Editor's Note: Writer Hank Shaw lives for food. But not the triple-wrapped, styrofoam suffocated, deli aisle kind. No, Shaw spends much of his time tromping through woods, combing fields, and practicing his shot to bring in the kind of naturally foraged nutrients most Northwest foodies only dream about. It is no surprise then that his recently published first book, Hunt, Gather, Cook (Rodale Books), is both a celebration of nature's bounty and an attempt to help his readers reconnect with their food and communities through foraging, hunting, and cooking.
The following is an excerpt from Hunt, Gather, Cook's essay "Why Hunt?" in which Shaw explains the importance and the power, both intellectually and personally, of killing what you eat. Simultaneously a lover of the outdoors, a great naturalist, and a food pragmatist, Shaw shares the pleasure that lies not just in knowing where your food comes from, but that you yourself were responsible for its respectful demise.
For most people, foraging for wild plants poses no moral problem. Some, mostly vegetarians, have a tough time with fishing, but there are 30 million anglers in the United States. Hunting, however, is another story. Let’s face it: If you are not a hunter, and you did not grow up around hunters, the pursuit can seem alien. The hunting world is largely male, rural, agrarian, white, and conservative. If that’s not you, gaining access to this world can seem impossibly daunting. First off, you will need to become comfortable with guns — no small thing for many. You will need to take a hunter safety course, which in some states can take more than a day. For the most part, unlike fishing, you can’t just walk into a sporting goods store and buy a hunting license. Once you do have the license, then you need to purchase the right tags and stamps, which can seem bewildering (the extras all help raise money for habitat restoration, so they’re for a good cause). There is equipment to buy, notably a gun or bow. Finally, you need to find a place to hunt, either public or private, or you need to work with an outfitter and a guide. ...
To me, there is nothing more satisfying than possessing the skills to venture into the field and find, kill, and clean a game animal — and then to come home and portion it out yourself and put a meal made with that animal on the table for your family. It’s a powerful, addictive feeling, knowing you’ve done it all yourself. No butchers, no supermarkets, no one telling you what you can and cannot do. ...
I won’t sugarcoat it: Hunting is a helluva lot more work than buying a 1-day fishing license and stepping aboard a party boat on a whim. But the rewards are worth it. After several years as novice hunters, Holly and I have become proficient enough that — with the exception of pork fat for sausages, and whole lambs and goats for parties — we have not bought more than a few stray pounds of meat for our home in years. We eat pheasants and wild boar and venison. I find I’m losing my taste for beef these days. It seems so fatty, so coarse. Wild meat is leaner, denser, and more flavorful than almost any domestic meat. This means you need less to feel full.
Hunting your own meat changes your eating habits in other ways. Where before you might have just eaten steaks or chicken breasts or pork loin, with hunted game you learn how to cook the rest of the animal, including the offal. I’ve become skilled at cooking the various bits in this “fifth quarter” of the animal, largely because I’ve not wanted to waste a venison heart, a rabbit kidney, or a goose gizzard. As you get better at cooking the less glamorous cuts, you develop an appreciation for things like braised shanks or heart cutlets or the little flank steaks you can get off a deer. Anyone can sear a tenderloin. You become a serious cook when you can pull off elk shank osso buco or braised wild turkey legs.
But hunting is more than a pursuit of free-range meat. Hunting has given us a sense of self-sufficiency, a sense of honesty, and a clear-eyed understanding of exactly where our meat comes from. No factory farms, no hormones, antibiotics, and, arguably, no cruelty. Every animal we kill had been living the life God intended until it met us that one fateful day. We practice our marksmanship all year long to do our best to make sure that, when the day comes, the animal dies quickly and cleanly. I always put myself in the animal’s position: Would I want to go out like that? It’s why those less-than-perfect shots, which are an unfortunate part of this pursuit, can gnaw at me for months afterward.
Hunting has been the primary pursuit of humans for more than a million years. Consumption of meat is widely seen as the engine behind our brain development (the brain burns a lot of fuel, calories best obtained from protein and fat), and when we made the jump from scavenger to hunter somewhere in our protohuman past, scientists generally agree that it was the pursuit of large animals that drove us. Large animals provide more reward for similar expenditure of energy. Chasing a rabbit and chasing a deer are pretty similar, but you get a lot more meat from a deer. The pursued have evolved with us, and the eternal chase, man against deer, continues to drive us. So the next time a hunter seems overly wrapped up in a story about the deer that he shot this year, cut him a little slack. Or at least understand why he’s doing it.
Hunting also fills a gap in an electronic, urban lifestyle. When I am out pursuing ducks or pheasants or deer, nature surrounds me and I become lost within her. I am a set of eyes and a quiet footstep, a straining pair of ears seeking, say, the source of that whistle or quack—which I know through experience to be the sounds a hen and drake pintail make when they are looking to land somewhere. Will it be in my decoy spread? When you hunt, much of the rest of the world falls away, if only for a few hours. I’ve learned more about how and why nature does what she does in a morning spent hunting in the marsh or forest than most could in a year. I am still and silent, watching and listening, giving all my senses to my surroundings. Hikers, for example, tend to be chatty and relatively noisy. Several times, while I’ve been in the woods hunting, I have heard hikers coming and seen them walk right past me unawares. If I can hide in plain sight and be forewarned of their approach, what must wild animals think about them?
Over the years, I’ve had tiny kinglets alight on my shoulder. I’ve shared the shelter of a dead tree with a ghostly white owl. I’ve unknowingly stalked a wild pig alongside a mountain lion stalking blacktail deer, and stared rapt watching two tarantulas wrestle for dominance. It is beautiful out there, and I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything.
It might surprise some of you to learn that I did not start hunting until I was 32 years old. I shot target rifles a little as a teenager but never hunted. I’d fished and foraged since I could walk, but our family owned no guns, and I knew only one person my age who hunted. I grew up in suburban New Jersey, where guns were for video games or movies or criminals, and deer were pests, eaters of azaleas and backyard flower beds.
Decades later, when Holly and I moved to Minnesota, I became fast friends with Chris Niskanen, the hunting and fishing writer for the newspaper we worked for, the St. Paul Pioneer Press. I was lamenting the limited fishing in early winter (before ice-up brought a long ice fishing season), when Chris asked if I wanted to join him on a pheasant hunt in South Dakota. I’d eaten pheasant and thought the idea of catching my own wild chickens would be pretty cool. I knew nothing about shooting a shotgun or how to actually shoot pheasants, but I tagged along. We drove out to Aberdeen with Chris’s black Labrador Finn and stayed in a modest little motel that was fine with hunting dogs as added guests.
It was cold. We were hunting the last week of the season, between Christmas and New Year’s, and there was snow on the ground. Chris said it’d be a hard hunt, and it was. I couldn’t shoot worth a damn, and I caught a marsh reed in the corner of my eye that made it tear up uncontrollably — and it was so cold the tears froze to my face. But Chris is an excellent hunter, and he shot his limit of three birds on both days of the hunt. I was deeply impressed, both with his skill and the bottom-line fact that we would come home with six ditch chickens to eat.
Chris gave me three of them to take home. He told me to skin them and break the carcass down like a chicken. I said no. I was determined to pluck them because to me, the skin on a chicken is the best part. “Pluck them gently then,” he said. “The skin rips.” We were living in an apartment in downtown St. Paul at the time, and the only place that seemed suitable for this sort of dirty work was the parking garage beneath the building. So I grabbed a couple of plastic bags and a knife and went downstairs. Chris wasn’t kidding about the skin. It tore up everywhere, and I soon broke down and followed his advice.
There were other surprises. The pheasants had been eating when he’d shot them, and out of their crops spilled what seemed like a full cup of milo, corn, and other seeds. It was alarming. Then I slipped the knife behind the breast to gut the birds. I reached in and felt a cold, squishy mass, yanked it out . . . and almost gagged. I’d broken the intestinal tract, and the guts reeked. So this was death, I thought. This was where my meat comes from.
I honestly wasn’t sure I could go on. The smell and the mess and the blood were so different from fishing, which seemed almost antiseptic by comparison. But I decided that if we killed these birds, it was my duty to eat them. So I washed the pheasants well and let them age a bit in the fridge. A few days later, I cooked them in a tomato sauce, and we ate them with some potatoes and bread.
The taste was very much like chicken, but like no chicken I’d ever eaten. It felt firmer, denser, more substantial, more vital. I wanted more. My head began whirling with cooking possibilities. As a larval hunter, I wanted to learn the skills my friend possessed. I wanted that easy competence and calm knowledge that if you read the wind and the terrain and the weather correctly, you would probably come home with food for the table. That hunt began what has become a way of life for me. I offer my experience as a road map for anyone like me: a clueless enthusiast who wants to eat wild game but has no idea how to proceed.
Reprinted from: HUNT, GATHER, COOK © 2011 by Hank Shaw. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.