Scouting out wild edibles is oh-so-trendy these days, and many of New York City’s restaurants even have on-staff foragers. But then some people have been hunting and gathering for years and years, way before it was ever cool. Hank Shaw, for example, the author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast and the blogger behind the popular Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. Wanting to learn how we, too, could live off the land, we called him up to find out more. And if you have questions of your own for Hank, he’ll be discussing his book tonight at the Beretta Gallery (718 Madison Avenue, 212-319-3235) from 6 to 8 p.m. Admission is free, and hors d’oeuvres will be served.
How did you get into the pleasures of the outdoors?
I did start very young as a forager and angler. My whole family did this. My mom is 80 years old now and grew up in Massachusetts and that’s just what she did during tough times. Her uncle was a naturalist — there are trails named after him — so when it came time for her to have kids, she passed it on to us. I learned how to identify nuts and berries and plants from Mom. I kept learning and learning, and over the years I’d try to eat every fish I could find. I’d try to figure out what was good. There are lots of fish people won’t eat because they’re ugly. But I actually didn’t get into hunting until I was 32, about 10 years ago. I was living in St. Paul, working for the Pioneer Press. My friend was the outdoors writer. I was telling him that it was cool that when I lived on Long Island, I could feed myself on fish. He said, “You can do that here if you learn how to hunt.” I was a little skeptical. I had never met another hunter until I was 24. I grew up going to CBGB as a teenager. I didn’t grow up in a rural setting. But he took me on a hunt and taught me how to read the land.
Was it hard emotionally killing animals?
Yes. What was crazy was that by the time I started hunting, I had already been awash in fish blood. Fishing was nothing; I had done it since I was five. The first animal I shot was a squirrel. I was in the Minnesota woods and it was really cold. I had all those classic reactions. I took aim and was elated that I made the shot. I’d succeeded in that thing people had been doing for centuries. But then I picked it up and it was warm. It was the warmth that threw me. The elation drains away and you’re left with a killed animal. For me, that part never gets easy.
Of the four honorifics, which do you most identify with: Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook?
Cook. A lot of people describe me as a hunter who cooks, but I’m a cook that hunts. At my core, I cook. Food is my expression. I’ve been writing for 20 years, but I’m never more happy than when I create a dish with new ingredients and techniques. I can write well enough to convey messages easily but I’m not a writer who dwells on a phrase. I might dwell on a recipe.
How do you go about writing a recipe?
I like to start with the star of the plate, whether it’s a mushroom or fish and then I work around that. For example, I had hunted sharp-tailed grouse — it’s like a prairie grouse — and I thought about how I was going to cook this bird. It goes from pink to grey in a heartbeat so I decided to sous-vide it. And I didn’t want to put rice on the plate so I made a pilaf with grains from the fields where I hunted it. And sunflowers grow in that region, so I put in sunflower seeds and sunflower oil. I’m using products from the same region. I like to say if it lives together in nature, it goes together on the plate.
So what kind of meal would best reflect the moment?
My go-to dish depends on the season. For New York City, I’d do something very seasonal. Beechnuts are popping like crazy right now and it’s a good time to fish for porgies. I love porgies. I might roast and grind beechnuts and make a crust for the fish. And then I might serve it on a bed of lamb’s-quarters. And I could add interest by adding chicken of the woods mushrooms.
What is your advice for city dwellers who want to garden and hunt?
Well, I think they’ve banned foraging in Central Park. But before the ban I’d say go to the parks. The thing about what I do and what I want people to get is that you don’t have to go to the prairies in North Dakota. You can start in your own garden. Knowing what is in your garden is empowering. It’s cliché, but knowledge is power. If you look at your garden, you’ll find half of it that’s edible. Provided you don’t spray Roundup, have at it. Go to the beach and learn the beach plants. Go to the local woods and look at what’s there. But unless you’re skilled, leave the mushrooms for later.
What would be the easiest thing for New Yorkers to forage?
Ginkgo nuts. People plant ginkgo trees ornamentally. Normally female ones, but if a male one is around they’ll pollinate it. The fruit around smells awful — ugh — but the nuts are about $30 a pound. There’s rarely a ginkgo tree that’s not descended upon by Chinese ladies. I know of about four or five trees in the city.
What would you do with them after you forage the nuts?
Just roast and eat them.
So what do you do when you’re not hunting, fishing, or cooking?
Check back in tomorrow, when Hank gives out advice for would-be hunters.