In a back-alley parking lot off of Vineyard Avenue in Highland, a large group of people sat at plastic tables, eating and chatting from their vantage point on folding chairs. Many of the smiling diners are outdoorsmen, walking from table to table shooting the breeze — complete with rugged beards, camouflaged clothing and T-shirts pitching brand name compound bows or arrows.
But a passerby in a car driving down Vineyard would have missed more than half of the action at the annual Wild Game Dinner hosted by Sal’s Place. They’d have seen those people at the table — flanked by chefs serving food from the grill, and a waitress hawking beer from a cooler — but they’d have missed the celebration indoors.
Inside Sal’s Place (bar and restaurant), an equally large group of hunters and adventurous gourmands ate from a menu that featured dishes made from wild boar, elk, venison, pheasant, duck, trout and rabbit. Flanking the entryway were a set of tables with coyotes, pheasants and other animals stuffed by Black Creek Studio’s taxidermists. Lucky hunters also had the chance of winning a full load of prizes, including a hunting rifle or Budweiser-themed shirts and can openers.
Many of these people came from Manhattan, Hyde Park or even from out of state. Bill Fontana came to the Wild Game Dinner from New York City.
“For me, it’s totally different,” Fontana said. “It’s something that’s totally foreign to me coming from Midtown Manhattan.”
For the visitor from the city, the dish of choice was the venison ribs. A lot like pork ribs, the tender meat between deer ribs can be a tasty delicacy. Hunter Tom Lawrence provided the deer ribs that many people at the celebration enjoyed. While hunters tend to use most meat from their kills, not many people think to use the ribs.
Lawrence, like many hunters, turned over his catch to the chefs at Sal’s Place a week beforehand. That gave time for meat to be smoked, marinated and slow cooked. While the deer ribs were his contribution, Lawrence said he prefers to hunt other prey.
“Believe it or not, I think the hog is more fun to hunt,” he said. “They’re dangerous. They can charge you.”
Wild boar populations have exploded in the South, and they can grow to 350 pounds or more, making them a target for hunters there. The oversized swine have been known to attack humans, and they’ve spread through several states like wildfire. Since 2009, New York State has also had a bit of a wild boar issue. Since then, the DEC issued an open invitation to hunters to help eradicate the invasive species.
For hunters like Lawrence, the dinner is a way to celebrate their favorite passion and share food with their friends. Sal’s Wild Game Dinner has been a tradition dating back to the days when Ronald Reagan was still actively campaigning to become the 40th president of the United States.
“It’s pretty much the same every year. We’ve been doing it for 31 years,” explained Sal Timperio, the owner of the bar. “The town has been gracious enough to give us the parking lot every year.”
For Erik Hansen of New Paltz, last weekend’s dinner was the first he attended, but as a hunter it appealed to him.
“I think I want to be back next year,” Hansen said, adding that he appreciated the amount of work it took to put together the event. “It’s a lot of coordinated effort, and the food’s real good.”
For the hunter from New Paltz, the favorite dish was the smoked trout and venison.
Not everybody at the party was a newcomer. Besides bringing in people from out of town, the Wild Game Dinner has also a history of repeat attenders. Bill and Mary Roggio, of Highland, have come to the dinner almost from the very beginning. For the couple, the dinner has been a way to see friends, catch up and eat delicious food.
For more information about Sal’s Place itself, look them up on Facebook or stop in at 99 Vineyard Avenue in Highland. ++