Hank Shaw: Pheasant Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook
- Blog Post by: Bob St. Pierre
- October 5, 2011 - 1:50 PM
Editor’s Note: Hunt, Gather, Cook author Hank Shaw has penned a portion of Pheasants Forever’s “Wild Game Cooking” special section appearing in the upcoming winter issue of the Pheasants Forever Journal. If you’d like to become a member of Pheasants Forever and receive this issue along with a full year’s subscription, join today by following this link.
According to Wikipedia, the market for organic foods grew from nothing to a $55 billion industry by 2009. I believe a similar trend is developing around our roots as hunters and gatherers. From Steven Rinella’s Travel Channel show, The Wild Within, to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg declaring that he’d like to become a hunter, folks that hunt, fish and gather their food are becoming today’s pop culture trendsetters. Suddenly, mainstream America has an interest in the origination and acquisition of the food on their tables.
One of the leaders bridging our hunting and gathering roots to mainstream America is Hank Shaw. Shaw is most known for his popular blog: Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. I caught up via email with Hank to ask him about a couple of his new endeavors; including, a fantastic new book titled Hunt, Gather, Cook.
St.Pierre: The Minnesota DNR’s Chris Niskanen, a mutual friend of ours, was the guy that introduced you to hunting when you were 32 years old. Tell me about that experience; why were you interested, what surprised you, and what hooked you on hunting to the extent that you make your living today as a result of your ability to hunt, write about hunting and cook the fruits of your labor?
Shaw: I first became interested in hunting because, oddly, of my fishing abilities. When I’d lived on Long Island, I developed a deep knowledge of the waters there – to the point where I could almost always catch something. I knew the tides, moon phases, and seasons. I could read current breaks, knew where structure was to hold fish. And, most importantly, I had the skills to make pretty much any seafood taste great.
When I moved to Minnesota, I wanted that same ability on land. Chris took me out to South Dakota to hunt pheasants. It was a hard hunt, as it was the last week of the season and we were hunting public land, but Chris could still easily come away with his limit of pheasants each day. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but I was hooked.
What surprised me most was how engrossing hunting became. You can drink beer and shoot the breeze when you are fishing, but when you are hunting you must live completely within the moment. You become a set of ears and eyes, you start to notice smells you’d never notice before; I’ve smelled deer before I could see them. I never felt so truly alive as when I am quiet in the woods, hunting for deer, rabbits or squirrels. Even when I don’t come home with anything, I feel rejuvenated after the experience.
St.Pierre: Both your book and your blog are subtitled “finding the forgotten feast.” To me, that subtitle echoes of Aldo Leopold’s often referenced passage from A Sand County Almanac in which he talks about food not coming from the grocery store, but from the land. Why is it important to you for America to rediscover this “forgotten feast?”
Shaw: Because we are one of the only cultures that does not, for the most part, eat food from our land. Very few of the foods Americans now eat are native to the 50 states. This was not always the case. Muskrat (called “marsh hare”) was sold in the finest restaurants in America a century ago. Our basic knowledge of plants and animals was far greater than it is today. Wild game and wild foods were once a normal part of the fabric of our lives. Now they are an exotic novelty.
What I hope to achieve is to rekindle people’s interest in nature’s bounty – and I am not talking about living off the grid or anything. I am talking about it becoming normal for people to own their own slice of nature within an otherwise “normal” life: Maybe they’re anglers, maybe they gather wild rice or berries or mushrooms. Maybe they hunt a deer for the freezer every year. Minnesota is one of my favorite states because so many Minnesotans already do this, so what I do is not such an alien concept for them.
St.Pierre: I consider myself to be a hunter, angler and gatherer. I pick morel mushrooms and wild asparagus, hunt voraciously, and fish adequately, but some of the things you pursue had me thinking some of this stuff is more work than it’s worth. The effort to make a cup of acorn coffee, for instance, seemed a painstakingly long process for the reward. Where do you find the balance between adventure and practicality?
Shaw: Everyone has to find his own balance. I don’t really do acorn coffee so much because its flavor is only so-so, but acorn flour has such a distinctive nutty flavor I find it more than worth the effort. It is the perfect flour to use when cooking game.
But you bring up a good point, because if your calculus is always cost-benefit, or whether wild foods are cheaper than Wal-Mart, wild food will always lose. But there is a spiritual, emotional component to this that cannot be quantified. Anyone who has ever gone fishing on a camping trip, and who’s fried that fish up over an open fire that night, knows just how good that fish will taste – it’s more than the sum of its parts. There is something deeply satisfying about working for your dinner.
St.Pierre: Of all the crazy things you’ve chased, gathered, and cooked, what is: a) your favorite and b) the thing most of us would think odd that you absolutely loved?
Shaw: I dunno. There are so many awesome experiences. But I have to say ruffed grouse hunting in the far north of Minnesota is right up there. Hunting grouse in the forest touches me in a way that no other hunting does. I grew up around very old forests in New Jersey, and whenever I return to that kind of woods – no matter what state I happen to find myself in – I get the feeling I am home. I love the desert, I love the mountains, but I am most at home in the forest. And there may be no other game bird as delicious as a ruffed grouse. Maybe a woodcock, but that’s arguable.
Crazy things? Hard to say. Maybe periwinkle snails off the rocks of New England. Blue camas bulbs in the High Sierra, which you need to be sure aren’t the disturbingly named death camas bulbs. I also happen to love the freshwater drum of the St. Croix River, which most people scorn. I love that they are fatty and rich, just like their cousins the redfish of Louisiana.
St.Pierre: Since I’m a pheasant guy, I’ve gotta know your favorite pheasant meal, the sides you like to serve with your pheasant and the drink to wash it down?
Shaw: OK, this is tough one, because I eat pheasant all the time. But I do a dish where I gently poach the pheasant breast in pheasant broth, then crispy-fry the skin separately. I serve the poached breast with the crispy skin on top, with a sweet-savory corn sauce underneath. It is just awesome. Sure, it’s a little cheffy, but I like my pheasant breast gently cooked and I love, love, crispy skin.
A drink to wash it down? I think a heavy white, like a Cote du Rhone blend, a Viognier, or an unoaked Chardonnay are good. But so are dry roses from southern France or Spain, and even light reds such as a Gamay, Grenache or Pinot Noir work well, too. It depends on how you’re serving the pheasant. Same goes with beer: Everything from a Grain Belt to an expensive Chimay Belgian beer works with pheasant, depending on the preparation.
St.Pierre: My wife and I are looking forward to dining at Corner Table in Minneapolis next Monday night when you will be the guest chef for the evening. What can folks attending your special appearances expect to taste and learn from these events?
Shaw: Our wild food book dinners are expressions of time and place. I work closely with the chefs, in this case Chef Scott Pampuch, to create a multi-course menu that can only really be done in one place and in one time – in our case, we’ll have lots of autumn Minnesota products, like walleye, pike, highbush cranberries, real Ojibwe wild rice, pheasant, venison – that sort of thing. Minnesota has such a wealth of wild foods that Scott and I are really looking forward to putting together a symphony of the North Star State’s finest foods. Even experienced eaters will taste something new here. I guarantee it.
Hank Shaw will be appearing at Corner Table in Minneapolis on Monday, October 10th at 6 pm. Reservations for this special meal can be made by calling 612.823.0011. Price is $65 per person.
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