Hank Shaw is one of those people whom you really, really hope can pull off a truly great cookbook in his just-released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.
If you don't know him, Shaw is the man behind Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, a blog that is about Shaw living out those four words. But not in that fabricated, perfectly styled light box photo sort of way, but with an honesty and relevance that makes it apparent how rarely a blog told in a singular perspective actually achieves half as much. That Shaw has twenty years of newspaper reporting perspective behind those hunting-angling-gardening-cooking tales shows in the maturity of his content. There are no “Guess what I did today in the kitchen!!!” exclamation point moments here, meaning that buttermilk fried rabbit recipe was not included for the online gastronomic show, but because Shaw hunts rabbits and needed a recipe to cook up a particularly tender young hare. And so he shares it with us.
Those are the same reasons we love his cookbook. Well, it's not exactly a cookbook. Turn the page.
Yes, there are recipes in Hunt, Gather, Cook. But like the website, it is narrative-heavy. But this book is — thankfully — not yet another manifesto on the “locavore” lifestyle. As Shaw says in the Introduction: “I am not asking you to forgo the supermarket. I go there every week, largely for flour, sugar, dairy products, and beer. No, I don't make my own beer. Yet.” That, at least according to his website, he admits to drinking “bourbon, Barolo or Budweiser with equal relish” (no craft beer-only snobbery here) is part of his charm. Shaw doesn't try to live a locavore lifestyle. He simply does it, then shares his experience living off the land with us.
In the “Foraging from Coast to Coast” chapter, Shaw tells us how to spot Manzanita berries should we happen upon them off the 405. Right. Even if Manzanita berries may not be in our regional foraging future, it is what he goes on to tell us about those foraged finds that make the book interesting: Franciscan friars, “the first European settlers of California, made a sort of cider from the berries of the Manzanita bush. You'll find these bushes growing in great profusion in the Sierra Nevada of California.” And then he gives us that cider recipe.
What follows is a discussion of harvesting acorns (finding the sweetest, the largest, or the “fattiest” acorns by species of oak), how to dry your acorns, and how to turn them into flour. And then, recipes telling you what to do with them — acorn flatbreads (p. 41), acorn or chestnut flour pasta (p. 42), acorn soup with porcini and brandy (p.45). He then moves on to beach peas (“exactly what they sound like: peas that live near the ocean on sandy soil”), saltwort (“also known as glasswort, samphire, chicken feet or sea bean… one of my all-time favorite vegetables”), and day lilies (“I had no idea daylilies tasted so good until… I finally ate some”) and such.
As the book continues through each of the three sections (after the foraging section we move into fishing, then, of course, hunting), Shaw speaks to us in that same eel discovery tone: “Eels are not snakes, just odd-looking fish. Still, I've seen grown men freak out after hauling up a conger eel… but [they] have very firm, very white meat. Eel is among my favorite fish.”
This isn't an encyclopedia that gives dictionary-precise definitions of what to do with that deer tongue from last weekend's hunt (boil, slice and use it to top a green salad). Hunt, Gather, Cook is the story of Shaw's life. A deftly narrated story that has us considering doing a little more foraging, fishing, and sure, maybe even hunting, so that we can have an excuse to buy a salami fridge, too. “Yes, I have a salami fridge,” says Shaw, who uses it to age wild pheasants and such that he rounds up on weekends. “Is that weird?”
Anyone who finds it strange to age self-caught wild game, as people have been doing for hundreds – thousands – of years, should probably take a look at all the factory “produced” and chemically-enhanced animal parts in their fridge. No, it's not weird. It is real.