Talking with Hank Shaw

Hank Shaw is a self-professed omnivore who says he’s solved his own Pollan-esian dilemma. As a wild-foods advocate, he forages, gardens, fishes and hunts—prepares and eats it all—and then writes about it. Fans of his cookbooks, podcast and blog look to him for inspiration and guidance in learning about food accessed well outside the corporate food system. This off-the-food-grid former political reporter and restaurant cook is living proof that growing and catching your dinner and cooking up something delicious with it is both doable and rewarding. In the midst of touring for his latest book, “Buck, Buck, Moose”—a compendium of recipes and techniques for cooking all things antlered—we caught up with Shaw to talk about what to do with our meat, foot arches and what makes us all hunters at heart.

 What’s your biggest challenge as a hunting advocate?

 It depends on who I’m talking to. If it’s someone who doesn’t have a license, that’s a hurdle. If it’s someone who doesn’t have a place to hunt, that’s a hurdle. The hunting world is an opaque one. If you didn’t grow up in it, it’s hard to know where to begin. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) is a very helpful place to start. To get your hunting license, you’ll take a hunter education course. In addition to a great foundation in hunting, TPWD is a great place to connect with resources. They have programs beyond just the basic hunter education. Then there are the more in-depth hunt schools, like the ones Jesse Griffiths teaches through Dai Due. I do a Texas deer school every year, too. Last year, we had three or four first-time hunters and all but one got a deer. These classes are an opportunity to learn how to hunt and get hands-on skinning, gutting and butchering practice. The last piece of the puzzle is knowing what to do with the meat. 

 And that’s where your books come in?

 Exactly. I’m not going to hate on someone for turning their whole deer into ground meat—they’re eating it and that’s the most important thing. What I am trying to do is give people options. There’s a lot more that can be done with deer, elk and moose, and you can look all over the world for inspiration. Most of the recipes in this book are from the regions where those animals come from. Surprisingly, in this country, tradition is a challenge when it comes to expanding people’s ideas about how to cook venison. There is no other meat that’s so laden with folk wisdom and tradition—every hunting family has five or six recipes that they know everyone will eat. A hunter works very hard to get a deer, so if I’m asking you to do something different with a venison tenderloin, it better damn well work. Every recipe in the book has at least three cooks test it…but I don’t let chefs test my recipes. All the recipes are tested by real home cooks.

 Interest in where our food comes from has increased in recent years. Do you think an interest in hunting has changed our food system in significant ways?

 Yes, in significant but small ways. Hunting is not easy. The barriers to entry are profound for the average person. Less than five percent of our population hunts, but for those people, hunting represents certainty in an uncertain world. What I hear a lot from newcomers, as well as long-time hunters, is a real loathing of factory farming and a distrust of the corporate food system. As a hunter, you can opt out legally. There’s a deep comfort in knowing where your food comes from—when you open the freezer and pull out a shank, you know exactly where that meat came from. And you develop an enormous respect for that meat. You’re not going to waste any of it. As I say, “You broke it, you bought it.”

 What do you think draws people to hunt?

 We’ve been hunting deer since before we were Homo sapiens. It’s so much a part of what makes us us. There is no other primate that has an arch in the foot and can run. And humans are the only animals…besides wolves…that will “persistence hunt”—meaning, track and chase an animal to exhaustion. We’re the only primates that can throw worth a damn, which can be traced back to our very first efforts throwing a spear to hunt. The general consensus among anthropologists is that human speech and spatial concepts developed because they allowed us to gang up on animals for hunting. Meat-eating started with big game, which makes sense as it gives you more bang for your buck. All that hard work better yield something that’s worthwhile and will feed a lot of people. Hunting deer and other antlered animals is absolutely hard-wired within us. Even people who oppose hunting recognize this.

 Now that you’ve given us food for thought, what do you have your sights set on for 2017?

 For me, 2017 will be a year to hunker down and recharge; 2016 has been so difficult, so grueling, that I need some “me” time. But work-wise, I plan on writing my next book, which will be on upland game birds like pheasants and grouse, along with all the small game animals like rabbits and hares.

By Elizabeth Winslow • Photography by Holly A. Heyser

venison 2

Why Deer Make Us Human

By Hank Shaw. Excerpted from “Buck, Buck, Moose” by Hank Shaw, © H&H Books.

Our dance with deer can seem eternal, and in a human sense it is. We have hunted, and deer have avoided us, for so long that when it all began neither of us were who we are today. We have been hunting something like a deer so long that when we started we were something like a human. A great many in the paleontological community think that it is the pursuit of deer-like animals that made us fully human.

Think for a moment about our bodies, and our minds. Thumbs are handy for plucking fruit from trees, but they are also great for fashioning and using tools. Standing upright helps us see over tall grass—both for things that want to get us, and for seeing things we would like to get. But it is our inner life that may have been the most fundamentally changed by hunting. Lots of animals can talk to each other, saying things like, “Look out for that lion!” Or, “Food is over there!” (I’ve always imagined other animals talking in exclamation points…) But no other animal we know of can say, “Tomorrow, when we go down to the river, watch out for the reeds. I saw crocodiles there yesterday.” Or, “We’re going over this hill and when we get there, we’ll spread out. I know that the antelope funnel through there, or at least they’ve done so every year at this time. Louie, you hide in the bushes. I’ll sit under this tree. When you see them, whistle like a honeybird, OK?” (I love the notion of a Homo erectus named Louie.) Complex thought and communications appear to be exclusive to us. Yes, the Great Apes, dolphins and some corvids can get pretty complex, but nothing to the level of us. The most widely accepted reason for this is that it was an adaptation for hunting. Hunting the antelope and other deer-like animals of Africa. 

Deer hunting is in our DNA. Deer, in a general sense of the word, is a recognized food item all over the world. Even vegans and anti-hunters will acknowledge that it is perfectly normal for humans to eat them, even if they are hoping we will end this million-year habit tomorrow…or maybe next month. Tell most people you are deer hunting and they will shrug. Sure, OK. No big deal. Now tell them you are swan hunting. Or even bear hunting. You’ll get a different reaction. Humans eat venison. It’s what we do.... 

…First thing you need to know when you have some venison to cook is that the whole world cooks it. That means you can use venison as a substitute for beef, lamb or goat in pretty much any recipe—and many of those recipes originated with venison of some sort, not a domesticated meat. Curry. Stir-fry. Soups, stews, braises. Meat pies. Pasta sauces. Mole and salsa. And always over open fire. That said, there are subtle but important differences in cooking beef versus venison, and this book details them fully.