Washington has 1.1 million more residents than Wisconsin, but in 2003 -- the last year for which data is currently available -- the Badger State issued two million more hunting licenses. While Wisconsin surely capitalized on its reputation as a sportsman's Shangri-la to sell licenses to out-of-state visitors, Washington's middling sales suggest the wild Northwestern state is about as hunting-oriented as Ohio.
But activists pushing for a safer, more sustainable food system are increasingly encouraging home cooks to pick up guns, bows and fishing tackle. "Nothing is more important in the search for a solution...than the ongoing education of Americans on the subject of hunting, fishing, and cooking as an inseparable triptych," Andrew Zimmern writes in his introduction to Jesse Griffiths' gorgeous new cookbook Afield: A Chef's Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish.
Experienced foragers recognize that harvesting animals evokes different emotions than gathering seaweed or picking berries. "I was at the University of Oregon talking about wild food to some students," Hank Shaw wrote in a blog post which led off this year's Best Food Writing compilation. "When I mentioned hunting, I could feel the temperature in the room drop. I asked (one guy) briefly about his hunting experience, and it was obvious that it had been traumatic for the poor kid. I let the topic slide and moved on to mushrooms."
Griffiths, chef of Austin's Dai Due (and, full disclosure, a personal acquaintance through Foodways Texas), likes mushrooms. But he also likes rabbit, simmered with muscat and fennel and served over pappardelle pasta; wild boar shoulder, pulled and nestled in fresh tortillas with jalapeno salsa; and venison tenderloin, diced for a mustardy tartare.
"Hunting and fishing for your dinner gives you a distinct sense of ownership and connection to your own food sources - as well as the responsibilities that come with that, like stewardship, conservation, and a deep respect for life and death," Griffiths writes in the book, lushly illustrated with photographs by Jody Horton (who I've also met at Foodways Texas functions.)
Still, getting started hunting is slightly more daunting than assembling a chicken coop. After all, you could die (which might also be true if you built your backyard coop with power tools.) Griffiths, who took up hunting just five years ago, is sympathetic.
"I read a lot online, read a lot of books, listened to people talk about it, just about did anything to immerse myself in it," he says. "Then, I had to get out there and do it, with the inherent failures and victories of learning a craft."
It helps to have a friend, Griffiths adds. But for aspiring hunters whose social circles are limited to fellow city folk, there's no shame in hiring a guide or signing up for a program sponsored by the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"Good guides are teachers," he says. "If you didn't grow up going to art class, you may need to spring for a couple of classes before you can paint. For instance, I would like to learn more about goose hunting. Going on my own is technically impossible due to the gear and locations needed for it, so I'll hire a guide to go with."
And for Griffiths, hunting doesn't end with a trigger pull: "There is still much work to be done," he writes in Afield. "Scaling, skinning, packaging, braising, frying."
While Afield's set in Texas Hill Country, Griffiths is confident eaters can glean tips on all of the above from his book, no matter where they live.
"You're in elk country up there, and they are basically really big deer," he says. "Game birds like grouse are bigger than doves and quail, but, again, substitution wouldn't be hard at all. As far as fish, these recipes translate very well to any fish, though I bet you guys don't have a lot of catfish up there, which is a damn shame. Of course, you're also blessed with salmon and halibut and Dungeness crabs and awesome shellfish, so it's a decent tradeoff."
"I dream about spending some time up in the Pacific Northwest," he continues, citing the forests filled with blueberries and mushrooms. "Such a beautiful, verdant place with tasty animals and fish everywhere."