Hunt, Gather, Cook: Returning to our roots

This is the post that I wrote three days ago about Hunt, Gather, Cook and Stalking the Wild Asparagus. I found another 1200 words to write about it (written on Sunday, posted on Monday).

A week ago I had no idea who Hank Shaw was. October’s promotional postcard for 86’D said “Book launch + interview with James Beard nominated author Hank Shaw‘s ‘Hunt Gather Cook'” and 86’d host Ivy Knight‘s post on the 86’d Facebook group promised a “James Beard nominated author”. Hank’s name was unfamiliar to me before this, I didn’t research him and I paid little attention to the theme. I didn’t know that he was doing a demo at Evergreen Brick Works two days prior either despite some of my friends blogging about it (I’m on an RSS reader break, checking my feeds a couple times a week rather than a couple times a day). Blogger David Ort wrote about it later that day, and of his experience being Shaw’s assistant at the demo, but I didn’t read the post until days later.

So, when I arrived at 86’d I knew nothing about the author or the book. Sometimes it’s nice to not do advance research and then learn. I flipped through Ivy’s copy, interested by the title. Short and punchy, it succinctly says what the book is about (unlike this post). As I listened to Ivy interview Hank I was impressed by what he said. For example, I learned that Hank hasn’t bought meat for home in 6 years. He eats what he kills. Also, while I have no concept of bullet size, neither does Ivy. That’s okay, we can learn.

Though it hadn’t been on my radar before that evening, I bought the book. Hank and I spent quite a bit of time chatting. He’s an affable guy, definitely someone you’d like to have drinks with. Dana (Well Preserved) bought a second copy for her home. Now her and Joel each have copies of their own (Joel seemed to have taken his on the hunting trip he was on – see link to his review at bottom).

Book highlights

Like Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Hunt, Gather, Cook educates readers about how to fend for themselves. It reminds us that nature provides for us. If you’re religious, you may say that “god” provides for us. We live in an edible world. If you know what to look for, you can find food on lawns, between cracks on the sidewalk, in parks, in parking lots and on beaches. This afternoon I took a guided tour of the buried Garrison Creek and discovered edible wild plants that I never knew existed. I have a memory of harvesting little dandelions and boiling them at Camp Robin Hood when I was a child of single digit age. You may or may not know that some of the greens that we consume often are weeds, aka invasive species. Mint is a weed. Last month I heard an episode of Vinyl Cafe in which Dave encounters Mexican Climbing Mint (search for September 10, 2011). Lamb’s quarters and purslane appear on menus. Yesterday I bought something called “minutina” from the Vicky’s Veggies table at the farmers’ market and passed on another bitter green I’d never heard of and that I don’t recall the name of.

Of course, it’s easy to poison yourself too. You need to know what to look for. I say this as a city dweller who isn’t yet knowledgeable about such things and just starting to learn. In 1962, Euell Gibbons wrote that it’s harder to poison ourselves than the average city dweller seems to think.

But isn’t there danger of eating a poisonous plant by mistake? A person could get poisoned in his own vegetable garden if he didn’t know poison hemlock from parsley….True, a person who can’t tell the difference between poison ivy and a wild grapevine has no business trying to gather wild food, unless he is accompanied by someone who knows considerably more than he does; just as a person who can’t tell one vegetable from another has no business shopping alone, but one is no harder to learn than the other.

He also wrote that if we can learn to tell a head of cabbage apart from a head of lettuce in the grocery store to the point of recognizing them intuitively, we can do the same with wild food plants.

In the introduction to Hunt, Gather, Cook, Shaw (whom I imagine writing with a copy of Gibbons’ book next to him) says similar, and

What stops the blackberry pickers from enjoying the miner’s lettuce, mushrooms, or acorns that surround the bramble? Innocent ignorance and a healthy fear of the unknown.

And that’s why we need books like these.

Hunt, Gather, Cook has a chapter about making your own fruit wine, and recipes ranging from “wild greens ravioli” and “pickled sea beans or sea rocket pods” (I love that he discusses salicornia) to” Swedish Moose Meatballs”, “Braised Squirrel Aurora” (don’t do this with Toronto roadkill) and “Corned Antelope”. Not all of it sounds crazy. A chapter called “Clams and their cousins” has a recipe for “My Mum’s Clam Chowder” with no unfamiliar ingredients. The recipe for moose meatballs was adapted from his grandmother’s Swedish meatball recipe and he notes that in Scandinavia the meatballs are sometimes made with reindeer. Not to be confused with Santa’s transportation, reindeer are also known as caribou.

Not just recipes, Hunt, Gather, Cook is a guidebook with photos. It tells you what to look for, how and where.

Dana and I discussed pursuing hunting. It’s not the first time I’ve thought about it (read about hunting in Ontario). I have at least one other friend who hunts.

Author Michael Ruhlman, who provided a jacket endorsement for the book, called it “a fabulous resource for anyone who wants to take more control over the food they eat and have more fun doing so” and “a complete reference on foraging, fishing, and hunting, with great recipes by a writer, outdoorsman, and cook with enormous passion.”

I haven’t read the entire book yet – I should finish Asparagus first so I can return it to the library on time – but I will cook something from this book and let you know how it turns out. I wish I’d read it before the summer, when wild greens were fresher and more plentiful. However, I bet I could find food in the nearby ravine. I want this book to become one of my regular resources, one of my food bibles.

Hank told me that the next time I’m in the San Francisco Bay area he’ll take me foraging. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I’m going to hold him to that.

Whether you’re a wannabe hunter, a current forager or anyone who wants to be able to identify plants that you encounter every day, go buy it. As Sam Sifton said in the New York Times, the book very well could change your life and is worth reading even if you suspect that it won’t. The book may even save you money at the supermarket. As the Chinese proverb says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

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