A Conversation With Hank Shaw 

The hunting-and-gathering enthusiast talks juniper berries and venison heart cutlets

James Beard nominee Hank Shaw is an avid hunter, angler gardener and cook.

Holly A Heyser

James Beard nominee Hank Shaw is an avid hunter, angler gardener and cook.

For many, it is a dream to live off the land--eat the wild greens that grow in the back yard, fish the local streams for food, hunt if you want to.

But this dream is unrealistic, right? There's no way that a person can get all the food they eat, or even a majority of it, off the land. Well, it's possible if you're Hank Shaw.

Shaw is at the top of an ever-growing list of those who make a career living off the land. Call it hyper-localism if you want, but Shaw is the real deal--he hunts, fishes and gathers the majority of his calories. Hank has chronicled this culinary journey is his new book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.

Honestly I would expect a book like this to be written by a guy in a cabin in Montana, not a gent living in California. How do you square city-living with your desire to be outside hunting and gathering?

I live outside Sacramento, [Calif.,] which has some of the best waterfowl hunting in North America. Most people don't know that, nor do they know that northern California has a very strong hunting culture, at least once you leave the Bay Area. So there really isn't anything to square.

What is the day job for a guy who published a book called Hunt, Gather, Cook?

I was a political reporter for 18 years before I took a leap of faith to do this full-time. I mostly covered state capitals, and I covered Congress for a little while. Most of that time I worked for newspapers, but I finished up at an insider-y political newsletter called the Capitol Morning Report, which is something of a hot-sheet for everyone who is in-the-know in California politics.

Did you gather your way cross-country testing recipes?

I did. It was very important that my book not be regional in scope. I've lived in the West, Midwest, the South and the Northeast, so I have that background already. I wanted the book to reflect that.

In your book, you call the hunting world "largely male, rural, agrarian, white and conservative." Do you see that dynamic shifting across the country?

I am seeing more and more food people enter the traditional hook-and-bullet world. I don't go a week or two without getting an email or message from a chef or foodie asking me about getting into hunting or fishing. I think there is a long way to go before this group of folks has anything like the kind of numbers as the traditional community, but they are becoming a prominent minority.

My book is geared at both groups: It is intended to help food people get into the world of wild food, and my hope is that those who already hunt, fish or forage can pick up new tips and tricks on how to prepare their catch. I've been really pleased with how many hunters I've heard from who have said they are planning on expanding their foraging after they've read the book.

I noticed that you roast game birds whole in one recipe in the book. I have been preaching for years that since game birds actually use the their legs, unlike factory chicken, that the legs should be removed and cooked separately. How do the legs turn out?

Depends on the bird. Ducks don't run around that much, nor do doves. In my experience, partridges, quail and most grouse can be roasted whole with no problem. Pheasants and turkeys, however, can be an issue. An old pheasant or any turkey will have so much sinew in its legs that you do want to take the bird apart. But a young pheasant, especially if you hunt at a game preserve, will still be tender enough to roast whole.

Hanging game meat with its intestines still in place has always freaked me out. You recommend it for game birds, however. Can you tell me what is going on and how this helps me make my dinner taste better?

The "bug" issue is really over-hyped. We all have bacteria in our innards and most are not harmful. Temperature is the key. What happens when you hang game is that you are controlling rot in the same way you do with dry-aged beef. At the proper temperature, around 55 degrees, certain bugs and enzymes can do their thing within the carcass, but the bad bugs cannot; they need higher temperatures. Those bugs and enzymes work on the meat and break it down, loosening the connective tissue and tenderizing the meat, giving it a more concentrated flavor in the process.

Mind you, this will give your game more flavor--gamey in a good way. This will alarm many people who are used to eating plastic-wrapped domestic meats, which, in my opinion, have little flavor. So if you have those people in your house, experiment with hanging gradually.

I often find myself with a lot of "random" cuts of meat in the freezer from my hunting escapades. Do you have a good way to get rid of the odds and ends that might be piling up in the hunter's freezer?

Depends on the cut. I have lots and lots of recipes on [honest-food.net] for odd bits of anything from elk to upland birds to waterfowl. Dirty rice is a great recipe for bird giblets, and everyone loves a long-braised venison shank. I am a huge fan of pounding out cutlets of venison hearts and cooking them like jaeger schnitzel. There are endless possibilities for the rest of the animal.

Do you consider hunting/fishing/gathering and addiction? My wife does.

Yeah, pretty much. There is something about the process that is so deeply satisfying, you want more and more of it. Mushroom hunting is a treasure hunt--literally, as some varieties can fetch $30 a pound. Fishing is an exercise in mystery and patience--is there really a fish down there? And hunting occupies all of the senses. Hunting is the activity that really makes me feel most alive. I can lose myself in the marsh or woods and totally focus on the hunt. It is a liberating feeling.

November, high desert, freezing temperatures: Best edible wild plant living outside my apartment window?

Huh. Juniper berries, maybe? November in the high desert can be tough. Foraging season ends in colder climates sometime in October. You should be out hunting now.

When are you coming to Idaho?

Hopefully in late spring, when the blue camas is in flower. Camas is one of my favorite edible bulbs, and I've heard there are huge meadows full of it. If I miss that, there's always salmon, trout, elk, deer, grouse.

How many times have people told you that you have "written the book I have always wanted to write"? Because, honestly, that is how I feel.

Never, but thank you.

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