I used to spend late summer evenings at elegant parties on New York City rooftops. Which particular rooftops I do not know because there were so many of them on those nights that they all blended together in one boozy medley of tinkling ice and breezy laughter. It was a lifestyle I had adopted post-college, a path of least resistance offered to me by an impressive female recruiter who dangled dollar signs in front of me and made me feel there was nothing I couldn't do. And on those careless Manhattan evenings, fresh from four years at an all-women's college in New England and four years at an all-girl's high school in Manhattan before that, it certainly felt that way.
There was so much I could do, but I never imagined that in a few years I would want to be spending my evenings not sipping cocktails with my stylish friends with a Manhattan sunset at our backs but with camouflage-clad men drinking aged scotch in Styrofoam cups around a campfire on the banks of the Mississippi river, a brace of freshly plucked ducks at our feet. There are moments, with a cloud of duck feathers floating in the air around me, that even I wonder how I got here.
As a child, I spent my days on the same land that my great grandfather harvested in the Hudson Valley. There were mornings when I pushed a fat worm onto a hook and fished for trout for breakfast. I foraged in the woods for wild edibles, too, inspecting guidebooks with scholarly interest.
One day I mentioned that I was bored in school, which prompted a trip to Manhattan, a slew of interviews at all-girl's schools and, soon, a uniform fitting. It wasn't long before I was jumping between two very different worlds only 13 miles apart -- the one where I roamed the halls with Ivanka Trump, and the one where I shoveled chicken manure.
I went on to Wellesley College and a prestigious job in finance at Lehman brothers. But it was a life that nourished my bank account and never my soul, and I found myself watching the cafeteria dinner cart roll by night after night and thinking -- this can't be what I want for myself.
The silver lining in doing something that doesn't make you happy is that it forces you to think about what you're doing when you're at your happiest. For me, it was always cooking. As a child I spent afternoons with my neighbor, a kind of surrogate Italian grandmother, hovering in her kitchen and watching her cook. On Sundays I sat with her and her extended family at a long table eating lunch, which bled into dinner, which faded into late-night board games. I realized that one's sole job as a cook (beyond basic sustenance) is to bring people pleasure, to make them happy at a table among friends. And happiness is what I wanted. So I traded in my laptop for a set of knives, my stilettos for chef whites, and enrolled in culinary school.
Not long after I was working in farm-to-table restaurants in New York and eventually in France. But it was at the very first restaurant where I had my watershed moment, the one that led me away from Manhattan and into countless duck blinds and deer stands.
One fall morning at Stone Barnes, the lauded farm-to-table restaurant on the Rockefeller Estate, I was told we were going to kill five turkeys for the evening meal and we were going to get them the old fashioned way -- cutting their windpipes with our bare hands.
In that moment, for the first time in my life, I considered becoming a vegetarian. And just as quickly I thought, "If I'm going to be a chef, then I'm going to eat meat." And if I was going to eat meat, I needed to be able to kill it myself.
That first turkey kill was emotional and intense; it awakened a dormant part of me -- something primal, perhaps that original human instinct. It made a kind of sense I could feel deep within me, the kind that makes me want to be a true omnivore. In that moment, I realized that while it was remarkable to meet the food artisans who brought ingredients into these high-end restaurants I worked at, it wasn't enough for me. I wanted to take part in every part of the process, I wanted to pay the full karmic price of the meal. And so I set out to learn how to hunt.
They say you always remember that first time. For me it was a turkey hunt deep in the Arkansas Delta with the Commissioner of Fish and Game in the state of Arkansas. Most hunters would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to have him as a hunting companion, but because he was a friend's cousin, he agreed to accompany me as a favor. He sprayed me with a cloud of OFF, and we set out into the woods along the Mississippi River in the pitch black, listening to nature wake up -- the owls always first, followed by the other birds, and sometimes the turkeys, agitated by the owls' sound. We sat against a tree and sometimes walked along the levee of the Mississippi, perhaps for hours or maybe just minutes -- time moves differently on a hunt. I watched him call a turkey in with a mating call, an old tom that danced like a fine-feathered Fred Astaire strutting along an open field, dragging his wings behind him in a train of color, making a low drumming and spitting sound.
In those moments, or minutes, or hours that I watched it unfold, my heart felt too large to fit into my chest, and a I could hear better than I ever had before, I could see better, I could smell better and my skin felt more alive. As I raised my shotgun and met the bead at the end of the barrel with the old tom's head, time no longer existed, only that moment did. And as I pressed the trigger and heard the woods explode and watched the old tom's wings flap and rise higher and higher into the trees and out of sight, I felt my cheeks burn. It was a strange new cocktail of exhilaration and shame as I realized I'd missed. But I had been indoctrinated into a brave new world -- I was becoming a hunter.
The people that I've met along the way since then, and the experience of knowing what happened to my ingredients on the journey to my plate has made me a more thoughtful chef, a more careful eater, and a more awake human being. And the food tastes so much better that way -- in fact, it has never tasted this good.
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