A few days ago, I opened up my box freezer. I was looking for some bones to make a soup stock. Couldn’t find them on top, so I dug through the crush of vacuum-sealed packages: Pheasants, a goose, some venison loin. No, that’s not it. Deeper. Mallard, mallard, a package of doves, a big bag of rockfish fillets…ah, there they were! My wild boar bones. The stock turned out wonderfully. I was making a Chinese soup and wanted to use pork broth, which would be closer to the original recipe.
The next day I told someone about this little adventure, and she looked at me like I had eight heads. “You realize you’re psychotic, right? I mean, who the hell has all that weird stuff in their freezer. Don’t you ever eat beef or chicken?”
Well, no. At least not at home. With a handful of exceptions, it has been five years since I’ve cooked store-bought meat in my kitchen. Venison has replaced beef, pheasant supplanted chicken, and salmon caught in the river down the road has pushed aside the farmed stuff entirely.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Why do I do this? Why spend hours and hours, often fruitlessly, hiding in marshes with a shotgun, scouring the forest floor or casting a line? Couldn’t I spend my time better in other pursuits? Maybe. But what I gain from my life outdoors goes far beyond nutrition or even the glories of a meal well-prepared. When I am free from concrete and computers, searching for my supper, I get to retake the place on Nature’s stage our ancestors left when they came in from the wild and first built their cities. It is a heady feeling.
To me, it is not enough to merely walk in the woods. Being an observer is not the same as being a participant in Nature. If you hike, you are free to be as casual or as chatty as you wish. If you hunt, you know you must move silently or not at all. You strain to hear the slightest crackle of hoof on fallen leaf. You lift your nose to the wind to catch the faint scent of a rutting buck.
The great Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once said that you must kill in order to have hunted. What he meant was that to truly be alive to Nature, you must have purpose – and no purpose sharpens the mind like the pursuit of sustenance. I would add to Ortega y Gasset’s maxim that you must eat in order to earn the right to hunt again. Eating the game you kill closes the loop. Besides, food just tastes better when you have to work for it.
I like looking into my box freezer. Every loin or shank or liver or breast is a story, an adventure – a glorious meal, waiting to happen.
Hank Shaw's blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, won the 2010 Bert Greene Award for Best Food Blog from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and has been twice nominated for a James Beard Award. He's hard at work on his first cookbook, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, which will be published next spring by Rodale.