by Christopher Michel, illustration by Erik S. Peterson
There's two things in this world that we can be sure of: We'll always want to eat well, and the Zombie Apocalypse is definitely going to happen. (Definitely.) The seeds of our nigh-universal destruction have almost certainly already been sewn in some unscrupulous South American science lab and the only warning we'll have is a series of strange and disturbing news reports before all hell breaks loose.
But there are a few people who will not only outlast the hordes, ravaging the nation, eating brains and possibly mowing the lawns, but who will do it in style. Shane Hobel is an elite tracker and the founder of the Mountain Scout Survival School, which offers classes on wilderness and urban survival in upstate New York and Central Park. He's been known to spend several weeks in the wilderness with little more than his wits to get him through. More important, he likes to live comfortably, and wouldn't go long without a decent meal just because the world was ending. Bon Appétit was lucky enough to spend some time with Hobel to learn not only how to survive Doomsday but to thrive afterward.
Do you teach people to make bows and arrows, or do you stick to: "You're in the woods: here's how you find shelter, here's how you get water"?
At first it's all basics. First thing is learning how to build a small shelter, called a debris shelter. It's not fancy, but it'll keep you alive, even if you're soaking wet in the middle of winter. And you don't need a fire.
But that's all most people think wilderness survival is: hardcore, struggling, hungry, barely making it. That's only the beginning. Next we introduce fishing spears, and lashing techniques, and other skills that allow you to improve your life by gathering materials from the landscape. We show you how to make rock-climbing quality rope, and fishing spears, and string for bows and arrows, and to hunt and trap. Each of these skills lightens the load a little bit. Soon you're not just surviving, but you're living. And that's the idea.
Even in the winter?
Of course. This time of year most people think, Oh no, there's no more edible plants. But it's just the opposite! The autumn and winter plants are coming in now and you've got a real abundance. Acorns are dropping; walnuts, chestnuts, and pine nuts are here. The squirrels are plump and juicy.
Squirrels are good?
They're delicious! They're like little mini filet mignons of the woods. Just two days ago I took a deer with my bow and arrow. And I cooked up a backstrap filet with crushed dried wild berries and a hazelnut reduction. Everything was collected from the landscape.
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That sounds delicious!
It was amazing.
Now, did you make this over a stove?
I made it in the field.
Yep. If I'm taking something small like a squirrel, I'm not going to bother taking it home. Which, by the way, the reason squirrel meat is so incredibly tender and delicious is because they feed almost entirely on nuts. They're so succulent and they have all these omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies crave.
I'm kind of salivating.
Deer and squirrel are incredibly healthy. As soon as I catch something, I drop down and make a traditional fire -- no matches -- I make a little skewer, put the squirrel on it, open him up. I'll find some herbs: maybe a little yellow sorrel and sassafras spears. I wrap the squirrel meat around the herbs, and cook him slowly over the fire. While it's cooking I'll crush some walnuts into a powder, and then sprinkle those over the glaze of my squirrel, which gives it a nice crust. It's just ridiculously delicious.
Is there anything that you bring into the woods with you, like a cast-iron pan?
The only utensil I need is a large knife. It's handy for defense, but I can also make a cabin and build a bow and arrow, and split logs with it. You can do a multitude of things with a knife. I do tend to bring another smaller knife, like a paring knife. This is for doing delicate skinning and butchering work.
In terms of carrying skillets, that's just additional weight. What we do is teach people to use native food methods so you don't need those things. The one that's still around, and that's probably the quintessential ideal for cooking is the steam pit. Steam pits have been around for 50,000 years. The technology is amazing. Steam pits are like Mother Earth's idea of a crock pot: you can never overcook the food.
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Do they take a long time to build?
Well, this is the thing about survival. If the zombies are right behind you, you need to move quickly. You can only grab the things that don't require deep cooking or preparation. There are certain edible plants that you can just grab and go: nuts and berries, some plants. But some you have to steam, or cook, or leach.
Right! I've read this about acorns.
Exactly. You have to leach the tannins. That's a good example. Let's say that you've gotten far enough away from the zombies that you can take some time, then acorns are fantastic. You leach them using cold water (that's always healthier). Shuck them, put the meat in a pot. Pour cold water in it, and then you make tea. That brown tea can be saved for later use, by the way. Once the water runs clear, dry the nuts out on a rock, and then you can eat them on the go.
Though what I prefer to do is to crush them into a powder along with, say, walnuts and pine nuts. I like to make a flour. I add a little water and some herbs and berries and make great pancakes. Warm up a little pine-pitch and drizzle it over them. Oh my goodness.
So pine pitch is edible?
It's basically sugar.
So you can make flour. You can get sugar. But I know I'll be missing my extra-virgin olive oil, my red wine vinegar, my finishing salts. Are there analogues for these in the landscape?
Yes! Animal fat is a great oil substitute--it's great for cooking with. But for salt, you have to find your way to the ocean. You can then distill or render out the salt from the sea water.
After the zombie apocalypse, you're either running and there's no time for preparation, or you've settled down a bit and you can enjoy the fruits of primitive cooking skills, and find ingredients or make tools, some of which are just like what you have at home. You know, the mortar and pestle is just a rock and a rock.
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There are so many different tools that mimic everything you might need without needing to carry it with you. If you do have the pleasure of chilling out, if the zombies are a few miles away...
Well, these are going to be the slow, shambling zombies. No runners.
Thank goodness! So then Dakota fire pits and steam pits are fantastic ways of cooking. Adobe-style ovens are also really easy to make from the landscape, and they cook wonderful breads. I baked pheasant with herbs in an adobe oven the other day. It was brilliant.
How do you make that?
You take stream clay and straw, packed together, and fashion the oven, then let it dry, slowly. Then bake it into a hard structure. When it's ready, put coals inside and then stick your food in there.
Though to be honest with you, my favorite is steam cooking. Get a big pile of rocks really, really hot in a fire--ones you don't collect near the water. Those will explode. Then collect some big armfuls of grass, tie them together and let them soak in the stream. Throw the hot rocks into the bottom of the pit, throw the wet grass on top. Take the food, protein first, put it down wrapped up in leaves: fish, deer, whatever. Put vegetables on top. Then more wet grass, and more hot rocks. Then bury it.
Someone could walk right over your steam pit and they wouldn't even know. You can leave it all day. And it is unbelievably succulent. I have to tell you the best protein I've ever had, better than in any restaurant, was from a steam pit. The meat is so juicy and it falls off the bone.
It sounds amazing. When are you going out next?
I plan on going out and catching a squirrel and having a little lunch later on today.
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