The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Hank Shaw - Hunter, Gardener, Fisherman, Cook - Wins A James Beard Award
Posted May 4, 2013 by Jeff Houck
Updated May 4, 2013 at 08:26 AM
Two years ago this month, I had a chance to go fishing 20 miles off Longboat Key in the Gulf of Mexico with Hank Shaw, author of the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook [link] and the resulting book “Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast.” [link]
His message: Food is all around us. You just have to know what you’re looking for, know how to get it and then know how to cook it. If that’s the way you like to approach your food, if you’re a Ron Swanson type when it comes to grub, Hank Shaw is your man.
A former political reporter in Northern California, Shaw turned a lifelong passion for dining on the outdoors into a writing career. Last night in New York City, he took home a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for best food blog. It was his third medal for the site.
During his visit to Tampa, he hooked into amberjack, threw down some devil crab at Brocato’s and taped a cooking segment on the “Daytime” show.
If it’s true that most people live on the world, not in it, Shaw is a one-man immersion project. He’s been foraging for berries and wild plants since he could walk. He started fishing even earlier, he says. Hunting came during adulthood, but he’s embraced that, too.
The blog and book are a declaration of eating independence from our grocery-bound existence.
“We’ve been hunters and gatherers eons longer than we’ve been farmers,” he writes. “Who among even the most urban of us has not eyed a ripe blackberry with interest, even lust, while walking along a path on a hot summer’s day?”
Most of us walk through our world and see water and land. Shaw sees a buffet ripe for the taking.
“Our level of ignorance about wild plants is epic,” he says. “How many people do you know who can walk down the street and say, ‘I know what that plant is, and that plant, and that plant?’ “When you walk down a street and you know that there is essentially the Garden of Eden all around you, there’s a source of personal satisfaction that transcends so much else, he says. “It makes you feel like a more complete human.”
Here’s an excerpt of our conversation during his visit:
Q. You’ve had a long relationship with wild food.
A. I have. But not everyone does. From my blog, I received emails from people who were interested in the wild, but had no idea how to do any of this. They knew dandelions. Some of them knew mushrooms. The world of fishing and hunting wascompletely opaque to them.
Then I started getting emails from hunters who said I know how to hunt, but I don’t know anything about wild plants. And the groups kept asking me for help in taking charge of what they eat and taking the middleman out of their own personal food chain.
Q. I imagine you get a lot of confessions about deficiencies.
A. One of my favorites is: “I just ate a mushroom.” If I get this email in real-time, I usually email back, “You should probably call 911.”
Q. How did we get so far away from our food roots? Are we just ignorant?
A. Ignorance is not a sin. Our world got incredibly busy. We’re constantly multitasking. We’re constantly being driven further and further away from the natural world around us. We choose not to pay attention. We choose to make food a convenience. I see that changing, and I think it’s a good thing. A great number of us, especially after World War II, valued convenience more than reality or than authenticity. I think that worm has turned, but it’s still far from where it used to be in the’20s and’30s.
Q. With the whole local, organic, sustainable movement, people still want to be able to buy those things. They don’t want to kill their own chickens or harvest their own produce. It’s a big gap.
A. It is. But in the book, if you’re not into doing any of that stuff all of the recipes have substitutions for something you can buy.
If you’re into making my braised squirrel dish but you’re not ready to go out and eat squirrels, you can use rabbit or you can even use chicken.
Q. I heard that a food writer in Atlanta took you to a random field and had you identify a few things you could eat.
A. Most books like this are very hyper-regional. It’s about Florida or Texas because that’s their region of expertise. Well, I’ve lived all over the country. The book is national and applicable no matter what state you live in.
So, the reporter said, “OK Mr. Big Guy. I’m going to take you someplace. I’m not going to tell you where.” So he drops me off in this vacant lot. And it’s like, “All right, let’s see if you can find something to eat.”
About two seconds after walking into this field, I found five things you could eat. And then I took another step and I saw a wild carrot. Then I took two more steps and found a patch of wild mint. I took four more steps and saw wild onions. Then we walked around the corner and there was yucca. There was a cherry plum tree with the red leaves. There was even a dead rabbit. I joked, “If we had gotten here earlier, we would have had protein.” It was a relief. I think I found close to 20 edible wild plants.
Q. You could have made a meal out of that.
A. Easy. Easy.
Q. The sense I get from you is that it must be like “A Beautiful Mind,” where the main character visualizes numbers and combinations and equations. You must walk through places and think, “Oh, I could eat that. And that. And that, too.”
A. The metaphor I use is “The Terminator,” where in the beginning he has that red, heads-up display in his eye. It really is like that.
When I’m in my own turf, I will mentally mark spots. I have a mental map in my area of northern California where I’m thinking, “It’s July, so I need to go here and there.”
I really think that’s how the original humans lived. Fifteen thousand years ago, before we settled down to do agriculture, hunters and gatherers ate hundreds of different types of plants. Nobody does that today. We eat six.
When I was younger, I lived for almost a whole year off just the fish I caught. I haven’t bought meat since 2005 because of what I’ve been able to hunt and fish.
If you have an open mind, you’ll always eat.