in Maryland. Moreover, it requires that any business selling deer meat keep records stating where the deer meat came from, and that it had been inspected.

The Department of Natural Resources supports the proposed legislation, said Josh Sandt, director of the department's wildlife division. Sandt said farm-raised game presents no threat to the state's native wildlife. He said passage of the bill allowing the sale of farm-raised deer meat would probably clear the way for the sale of farm-raised birds, such as pheasant and quail.

The bill is making its way through the General Assembly. If it passes in its current form, a new game law would take effect Oct. 1. So in a few months, the state that allows us to serve muskrat may allow us to put farm-raised venison on the menu as well.

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