It's been a while since I've interviewed someone I admire on the blog. Last time was my friend Jenna Woginrich, a farmer and writer up at the wonderful Cold Antler Farm. This time, I contacted Hank Shaw, a hunter, an angler and a forager whose blog is chock full with drool-inducing recipes featuring the seasonal and wild foods that he has personally gone out into the world to find. He's written a best-selling book called Hunt, Gather, Cook which I recommend to any wild food enthusiast or adventurous cook. I enjoy Hank's writing because it possesses reverence for the lives that feed him that isn't ham-fisted or saccharine. It's respectful without being precious. It's graceful and it's fact in his world and it feels authentic to me. Add to that that the man can cook like nobodies business. It's an inspiring read nearly every time.
Hank's blog, if you haven't already visited, is called Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. Do yourself a favor and add it to your feed. It's one of my favorite places to click to for inspiration. When you are like me and you try to dine on what is free and near, checking in at websites like his keeps the fires stoked. After the interview, check out this link to his recipe for Venison Meatballs, Greek-style. We've been enjoying this dish all winter with some of the venison our neighbor has been trading us for eggs!
(Note: In November, Hank will be visiting us here at the farm for a book event. He's just written Duck, Duck, Goose, a book about cooking wild and domesticated water fowl.)
BH: Was there a definitive moment when it dawned on you that seeking and eating wild food was preferable and something you wanted to make part of your daily life?
Hank: Not really. I grew up picking berries and digging clams and fishing. Wild food is part of our family's DNA. But I can tell you that one reason I've taken it into hunting -- something no one else in my family does -- is as a conscious rejection of factory farmed meats. There is real horror in industrial meat production, and I want to minimize my involvement in it as best I can; I have bought meat only a handful of times since 2004.
BH: Killing and consuming wild or farm-raised animals, especially cute ones, can be really a really polarizing topic. How do you find yourself coping with folks that seem to take serious issue with the rather hands-on manner in which you provide for yourself?
H: Well, it can come from several directions. The most amusing are the "cute-itarians," those who will eat beef because they're ugly and not lamb because they're cute. Kinda ridiculous. The other easy ones to dismiss are those hypocrites who tell me I am a monster for hunting when they wear leather shoes and gladly stuff their pie holes with McDonald's burgers. They lash out at me because they fear the reality I choose to face head on. What I do reminds them that their burger was once a cow, their skinless, boneless chicken breasts were once wandering around pecking things -- or not, in the case of factory chickens, which barely get to move at all.
On the other hand, I enjoy debating and discussing with vegetarians. I like vegetarians, because many of them (not all, mind you) have also spent time thinking about the industrial food system and they too have rejected it. Their choice is merely a different one from mine. Where we debate is in who does the least harm to the world. This, in the grand scheme of things is akin to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin -- vegetarians and hunters do FAR less harm to the earth than do the typically wasteful American consumer. That said, vegetarians (and vegans) need to realize that animals die for them, too. Anyone who's ever seen the crows and seagulls flock around a disker, pecking at the chopped up remains of mice, voles, baby birds and such -- and I'm not even going to get into the issue of habitat loss and pesticide use -- understands that no one lives unless something dies. It is a cruel fact of this world.
BH: How do you feel that your lifestyle has effected your perspective? Do you feel differently than you did before you began actively hunting and foraging?
H: Like I said, I've been foraging and fishing my whole life. But hunting has definitely changed my perspective. I waste less meat now. I am a better cook because I hunt -- it requires skill to cook offal, and the tough cuts of an animal. I actually eat less meat now, because I have chosen to eat only what I bring home. I think hunting has restored meat's rightful place in my life: For most of human existence, meat has been special. Before I hunted, it was not. Not it is something I hold in reverence.
BH: What advice would you give someone with hesitation about how to get started hunting or foraging? Do you have any advice for people who are afraid of taking a life to feed themselves or their families?
H: It is absolutely a big deal, a serious matter. And not everyone can do it. It's been a powerful long time since everyone was required to be able to kill for their meat -- eons, actually. And there is no shame in facing the moment and finding yourself unwilling or unable to pull that trigger, or release that arrow or slash those gills. My advice for those who are curious is to talk to anglers and hunters and livestock farmers. If you are still interested, ask to join them on a fishing trip, or a hunt or on slaughter day. Watch. Let it seep in. If you think you can do it, only then should you start the journey.
Killing for meat, especially when we're talking about fellow mammals like deer, is never easy. Nor should it be. But over time you understand that doing so is taking your place on Nature's stage. We have been hunters since before we were fully human. There is no shame in accepting that -- so long as we remember to respect what Nature gives us.
BH: In your opinion, what is the most rewarding aspect to having a more intimate involvement with your food?
H:Getting to see Nature in a way no other people get to see. Hunting, fishing and foraging get me closer to the wild world than you ever possibly could as a hiker or as a spectator with a camera. To succeed in what I do, I must understand what I am pursuing -- whether it be bird, beast, fish or plant -- far more than I would need to as a casual observer. There is an intimacy in the process that lies outside the realm of reason. The forest, the fields, the ocean. These are my cathedrals.