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Dining Out

Hank Shaw is a reporter with Capitol Morning Report and a former Capitol correspondent for the Stockton Record. He also writes a popular food blog and just signed a book deal.

Tell me about your blog.
Hunter Angler Gardener Cook began as a place to write about all the crazy stuff I’d do in between writing magazine articles. I’d just begun a freelance food writing career and was generating ideas faster than I could sell to magazines. So I put them on the blog. Then people started reading. It began to take on a life of its own, and the interplay between what I do and what my readers are doing has become endlessly fascinating — I am as jazzed about writing the blog now as I was two years ago.

A lot of people don’t associate being a hunter with haute cuisine because the common stereotype many have of hunters cooking is some Bubba wrapping everything in bacon. Not that there’s anything wrong with bacon. But if you look to the past, before the end of market hunting in the early 20th century, wild game was considered very high-end. I find much of my inspiration from recipes ranging from the 17th to 19th centuries, and I have dozens of dusty old cookbooks.

More recently, top chefs are discovering how wonderful wild game can be. Ranched, or farm-raised game animals (quail, venison, squab, rabbit, pheasant, etc.) are all over the menus of white-linen restaurants nationwide. Game has more flavor than domestic meat, although it can be tricky to cook — especially when it is truly wild, which is what I work with.

Did you grow up hunting? How did you get interested in becoming a good cook?
No. I did not grow up hunting. I am a born fisherman and forager, however, having started those pursuits as soon as I could walk. I began hunting in 2002 after I’d gone out a few times with my friend Chris Niskanen, the outdoor writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where I worked at the time. I got hooked because I saw a whole new world of potential ingredients for my cooking — ingredients that cannot be bought, and which must be gathered through effort. I also like that hunting put me a bit further on the path toward self-sufficiency: We have not bought meat at home — with the exception of pork from John Bledsoe, a Yolo County farmer — in four years.

As for cooking, I began early, as a teen. I foraged and fished my way through college, then worked as a line cook in graduate school, the same time I began my political reporting. I was desperately poor in those early years as a reporter, and poverty makes you ingenious as a cook.

Tell us how your book deal came about.
Several agents contacted me after I’d been nominated for the James Beard Award early this year. I was flattered to have a choice in the matter, and ultimately went with Paradigm. I wrote a proposal and they shopped it around this past summer. Shortly after Labor Day I got my first offer, and then a second, then a third. Again, I was hugely flattered to have choices — not everyone does. I decided to go with Rodale because the editor, Pam Krauss, had vision for the book that was closest to what I had in mind.

What is the theme behind your upcoming book, “Honest Food: Finding the Forgotten Feast”?
The book will be a guide through my wanderings in an edible world, part memoir, part cookbook, part field guide. Think Euell Gibbons’ “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” meets “Iron Chef.” My goal for the book is to reconnect readers with a world my generation and those older than I am (I’m 39) know well. In my neighborhood, every family had members who were experts at something: Some knew their mushrooms. Others brought back fish for everyone. A few hunted deer. My neighbor was a master gardener. Down the street there was a champion canner, and so on. Much of that has been lost, although more people are becoming interested in regaining that knowledge now. If people read my book and latch on to one thing in it, that they then go and make part of their lives, I will have succeeded.

What’s the most unusual animal you’ve hunted, or the most interesting place you’ve hunted?
I’m going to extend this one to fishing, because I used to catch a lot of eels in the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Eels are common there, but I would wait until the first rain after the full moon in late September or early October — that’s when the eels swam downriver en masse to head to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. I’d catch a bucketful and freeze them.

Eel is very firm, a bit fatty and snow white in color. Most of you know it as unagi, but Italians and Dutch people eat eels a lot. Stewed in an Italian tomato sauce with fennel they are divine. Eels do take some effort to skin though.
 
What’s the best meal you’ve ever made from an animal you hunted yourself?
Very tough question. There are lots of good memories, but a particular one is a meal I made for Holly Heyser, my girlfriend, and I from some snipe I’d shot with friends in the Delta. Snipe are small marsh birds with a unique, earthy flavor that is all out of proportion to their size. I used every bit of the bird for the dish, which was inspired by some 19th century recipes I’d read. I wrote about it here:
http://www.honest-food.net/blog1/2009/01/22/eating-the-mystical-snipe/


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