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Hunting Down Dinner

Call it a culinary time warp—across the country chefs are returning to old-fashioned methods of food preparation. We asked two gun-toting, butcher knife-wielding enthusiasts why reconnecting with our culinary past matters.

It’s a cultural cliché to say that everything old is new again, and yet in the culinary world, that’s never been truer. Food preparation methods that date back to pioneer days (and were born and practiced out of necessity) are currently being resurrected and championed by some of our most forward-thinking cooks.

Not that many generations ago, it wasn’t possible to not know where our food came from (hint: it wasn’t from plastic-wrapped packages at the supermarket). That’s because we were likely actively involved in growing, slaughtering, preserving, and preparing it. Being hungry meant getting busy, like it or not. But in the mid 20th century, that began to change. Convenience foods replaced time-honored recipes and from-scratch cooking, factory farms usurped small family farms, and fluorescent lights and nine-to-five schedules replaced the daily rhythms of the seasons. Are we better off? Two chefs who champion traditional techniques and butchering skills think not. Through hunting and foraging classes, supper clubs, and cookbooks, each seeks to be a guide through our culinary heritage, perhaps tweaked for modern life but best not forgotten.

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Georgia Pellegrini

Owner, Adventure Getaways; Author, Food Heroes, Girl Hunter, and Modern Pioneering

Georgia Pellegrini grew up fishing for trout for breakfast on her family’s property in upstate New York. At the side of her grandmother, she learned to cook and forage for edibles in the woods, but then she headed off to the big city to make her fortune. The hectic life of an investment banker made her miserable, though, so she sought out ways to get reconnected to a past in which she’d felt happy and free. Stints at New York’s Blue Hill Restaurant and a culinary internship in France taught her about paying the karmic price for food—she killed a turkey with her own hands and learned to dress and cook it. Inspired, she picked up her pen to share her adventures with others. And now, in addition to publishing three books, she leads women on adventure getaway weekends and offers modern gals the opportunity to get their hands dirty and learn updated pioneering skills that make for a more connected and authentic life.

There’s a resurgence of interest in traditional techniques for hunting, growing, foraging, and preparing food. Where do you think this cultural yearning is coming from?

I think it’s an antidote to the very technology-driven times we’re all living in. Trying economic times are a great equalizer—it makes us ask, “What do we really need?” People are craving what’s really lasting, they want to use their hands, roll up their sleeves, get back in touch with things that are more grounding.

What are your three favorite traditional food techniques?

I’m a big proponent of brining—brining is the key to making wild game more palatable and preserving the vegetables you’ve gathered or grown. I’m also very intrigued with smoking foods. There are so many different ways to flavor smoke with herbs, or by using different woods when you’re smoking cheese, fish, or meat. And of course there’s canning, a wonderful way to preserve your harvest whether it’s fruit preserves or pickled ramps you’ve gathered.

What are some “forgotten” ingredients we should all be revisiting?

Purslane is wonderful. You can find it in the sidewalk cracks. It has more omega 3s than fish, and a naturally tart flavor, so you don’t really need dressing when you make it into salad. I have a simple and delicious recipe for purslane with red onion, tomatoes, hard boiled egg, salt, and olive oil. I love wonderfully bitter dandelion greens as well.

What are some trends you’re seeing within the general return of traditional foodways?

I think people are finding ways to get back to the land, whether by keeping backyard chickens, a beehive on their rooftop, or planters in their driveways. We’re finding ways to be more hands-on and to create a relationship with whole foods and connection.

Can you describe some traditional techniques that you’ve tweaked to adapt to modern life?

I have a great recipe for cheese that you can make in 30 minutes. You can make homemade fresh butter in 15 minutes using a mixer. Many of my recipes have a fun modern twist—I use red wine to make popsicles, and preserve strawberries with balsamic and black pepper in homemade fruit roll-ups.

What other aspects of your daily life are impacted as you embrace a return to traditional foodways?

I now see possibility in the backyard and on urban streets. I see the natural world differently and have a symbiotic relationship with it—I know how to interact with it instead of keeping it at arm’s length.

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Jesse Griffiths

Chef/Owner of Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club; Owner, Dai Due Hunting and Fishing School; Author, Afield

To scores of devoted customers, Jesse Griffiths is the moral compass of our local food scene. He founded his business on the simple principle that people can eat extremely well on foods sourced solely from our own food shed. This hardly seems groundbreaking now, but that’s due in large part to Jesse’s own tireless work educating and inspiring us with alfresco supper club dinners, cooking classes, guided hunting and fishing excursions, expertly cut local, pastured meats, and handmade pantry items like Hefeweizen and horseradish mustard and sauerkraut made from organic cabbage. Over the years he has fed us well, but more than that, he has opened up a world of possibility by showing us how delicious our very own corner of the world can be. This summer will mark the opening of Dai Due’s seven-years-in-the-making brick and mortar location on Manor Road, with a full retail butcher counter and a restaurant serving a menu of locally-sourced, wood-fired dishes.

There’s a resurgence of interest in traditional techniques for hunting, growing, foraging, and preparing food. Where is this cultural yearning coming from?

There’s a collective desire right now to have more of a connection to food, whether that means knowing who’s making your sandwich, who grew the food it’s made from, gathering your own eggs, or killing a deer in the winter. I’d say that this is far more natural than not knowing anything about your food. The ability to remain aloof about your food has only been an option for a couple generations out of thousands, so I’d reckon that we are just waking up from a little nap and remembering that food is and will be a profound priority.

What are your three favorite traditional food techniques?

Fermenting, hands down—a controlled rot of food. It totally dismisses the hubris of man being in control and lets nature just do its thing while serving us extensively. It’s prevalent in every culture, it keeps the nutritional integrity of food—or even increases it—and it can get you drunk. That one’s easy. Regionally, I love smoking things, too, especially meat. Smoke has a strong history in Central Texas because of our resources and cultural influences—barbecue happens here for a very good reason. I think that the way food is consumed is also a technique. Before refrigeration, if you had caught a bunch of crappie or trapped a lot of crawfish or killed your fat hog, you had to get everyone together and have a party out of necessity to consume it all before it went bad. Feasting is a technique then, I guess, that serves us both culturally and physically.

What are some “forgotten” ingredients we should all be revisiting?

Anything that you can find in your neighborhood that is edible should be revisited. It’s painful to see loquats and plums, banana leaves, agaves, figs, agarita, nopales, and mulberries rot on the ground. People will complain about the fruit falling on their cars when they are driving to the store to buy fruit.

What are some trends you’re seeing within the general return of traditional foodways?

Nose to tail is becoming normalized. It’s not just chefs posturing and trying to outdo each other anymore. I feel that the focus on offal and other meats like goat and rabbit really expanded some palettes, and it is now a viable menu option for the mainstream. In places where it was traditionally incorporated, in ethnic foods, it’s more sought after and accepted, too. They were naming boy bands Menudo decades ago—that’s cultural acceptance of tripe. I’d like to see Head Cheese go triple platinum.

Can you describe some traditional practices that you’ve tweaked to adapt to modern life?

I can’t go on extended hunts and fishing trips with a family and a business. I make quick morning hunts for ducks and doves now, or try to hit the creek for just a couple of hours for some white bass and then go to work. It’s the only way I can get out, get some food, and keep up at the same time.

What other aspects of your daily life are impacted as you embrace a return to traditional foodways?

We eat game and fish almost exclusively at our house. It has an obvious importance to us. We have to plan most of our meals ahead, so that slows you down a bit. Eating vegetables seasonally was always fun and challenging, but explaining why we can’t have mulberries in August to a three-year old is a pretty fun exercise in describing patience.

Credits

Photography by Jody Horton

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