Book Review: Chef in the Wild

Professional chef and hunting enthusiasts Randy King contributes to the ever growing pool of wild game cooking knowledge with his new book “Chef in the Wild.” The book is equally divided into four sections: Air, Land, Water & Home. “Air” is focused on upland birds and waterfowl. “Land” is focused on big and small game. “Water” is, of course, focused on fish and the “Home” portion of the book covers foraging, side dishes, sauces & seasonings, and forage inspired beverages and desserts. IMG_3300

Sometimes you’ll hear grumblings from hunters regarding chef recipes being over-complex with difficult to find ingredients. King’s book, however, focuses almost exclusively on “down home”, relatively simple recipes that use common ingredients. Even the fancier sounding, Japanese inspired cuisine should find appeal with your most salt-of-the-earth family member:

Smashed Quail with Mountain Dew Ponzu

-8 Quail, plucked and gutted

-1 can of Mountain Dew

-1/2 Cup Soy Sauce

-1 Tsp red chili flakes

-2 green onions, sliced

-1 thumb-sized chunk of ginger, peeled and sliced

The Land segment of the book covers some basic butchering techniques and deals with recipes for Antelope, deer, rabbit, pig and, my personal favorite, bear. There is a real lack of formally published bear recipes out there. King’s bear recipe is a St Louis style rib recipe that looks entirely legit by Memphis standards. As a side note, I did notice that King suggests a very liberal minimum temperature for dealing with trichinosis: “...cook the meat past 137F. This should kill the bug and your chance of contracting it.” Though that temperature will kill trichinosis, it might be important to note that the meat would need to reach and hold this temperature for at least 1 minute. Some food safety experts recommend taking bear meat to 155F and holding the meat at that temp for at least 5 minutes while others even suggest 160F (Steve Rinella can tell you more about that).

You can peruse  some of King’s fish recipes here.  All and all, a very worthwhile book that should have something to offer most any hunter, fisherman, or game cook.

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Book Review: American Burger Revival

With the recent news of a declining McDonald’s, one can’t help but speculate that at least part of this decline must be attributed to shifts in tastes and overall competition. With ever increasing options for interesting, unique and boutique burgers, both complex and simple, the delivery model for large scale, “industrial” burgers is increasingly less appealing to an ever growing segment of the population.  Combined with the the influence of celebrity chefs, cooking and food shows, there has also been a significant increase of interest in the art of DIY speciality burgers. Enter American Burger Revival: Brazen Recipes to Electrify a Timeless Classic by Samuel Monsour and Richard Curry via Union Park PressFullSizeRender (3)

Much more than a generic coffee table cookbook, American Burger Revival covers cuts of meat, DIY butchering & grinding, philosophy of spice, bread making for creative buns, sauces, pickling, plus a wide range of recipes both moderate in scope and serving as inspiration for the overachiever. In particular, I found the sauce recipes compelling. “Bloody Mary Ketchup”, which includes 1/2 cup of vodka as well as the mere notion of fried ketchup (yes, indeed), Creole Mayo, “Carolina Gold”, and Alabama white sauce all sound appealing to my morning hangover as well as my general interests regarding regional Southern cuisine.

The benchmark burger recipes “Misohorny”, “Ragin Cajun”, “BLT Club”, “The Walker Texas Ranger”, “The Filthy Pilgrim” and the piece de resistance: “The Blacked Out Monte Cristo” (glazed donut, fried ketchup, smoked Tasso ham, corned beef hash, swiss cheese, maple syrup and fried eggs), though serious undertakings relative to the simple art of making hamburgers (and also time consuming), can certainly inspire the DIY chef, be it subbing store bought ingredients or making the entire spread from scratch.

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Tennessee Buck Limits: For Better or For Worse

Deer hunters in my home state have spent the last couple of months in a bitter and highly divisional debate over antlered deer limits. Tennessee has had a statewide antlered bag limit (the state does not distinguish between sex of deer, rather antlered and antlerless to account for biological anomalies) of 3 deer since 1999. Antlerless (aka “Does)” bag limits are limited on a Unit by Unit basis with the majority of Middle and West Tennessee being Unit “L” with highly liberal bag limits of 3 “does” per day, every day for the entire ~100 day season. Much of the Unit L counties have deer numbers that range from 30-50+ deer per square mile. Some select counties (Unit “A’) are more limited than that, but as you move into Appalachia, deer numbers decline sharply, often to ~15 or less deer per square mile. This dramatic difference is  largely due to difference of habitat. Appalachia consists of more continuous tracts of mature timber with significantly less agriculture than the rest of the state.

Our state game agency has maintained that there is no biological reason to reduce the statewide buck limits. It is worth noting that only about 3% of Tennessee deer hunters kill their bag limit of 3 antlered deer in one season. Heck, only about 50% of Tennessee deer hunters are even successful at killing a deer, any deer, during hunting season. With a deer herd of 800,000 to 1,00,000 and hunters killing between 200,000-260,00 deer annually and only 3% of hunters killing 3 antlered deer in a season, in the opinion of some biologists and many hunters, including myself, there is little to nothing to be gained by reducing the bag limits. However, a very vocal minority raised a successful campaign to reduce the bag limits two 2 antlered deer statewide. Seemingly, this bag limit reduction  has little impact on the vast majority of Tennessee deer hunters including myself since I seldom have killed more than 1 antlered deer in a hunting season anyway. Living in a part of the state with an abundance of deer, I have the luxury of being highly selective. However, many hunters living in Appalachia do not have this luxury. The reason that I fought this bag limit reduction was because that I felt like in unfairly impacted the Unit B rifle hunter who may be looking to feed his or her family with a couple of deer in the freezer. Since these hunters are not allowed to kill antlerless deer during rifle season, the casual Appalachian “Blue Collar” hunter may very well have had his or her deer hunting opportunities reduced to two deer total at  the influence of the deer hunting enthusiasts for whom hunting is a hobby.

My speculation is that average supporter of antlered bag limit reductions was a suburban based “hobbyist” hunter who maintains a small to medium size hunting lease (50-150 acres) in a rural area with an abundance of deer, but this “hobbyist” wishes to see more “big” deer. His line of thinking follows that his neighbors must be killing all of the small antlered deer, therefore few, if any grow to maturity. When faced with the statistic that only 3% of hunters are killing 3 bucks anyway, the hobbyist hunter is quick to speculate that a reduced bag limit will force other hunters to be more selective with the 2nd antlered deer they kill. This effect has yet to be seen, but, regardless, is hardly a biological speculation. If you wanted to make a case for class warfare here, it would be worth noting that Appalachia/Unit B is home to the largest concentration of rural poverty in Tennessee while the vocal minority championing bag limit reductions were largely middle class and suburban.

The state game agency recommended to the game commission that we maintain a bag limit of 3 antlered deer. The commission, who makes the final decisions, came back asking for a proposal of 2 antlered deer. The amount of hunter comments received during the comment period was cited as a reason. In the end, I speculate that a very hasty, unbiological, and  politically motivated decision was made about game management. Similar situations have unfolded across the country. For example, the California ban on hunting Mountain Lions was based upon public vote rather than biological function and game management. Unrealistic expectations, hunting shows, the hunting industry at large, disregarded facts, selfishness, political motivations, and armchair biology are all forces at play here.

It is my assertion that there are an abundance private hunting clubs that cater to the trophy hunting hobbyists by maintaining their own unique deer management practices including bag limits that are less than the statewide limits, antler restrictions, age restrictions and other management practices. In other words, the hobbyist deer hunter has ample opportunity (and the luxury) to hunt highly managed lands if he or she desires. The type of hunter that this reduction negatively affects, very well may not have such luxuries. The forces at work here unfairly impacted the casual deer hunter, further propelling the pursuit of big game hunting as a leisure activity of the wealthy and semi wealthy and further undermining the the principles of the North American wildlife model. I did what I could do to fight it and I am disappointed in the outcome.

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Bass Pro Pyramid

basspro2Mainstream hunting & Fishing culture is a weird thing. Depsite being a passion for many, the culture is a sea of commercialization, gimmicks and exploits. In my city of residence sits “The Memphis Pyramid”, initially known as the “Great American Pyramid”, formerly referred to as the “Pyramid Arena” and locally referred to as “The Pyramid.” The Pyramid was originally built as a 20,142-seat arena located in downtown Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River. The facility was built in 1991 and was originally owned and operated jointly by the city of Memphis and Shelby County; Shelby County sold its share to Memphis in April 2009.  Its structure plays on the city’s namesake in Egypt, known for its ancient pyramids. It is 321 feet (98m, about 32 stories) tall and has base sides of 591 ft; it is by some measures the sixth largest pyramid in the world behind the Great Pyramid of Giza (456 ft), Khafre’s Pyramid (448 ft), Luxor Hotel (348 ft), the Red Pyramid (341 ft), and the Bent Pyramid (332 ft). It is also slightly (about 16 feet) taller than the Statue of Liberty.

The Memphis Pyramid has not been regularly used as a sports or entertainment venue since 2004. Over the years, the pyramid has been the source of local controversy relating to its many shortcomings, lack of use and cost. In 2015, the Pyramid re-opened as a Bass Pro Shops “megastore”, which includes shopping, a hotel, spa, restaurants, a bowling alley, and a gun and archery range with an outdoor observation deck at its apex.

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Despite my severe misgivings about about the taxpayers flipping a good chunk of the deal, reportedly to the tune of 35 million dollars, I often found myself defending this development to other locals simply because people outside of the realm of hunting & fishing culture fail to  grasp how large of an industry exists around this culture. Some complained of the aesthetics of a “Redneck Riviera” amidst a large city, others lacked the financial confidence is such a retail development. For better or for worse, this behemoth of a store is now open and fully operational.

I had the opportunity to tour the facility and thoroughly examined it from top to bottom. I saw the (NYC priced) hotel rooms, the spa, the abundant taxidermy, the Ducks Unlimited museum, the restaurant, the bowling alley, the aquarium and, after riding the tallest free standing elevator in the world, I was even able to spot my personal duck hunting hole from the observation lounge. -1x-1

I suppose that I have complex and mixed feelings about the pyramid. There are certainly aspects to it that are very impressive. It sort of has a “World Fair” vibe to it and much to my relief, there is a general lack of over branding once you’re inside. The guts of the store are setup to sell trinkets, fudge, and novelty household items to tourists while the peripheral offers a selection of hunting and fishing related goods typical of a BPS store. I did note that the optics selection was woefully understocked compared to the original BPS store in East Memphis, though, really, who is going to a place like this to purchase high end optics?

In the end, I think this place is generally worth experiencing. I suspect that it will be a reasonably successful tourist attraction. During waterfowl season, I expect that the place will see a fair amount of traffic since I-40 serves a corridor for destination hunting in Arkansas. As a retail store, I think that it will attract families who will spend the weekend there shopping, eating, bowling, and possibly financing a boat after having enough drinks at the bar. As far as being a store that a local or regional hunter would make a quick stop at to pick up some extra ammo or a headlamp before heading out for the weekend, it is far from ideal, nor set up for that.

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Formatting Issues

Formatting issues on the blog are a little screwed right now. -hope to have this resolved in the next few days.

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Hipster Hunters

Hunters as individuals come from different backgrounds and variable walks of life. In spite of this, hunters often get thrown into one category: “Hunters.” On a certain level, this singular categorization is understandable and likely even necessary when championing causes that affect all of us, though “hunters” defined as a singular user group also makes it easier for the non hunting world to judge us. A recent piece featuring Chef Jesse Griffths, author of the tremendously well crafted cookbook “Afield”, made some comments suggesting that American hunting culture essentially consists of two camps: The new school “Hipster” hunter and the old school “Ted Nugent” hunter.

While I understand the need for sensational headlines and claims in order for pieces of media to go viral these days, I have to admit feeling an increasing sense of betrayal from a relatively high profile member of the hunting ranks who consciously created further division amongst hunters by simplistically dividing us into two camps and suggesting that there is a “Civil War” taking place to define the future of American hunting culture.

Even the word “Traditionalist” has numerous meanings within the confines of American hunting culture. The article in question implies that “Traditionalists” is basically interchangeable with a “Redneck Hunter”, whatever that means, but, if you use the term “Traditionalists” in, say, Pennsylvania, you are likely to reference a user group who only hunt deer using flint lock rifles, maybe even do so wear buckskin clothing and may or may not be a self described “hipster.”

While, sure, there is a growing sub-user group of urban based, “Hipster” hunters and a growing influence within the hunting community of focus on food and cooking, the author uses this platform to create a conflict that does not exist and suggests a complete “changing of the guard” that is not actually happening. If, for the sake of simplicity, we are going to divide American hunters into two camps (old and new), then this particular platform could have been constructively served to show what these two camps stand to learn from one another. Its easy to make blanket statement such as “we are returning to the roots of hunting”, but what does that even mean? What are the roots of hunting? That could suggest disregarding modern game management practices such as having seasons and bag limits. That could suggests killing animals en masse with disregard for weapon legalities and ethical considerations. Hunting ethics are a symptom of modernity, a privilege of excess and, within the grand scheme of nature, survival and the ancient roots of hunting, entirely arbitrary. Oh, by the “roots” of hunting, did you mean ~30 years ago before the age of modern hunting media (Hunting shows, magazines etc)? Do you think that nobody was gardening and hunting animals for food in America ~30 years ago? Any direction you go with this Hipsters vs. Traditionalists, there are problems, falsehoods, misunderstandings, and misdirections. Hunting should not about “taking hunting away” from one type of hunter. The piece is critical of a type of hunter who hypothetically spends $1,300 on a duck blind, yet favors the type of hunter who hypothetically spends $13,000 on a Viking outfitted kitchen.

To psychoanalyse those conditions and influences, I think that a lot of young men in recent years have started to look to a previous generation for the definition of masculinity. If you grew up in a rather bland, suburban environment of the 80s, 90s, 2000s where masculine influences were/are largely “tame” compared to examples of masculinity of previous generations, it sort of makes sense. Generation X, Z and Z looked to the the examples of their grandfather’s generations: Those guys had beards, wore dirty work clothes, ground coffee by hand in the morning, shaved with a straight razor, drove vehicles that required a lot of maintenance, maybe they used bacon grease for beard wax. They had tools and implements that required maintenance and were not disposable i.e. you fixed things instead of buying replacements. Look at the popularity of old time string band music these days, or even the late career celebration of Johnny Cash, for example: Grandpappy’s music. Its cool. I get it. And a lot of supposed “Redneck hunters” get it. If you are a self described “hipster” coming to into hunting, consider what you can add to the pursuit, not what you can take away from it.

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Humans Evolved to Eat Meat

We have all heard the argument that, due to intestinal lengths, humans were not designed and/or physically evolved to consume meat. The argument usually goes something like this:

Carnivores have intestinal tracts that are only 3 times the length of their body. Herbivores have intestinal tracts 10-12 times the length of their body. Humans have intestinal tracts that are 10-12 times the length of their body therefore humans are Herbivores. 

To further this argument, often the antagonists suggest that the fact that humans lack teeth and claws is empirical evidence that humans are unfit for meat consumption. Some arguments go further and also claim that Herbivores perspire through skin pores, humans have skin pores, therefore humans are herbivores.

 Professor of Human Evolutionary Sciences at Harvard University, Daniel Lieberman’s excellent book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health and Disease delves right in and tackles the subject matter very thoroughly and scientifically in a sub-chapter entitled “Guts and Brains.”

Examining the evolution of the Guts and Brains of genus Homo, there is a clear relationship with hunting and gathering. Lieberman demonstrates that both the intestines and the brains are very calorie costly tissues, each requiring about 15% of the body’s total metabolic toll and each requiring similar amounts of blood and oxygen. A unique characteristic of humans is that both our guts and our brains are very large. If you compare humans to other animals of similar body mass, the animal brains are much smaller while their guts are much larger -usually twice as large as the intestines of humans. Basically, humans have comparatively small guts and comparatively large  brains.

Referencing the Expensive Tissue Hypothesis (Current Anthology vol 36/ Aiello, Wheeler), the conclusion is that hunter gatherers traded off large guts for even larger brains by gradually shifting to higher quality diets that included meat as a cornerstone. Conveniently, arguments that counter this conclusion tend to omit the importance of tools and weapons. Humans were able to digest a wide variety of food that included meat, fruits, tubers, nuts and seeds because they had developed the ability to process these foods through means of slicing, grinding, tenderizing and, of course, cooking. Based upon this, “the energetic benefits of hunting and gathering appear to have made possible the evolution of bigger brains in part by allowing the first humans to make do with smaller guts” (Lieberman, 92). Carving out an existence by hunting and gathering required more cognition (i.e. a larger brains): Bands of humans had to cooperate and further develop technology in order to survive as hunter gatherers. Likewise, our bipedal frame, unique ability to perspire and lack of fur allowed us to run great distances without overheating.

20140209_WORS8K_BP-410-(ZF-4020-22248-1-002)Known as persistence hunting, the method allowed hunter gatherers to run game animals (including Herbivores who will overheat at a gallop because of their inability to perspire through thousands of skin pores) into exhaustion and then dispatch of the animal with handheld weapons such as rocks and spears. Eventually, human cognition crafted the bow and arrow which replaced the need for persistence hunting, but the human endurance abilities remain with us to this day (see Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run for more information)

Hunting and gathering shaped and directly influenced the human genome. We are what and who we are because of hunting and gathering. Hunting= meat, therefore, humans evolved to consume meat as well as a variety of wild foods.2014-09-26 13.21.30
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A Delicious Debate: Bacon vs. Jerky

Cabelas-Bacon_vs_Jerky-Infographic-with logo

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Venison Shank Stew

I’ve long been a fan of shanks of most any animal (pork, deer, lamb, beef etc) because it is one of the more unique tasting cuts. Even beef shanks are often described by pedestrian eaters as being “Gamey.” In most people’s minds, “gamey” tends to be a description that has a negative connotation, so, in the case of shanks, I think that “earthy” or “musty” might be a better description since those adjectives tend to be non conclusive. I hardly think that “gamey” is a bad thing and, in fact, don’t think that most people who use that word have any idea what they actually mean when they saw it, but I digress.

Being slow twitch muscles that take a constant workload and, in the case of wild animals such as deer, the shank takes a tremendous workload jumping fences, outrunning coyotes, fighting other bucks, travelling great distances and eluding hunters. Because of these demands, the shank is full of silverskin that compartmentalizes the slow twitch muscles. Silverskin will breakdown during the cooking process, but it takes awhile. All of the collagen combined with the inherent robust flavors of slow twitch muscles produces wonderfully complex and rich flavors that are both earthy and even a bit musty.IMG_3143I started with this large shank from a mature buck. I often see hunters removing achilles tendons, but they are full collagen and I highly recommend adding them to the pot. I sawed the bone in half near the bottom so that the shank would fit in the pot and so that the bone marrow could escape and make its flavor and fat contributions. I then proceeded to brown the surface of the shank on all sides. While this was going on, I sauteed root vegetables: Garlic, Onion, Carrots and Celery in butter (salt & pepper) in a dutch oven.

IMG_3144I then added the browned shank to the pot, poured in a quart of venison stock (including some rendered venison fat), 1 beer (ale), mustard greens, rosemary, oregano, and a few juniper berries. Brought the liquid to a near boil, reduced to the lowest simmer (many crock pots are actually a little too hot to do this correctly), put the lid on and let it simmer for 6-7 hours.

IMG_3145About an hour before dinner, I added some sweet potatoes and then added some sauteed mushrooms just before serving. The whole thing came out very satisfying and rich. You just can’t beat shank meat.

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Roasted Squirrel

Over the last few years, I have experimented extensively with various ways of roasting squirrel. The topic of slow cooking squirrels has been thoroughly covered, but there still seems to be some mystery when it comes to actually presenting a squirrel shoulder or leg off the grill.

In order to produce tasty squirrel on the bone, the keys to success involve a two stage, pre cooking process: Brine and Marinade.

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For the brine, I tend to keep it simple: 4 to 1 water to salt ratio with some peppercorns. Heat the water enough to dissolve the salt and cool. That’s it. Given their size, squirrels don’t require a long brining process and four hours should get the job done. The purpose of the brine is for moisture retention. Basically, it is a osmosis process that allows the meat to retain moisture by denaturing the proteins. Following the brining stage, rinse the excess salt from the meat, pat the meat dry and move on to the marinade.

If you break down the fundamentals of a marinade, you’ll discover that you need fat, sugar and acid. This sounds simple enough, eh? For example, Olive oil (fat) + honey (sugar) + lemon juice (acid) would accomplish this task just fine. Many marinades call for ingredients such as Italian dressing which contains oil, sugars and vinegar and accomplishes this end with one bottle off the shelf. Soy sauce is also a popular ingredient since it is so acidic. The same applies to orange juice. Marinades aren’t difficult to improvise once you understand the foundations. Want to go Southwestern? Some chilies, lime juice, oil, and a bit of sugar will get you there. Jamaican? Assemble a jerk marinade on those same principles: Scotch Bonnets, Orange Juice, allspice, brown sugar, vinegar, olive oil, lime juice, garlic, vinegar, fresh herbs etc. Its easy to do various combinations until they taste “right”, add the meat and allow them to marinade overnight. FullSizeRender (1)That’s us, competing in the 2013 World Squirrel Cookoff in Bentonville, Arkansas. We spent several months experimenting with brines, marinades and cooking “unapologetic”, whole muscle squirrel over flame. 

Since squirrel meat tends to be tough, I have found that a longer marinating process, say 12 hours or longer, seems to help. From there, I roast them over flame, a few minutes on each side, brushing with melted butter. I then finish in foil for 20+ minutes (as with most game meats, you allow different lengths of time for size and age of the particular animal). Brine, marinade, flame, foil. This combination will get you there. I have even gone so far as to have a brine waiting in a cooler in the truck and immediately dropped squirrel meat in the brine upon completion of a morning of squirrel hunting; Marinade in the afternoon and cook that night. This method is reliable enough (and popular enough with friends), that I almost never slow cook squirrels anymore (I reserve that process for much meatier swamp rabbits).

For many people, eating squirrel is a bit of a novelty. I know this because I have probably given several dozen or more  people their first taste of squirrel meat. As a result, I tend to eschew the popular method of making squirrel dishes where the meat is in a virtually unrecognizable form. I prefer the “This is squirrel: it looks like squirrel, tastes like squirrel…. you know for a fact that you are eating squirrel” method. It makes it more fun and interesting. Try experimenting. IMG_3137Squirrel roasting over flame. 

I did this batch today for a potluck. It started out as a Paleo potluck dinner for my Crossfit box, but, as I expected, it quickly turned into a “anything goes” potluck. I went middle of the road. Squirrel, of course, is about a natural of a sourced meat as you can get. I was in the mood for a Asian profile, so I used Soy Sauce, Olive Oil, White Wine, Vinegar, Juice of Lime, Honey, Garlic and Sugar for a marinade.

I started by placing 7 squirrels in a brine for 4 hours. I rinsed off the excess salt (important), patted the meat dry (important) and slipped the meat into the following marinade:

1 Cup Soy Sauce

1 Cup White Wine

4 Garlic Cloves, Crushed

2 Tbsp Vinegar

3 Tbsp Honey

2 Tbsp Sugar

1/4 th Cup Olive Oil

1/2 Cup water (to fully cover the meat)

I marinaded the squirrels for almost 24 hours, allowed them to come to room temperature, placed them on a hot grill and brushed them with a mixture of butter and pork lard (melted butter by itself will be fine) until brown on each side. I then placed them in foil and finished them for about 20 minutes with the lid on the grill. They were a big hit and quite a number of people had their first taste of tree rat.

Looking for advice on squirrel skinning? Here you go.

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