Hank Shaw speaks about his new book and a special dinner event at Extra Virgin on Nov. 14th
These days, Hank Shaw is a hard person to track down. While you may find a new post on his James Beard Award-winning blog, “Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook,” you’ll have to track down the author himself in the midst of a marathon book tour for his new cookbook, “Duck, Duck, Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Ducks and Geese, Both Wild and Domesticated.”
Shaw’s self-funded book tour crosses the country twice and includes 39 states, 43 cities and 44 restaurants where Shaw’s duck recipes will be featured with wine pairings. He will host a dinner here in Kansas City on November 14, at Extra Virgin.
Shaw describes himself as “an omnivore who’s solved his dilemma.” He hunts, fishes and forages for the majority of his diet, writing recipes for the rest of us to learn how to “eat wild” by following in his off-the-beaten-path footsteps. I caught up with him by phone a month into the tour.
So, tell me a bit about the recipes in the new book.
The recipes are completely ideas I came up with in my hot little brain and also translating by around the world from beak to feet. A lot of other cultures eat duck; Southeast Asians, Chinese, Germans, French. If you go to Cajun country you will find Duck Gumbo … there is a wealth of classic recipes out there that I can reinvent in my own way.
You encourage people to eat beak-to-feet. What are the best parts of the duck most of us have been missing out on?
The duck and goose gizzards are phenomenal. What I do with them is corn them like corned beef and then slow-simmer them. You can do this in a crockpot. You don’t need any fancy equipment for this. But, slow-simmer them slow and low in a duck or chicken broth until they want to fall apart. It’s worth your time. It could take 12 hours, but what you end up with is a very, very ducky-flavored meat that looks like corned beef and tastes a lot like corned beef. Gizzards can usually be very crunchy, but this recipe eliminates that. It’s really a revelation.
Alongside line cook and fisherman, you’ve had the job title of “political reporter.” Did political issues influence your honest food approach?
No, in fact, I did food and do food as a way to escape that sort of thing. If you’re looking for an influence on how I cook and how I approach food, it’s more that I went to graduate school as a historian, and just the fact that I was a journalist — not the politics — that really does influence the way I look at food. It allows me to look at it from a researcher’s perspective. What I don’t want to do is just sum up a recipe. What I want to do is to sit down and think about it and work with it and research what other people do before I put it out there. I’m more cautious about what I put out there because I want my recipes to work.
What’s been your most challenging moment as a hunter? As a cook?
Learning to duck hunt by myself. Nobody taught me how to duck hunt. So, I learned by making a lot of mistakes. I didn’t understand ducks at first. I didn’t understand that ducks defend themselves with incredible eyesight — seeing movement, seeing things that shouldn’t be in a marsh. I learned that it is not really easy to shoot a Canvasback flying by at 55 miles an hour. I learned that you get cold pretty easy, even in California, in the winter when you are sitting waist deep in mud.
As a cook, you know, I think the challenge has always been, especially with a wild animal, to crack the code for flavor. What do I need to do to take a sea duck that spends its time eating clams and fish and crustaceans, how do I make that bird taste good. Those are challenges I like. Figuring out how to make things taste good even for novices who don’t eat game. That’s been a lot of fun to solve that problem.
When people confuse what you do with all the “bizarre food” shows that seem as bent on shock value as cuisine, what do you tell them?
It’s for others to decide, I don’t view it as bizarre. I like looking at the natural world around us and I like showing people what potential is there for their kitchen. I am a forager and an angler, and all kinds of things, my purpose is to show what’s possible with wild food, if someone calls that bizarre, that that’s up to them.
Can you explain how the “Hunter’s Paradox” impacts your “beak to feet” approach?
It does have an impact, but a greater influence on eating every part of the animal, comes from two things. One, it is the recognition that you just killed something. Most people never “meet their meat.” Hunters and livestock farmers do this all the time. It makes you think about your own place in the world. Meat has action, it was an animal at one point. It makes you think about the end product when you turn animals into meat. It makes you say, “I don’t want to waste this.” It spurs you on to ways to make gizzards, for example, or livers, or feet taste good. Because any bit that’s thrown in trash is a disservice to the animal.
There is also a mechanical, non-philosophical reason. It’s that when you start as a hunter, you aren’t very good. So, you have to make every animal stretch as far as it can. So, when I shot my first duck, it was an amazing event, it was like “Oh my God, I finally got one.” You want to make it stretch.
My deer hunting record is 0-2. But I am determined to try for a wild turkey next season. I was thinking smoked. What would you recommend?
You want to forget Norman Rockwell and that image of roasting it whole. I strongly urge you to break it down into legs and wings in one pile, breasts in another pile, and then make stock out of the carcass. The meat on the legs and wings is fantastic, but you talk about something that needs slow, low moist heat for sure. Wild turkey leg does taste great, but really the only way you can eat them comfortably is to braise them until meat falls off the bone. I make them into carnitas a lot. But, the breast of wild turkey is not very different from the breast of a domesticated turkey.
Congratulations on the James Beard award for your blog. Did you ever envision yourself as a food writer when you were covering politics in New York? Was there a defining moment that got you started on this path?
Toward that end of my career I did. For most of my 20-year career of covering politics, foraging and fishing and cooking were something I did to keep myself sane. It was only toward the end when covering politics was something I was good at but something I no longer loved, only then did I think, “Well, maybe I could do this thing.”
It was not something that I gave much thought to until 2006. I started pitching magazines. What I soon realized is that I had too many ideas for the number of magazines that would ever take my material. So I started Hunter, Angler and Cook in 2007. And that blog has been the focus of everything I do. Everything comes out of that blog.
Books are great, but at the end of the day all about the web site. I spend hours every day answering peoples’ questions. I get questions from “what do I do with duck livers” to “what is this mushroom,” to “how to make acorn pancakes.” It’s very important to me to interact with people who read both the books and the web site. The point of what I do is to pass on knowledge that I have gained over the years. If I can help somebody include wild food — whether its winged things or clams or fish — into their lifestyle then that means I have succeeded.
Now for just a bit of fun. What’s your best recipe to cook a nice, fat squirrel, say, one that has been feasting on heirloom tomatoes for a full summer?
Braise them in a tomato sauce! I just actually did that in Ohio. We went squirrel hunting in Ohio. We got three that day and I decided to make a Portuguese-style stew. We used the last of my friend Joe’s tomatoes, tomato paste, a lot of paprika and some white wine . We just simmered them down until they were tender, then added some kale and chopped fresh tomatoes at the end. It would be fitting for your squirrels.
What’s next for you when the book tour is wrapped up? Are you just going to take off for the woods immediately?
You got it. You know, I’m kind of like most people in that I love people but I enjoy being alone. After four months of intense interaction with people all over the country, I need to recharge a bit.
That recharging will also include a bit of deer hunting after the last of the tour events in Texas in January. After four months on the road, Shaw admits his freezer is getting low. While most of us may solve that with a trip to the grocery store, for Shaw, who has not bought meat from a grocery store since 2005, that next roast means a well-earned trip to the woods.
Story by Beth Bader