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This is the thirteenth in a series of weekly farm reports from our own Tom Hirschfeld, complete with recipes, cooking and gardening tips, and wisdom dispensed.
This week: Tom goes pheasant hunting.
Dream catchers in the rye
As if thirteen wasn’t unlucky enough. Sometime between Peoria and Des Moines it occurred to me there might be something peculiar about going hunting with the county coroner and a life insurance salesman. The only piece to that triumvirate to be missing was the preacher, but he is more apt to go deer hunting.
I knew where we were going but it had been thirteen years since I had been. If where I live is country, then this part of South Dakota is part of the old West, wild West in fact. It was a place where the north wind blows, the Big Blue Stem grass bows, the women grow tall and don’t take no shit. A place where if you listen closely you can still hear, in the whispers of the prairie grass, legends that had once been.
It is becoming late evening. The sun is setting and out in a field of prairie grass and at the tall tips of the amber waves of grain are what seem like millions of spider webs strung from stalk to stalk and backlit by the sun. Suddenly I imagined they were catching all the miscellaneous thoughts and stripping my stream of consciousness clean, down to the bare bones and then snapping them, exposing the marrow of one word, hunting.
It hung there like a neon “open” sign in the window of a one bar town.
Hunt: to pursue for food or with intent to capture.
I blink. Biggie Talls is in the driver's seat. He is driving like a machine dedicated to the efficiency of getting somewhere and nothing more. All the while he is telling everyone in the car who has not met my uncle that my uncle is a killer, a stone cold killer, the silent type. Don’t piss him off or he will go all Texas ranger on your ass. Stay out of his peripheral vision.
I smile. My uncle is eighty years old. The group is coming together, shucking and jiving, everyone is laughing and having a good time. I join in.
The hunt continued throughout the week in just such a jovial fashion.
Hunt: to pursue wild game for food and to develop friendships.
When you finally do get to the rolling hills of South Dakota it is like no other place. It is big sky, where it seems like you can see forever. Somewhere where you can let your imagination go and there is nothing to stop it -- in fact, the wind just might carry it for great distances before setting it down. I think of Willa Cather.
The three dogs are anxious to get to the fields. They wag their tails and you can see the excitement in their eyes. They get to work, do their job and they are happy about it.
The guys are lined up at the edge of the shelter belt. (A shelter belt is an area planted with juniper, tall grass and maybe milo. It is designed to shelter game of all sorts.) Out and up twenty feet from this line on each side are the wingmen, they keep the pheasant from running out the side and off to another field and if any birds come up early they are out far enough that they have a chance to shoot. At the end of the long thin shelter belt stand the blockers. They keep the birds from running out the end and off to who knows where. As a blocker you are probably going to take a buckshot shower as the tiny BBs rain down after a shot further up the field.
You want the birds to get up into the air before shooting -- no low shots, and no shooting a bird on the ground because the dogs are in the thickets too. Oh, and to add to that list, you only shoot roosters, so you have to distinguish between the two genders before firing.
You need to think before you act but you have to act or go home empty-handed. As everyone walks occasionally birds come up in a flurry of surprise and are shot. The dogs retrieve them and bring them to their owners. It is when you get to the end of the field that things get crazy.
Towards the end of a field sweep the birds, sometimes lots of them, start getting nervous and all at once they start flying in all directions. Shots are being fired now, lots of shots. It sounds like twelve noon at the O.K. Corral. When the dust settles and the birds are collected up you take a deep breath.
It's a good day.
• • • • • •
This trip wasn’t just a short drive down the road but really a long haul to just “pursue for food”. Obviously it is more than that. After all there were three generations of folks and good friends going along for the fun. The three elder statesmen of the bunch were eighty years old or pushing it, fathers, sons and grandsons and a great uncle too.
I have hunted since I was very young. I am fortunate enough to have a father who taught me and took me into the woods to teach me to respect nature, weapons and in general be a good steward of the things around me. If I were to put it to something, compare it, it would have to be learning to make biscuits at your mother's or grandmother’s side. Really it's not all that different in that you are learning about the person or people you are with as much as how to make biscuits or to hunt. It is quality time with family and it is part of a long human legacy.
There was a short period of time when I didn’t hunt. I was in college and I had other interests -- women, partying and, in general, a good dose of malfeasance. I had also taken up photography and with the exception of ammunition the two aren’t all that different, meaning, I often wonder if a camera didn’t satiate the desire to hunt. I also think that I was at a point in my life where I just couldn’t justify hunting. It seemed there was an excess of meat at the grocery that needed taken care of instead of more animals being killed. Whatever the case I am past that stage.
When I did come back to hunting I made a list of a few short rules for myself. Thus far I have been able to stick with them and, honestly, since I became a chef I added a few more but still they are all simple.
Tom's Tips for Ethical Hunting
1. I practice shooting. Sounds stupid but I don’t like the idea of making an animal suffer any more than necessary. If I can drop an animal with one shot, a good clean kill shot, because I take target practice, then it is time well spent.
2. I don’t shoot an animal I am not going to eat, period. I also try to use as much of the animal as I can. I am really picky about how my animals are butchered, cleaned, and the resulting final product. So much so I do most of the butchering myself. I really enjoy this part of it, being a chef, so I don’t ever see it as a chore.
3. I also am picky about how I hunt. I have seen guys hunt deer from a truck where they pull up and the animals don’t even run -- wild animals should be spooked by a truck -- some are even sitting, then out the window goes a rifle barrel and they shoot. That is not hunting, rather it is paying a lot of money to slaughter an animal. That is not to say I am out in the woods in a loin cloth chasing a deer with a Rambo knife in my mouth trying to slit its throat either but there are wild animals that know no fences and roam free. These animals are very alert, very aware, and know there are predators out there trying to eat them and have a highly developed sense of intuition and are very elusive.
4. Hunters do lots to preserve and care for the natural habitat of the game they like to hunt. There are groups dedicated to the preservation of quail, pheasant, duck, and so many more game species, even trout. In other words, hunters are about sustainability because they want game animals to flourish not disappear. Hunters also donate tons of meat to organizations to help feed people in need.
Pheasant Pot Pie
Serves 6 to 8
For the filling:
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 1/4 pound pheasant meat, cubed
1 cup ham lardons
1 cup yellow onion, minced
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
1 large potato, peeled and cubed
1 turnip peeled and cubed
2 celery stalks, chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
1/2 cup green onion, chopped into thin rounds
3 cups water or vegetable stock
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
For the topping:
2 cups fine grind 100% whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup lard
1 cup whole milk yogurt or buttermilk
Want more Tom? See last week's dispatch: Community Cookbooks and Steamed Brown Bread