Hank Shaw, author of the new book Hunt, Gather, Cook, is far more than the sum of his parts. If you were to appraise him purely on the title of his blog, Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, you'd be missing the more important traits of this learned gastronaut; in Hank you'll find a passionate artist and craftsman who pours himself into every dish he creates.
Drawing on his seemingly endless knowledge of the environments he hunts and forages in, Hank create dishes that are more than just a taste of place -- they're a snapshot of the natural order of things, a frozen moment in time that most people would never bother to consider. Every one of Hank's recipes beckons to a way of life that has been in place for thousands of years, long before humans got involved. And that, my friends, is honest food at its most truthful.
What were you first -- a hunter, a gatherer, or a cook?
I was a gatherer first, then an angler, then a hunter. I started foraging as a toddler with my family, mostly at the beach -- rose hips, blueberries, sea rocket, beach peas, that sort of thing. I also had a bad habit of eating wild onions as a kid. My breath must have been something atrocious then... I have memories of me clamming when I could not have been older than 6 years old. We ate mountains of raw clams, with lemon or cocktail sauce. I still prefer clams on the half shell to oysters. My mum taught me to fish, but my stepfather and father also were anglers, so it's been a family tradition forever. All ocean fishing, though. I did not fish in fresh water until I was an adult.
As for cooking, I grew up in restaurants. My mum and stepfather ate out a lot, and I got to experience good food from an early age. I used to ask for big dinners as my birthday present: One memorable one was at a Portuguese restaurant in Newark, NJ called Don Pepe's. I got a five-pound lobster for my birthday, and I ate it all. I was so happy!
Cooking for me has always been paramount. Long before I worked as a line cook in Madison, WI, during graduate school, I pushed myself to become a better cook. I still do. I am a cook who hunts, fishes and forages -- not the other way around. There is a difference, albeit subtle. My overarching goal is to convince more people who are interested in real, honest food into the outdoors, to forage, fish and hunt for themselves.
What is the dish you've created -- using wild ingredients -- that you are most proud of?
My dishes are all my children, so I really can't choose just one. There is a type of dish I do that I am very proud of, however. I have created many dishes where the main ingredients are all either from the same environment or that were eaten by the star on the plate. For example, I did a dish of shirttail grouse with farro, sunflower seeds, malt vinegar, vetch flowers and a rose hip glaze -- the grouse we'd shot had been gorging on vetch and rose hips, so it seemed appropriate. All those flavors are deeply enmeshed in North Dakota, where we hunted the birds.
I've also done "Flyway Fried Rice" with wild rice, bulrush shoots, black walnuts, wild onions and wild duck. All are ingredients that can be found within 100 yards of the marshes where we hunted the ducks. And just last week I made an abalone dish with sea beans (samphire, salicornia -- the plant has many names) and New Zealand spinach I'd foraged within yards of the shore.
All the dishes I am most proud of are those that adhere to this maxim: What went together in life will go together on the plate.
I am probably most comfortable when I don't have to be a slave to a traditional dish. I make standard dishes every week, but I get tired of people saying that "x" dish must have "y" ingredient or whatever. They may be correct, but recipes are not museum pieces, they are living traditions that change with each cook. I feel most at home when I drop these shackles and let my imagination run. I am happiest when I can create unique dishes that focus on color, flavor, aroma, texture and temperature. I am always trying to show people something that is not only delicious, but also something they've never seen before. When I succeed, it's a rush.
What dishes can you NOT cook? What do you routinely screw up?
Caramel. I have yet to be able to pull this off, although in truth I've only tried it 4-5 times. And I am not a great baker, although I can get by. I've been cooking so long I can cook pretty much anything -- whether it will be fabulous or not is entirely another matter...
The president has a fascinating personal story, and as a cook I could draw from all sorts of sources: Hawaii, where he was raised; Kenya, where his father was from; Kansas, where his mother grew up, or Illinois, where he was first elected to the US Senate. Given all the crazy birther stuff floating around, I'll avoid Obama's childhood and stick with Illinois. Four ingredients? Easy. I would make a dish that includes four of Illinois' greatest wild ingredients: Whitetail venison tenderloin with morel mushrooms and ramps, dressed with an elderberry gastrique. I've made versions of this dish for years, and it's so good I'd happily serve it to the president.
For more of this interview, visit the second edition of An Interview with Hank Shaw.
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