Game

How Hunting My Own Food Taught Me to Cook Mindfully

One woman’s journey to discover what it means to connect with her ingredients, and why it matters.

July 11, 2020
Photo by Danielle Prewett

Welcome to Living Wild by Danielle Prewett, a wild game cook and contributing editor at MeatEater. In this series, she explores what it means to eat consciously and live mindfully. For Danielle, that way of life relies on hunting, fishing, foraging, and gardening. Her stories aim to inspire you to live a life more closely connected to the earth and to celebrate its natural bounty in your kitchen.


It’s midsummer here in Texas, but I’m finding myself thinking back to spring, when the temperatures were steadily rising and the growing season was in full swing. It was time to pull the radishes from my garden, the first of many vegetables to mature. With my hands covered in dirt, I gripped the bundle of vibrant pink roots and smiled. My heart was filled with content over this simple joy in life—harvesting food directly from the earth.

Watching a tiny seed disappear into the soil and sprout into an edible plant is cause for a celebration. As a wild game cook, I have to commemorate the occasion. I dig into the freezer and pull out a package labeled "pronghorn antelope backstrap." It seemed fitting to pair the first harvest of the year with my first big game animal.

Photo by Danielle Prewett

With a job title like mine, you might be asking: "Is this a real profession?" or "Do you actually hunt?" and then "How did you learn to do it?" I'm incredibly fortunate to make a living by teaching others how to cook wild food. Most people assume I was born into this way of life. The truth is that I didn't start cooking or hunting until I was an adult.

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“You are approaching the taking of the animals life with a reverence and appreciation for that life. I also believe if more people were this connected to the food they eat we would have a healthier society. So many people are focused on consuming the food that is cheapest, or fastest, or tastiest, and it’s led to a society that is sickening them selves with their choices. You’ve changed my view of hunters, so thank you for opening my eyes to a more wholistic version of it. ”
— Nathalie
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I met my husband, Travis, in college. I was pursuing an ambitious career in apparel design; he was an adventurous soul who lived for the outdoors. He took me to a shooting range on our first date to sight-in a rifle. Not exactly the wine and dine I was expecting, but it was fun. A week later, he offered a second date: home-cooked venison steaks. I admired how Travis treated the meat with reverence and would soon come to understand why it was so special to him.

Fast-forward five years and many steak nights later, and you'd find me in the kitchen making wild game stock or seared mallard breast. Travis was continually bringing home a variety of new product, and I fell in love with cooking it. There is nothing more fascinating to me than working with ingredients that I can't buy from a grocery store.

Photo by Matt Hardinge

At this time, the retail industry had already worn on me. The work didn’t fulfill me, and I was anxious to start over before it was too late. I began working in the cooking classes of a large chain store and was ready to pay for another round of education. But instead of going to culinary school, life took an unexpected turn, and we moved to North Dakota. I didn't know it at the time, but this move changed my life.

As a native Texan, I didn't expect to like this cold territory, but I did. I spent my free time hiking across the grasslands. There is a magical energy surrounding this area; I felt it in my bones.

Up to this point, I had only been cooking and butchering wild game. I knew how to break down an entire deer before I’d ever squeezed the trigger on anything bigger than a dove. I felt almost as if I had to earn my way into hunting, that I didn't deserve to take an animal's life until I was ready. In my quest to become a knowledgeable cook and butcher, I knew that I needed to complete the circle by harvesting animals myself. So, I picked up my shotgun and started bird hunting.

I spent my free time hiking across the grasslands. There is a magical energy surrounding this area; I felt it in my bones.

I'll always remember my first pheasant. My golden retriever, Marina, flushed it out of the grass. I saved his gorgeous iridescent feathers (now proudly displayed in my home) and prepared a classic French dish, coq au vin—quite appropriate for a male bird, often called a rooster. Though I've had this dish many times before, this specific meal was very different. I savored each bite with a deep appreciation for the life I was eating, the prairies and grasslands that support this wildlife, and for the memory I would treasure forever. Suddenly, eating no longer became about filling the stomach or exciting the taste buds; it had meaning. I wanted to feel this way every time I sat down to eat.

In between the weekends of hunting, I educated myself on the sustainability of our food system. Every decision we make as a consumer has a consequence, even if we don’t see the impact. I also believe that our choices reflect our values. I care about the welfare of animals and the resources required to sustain their lives. I wanted to be directly responsible and know that every time I cook, it was done with full consciousness.

In 2014, I made a return to the land. Since then, Travis and I have hunted and fished for all of our protein, and I've begun learning how to source wild edibles and grow produce of my own.

Over the years, I've discovered that hunting, fishing, foraging, and gardening aren't just hobbies; together, they’re a way to live life more mindfully. They allow me to connect with my food in a meaningful way, a practice that it can feel like modern society is slowly forgetting. When we spend time outside, we cultivate presence and awareness in unexpected ways.

Of course, I recognize that this way of life is labor-intensive, and at times it feels like a burden. I know it would be much easier to purchase from local regenerative farms who ethically raise grass-fed animals. I fully support and recommend those options to anyone looking for alternatives. However, there are few things more rewarding than sourcing your own food. This satisfaction cannot be bought, and it's what draws me back into the field.

My celebratory meal for the first garden harvest of the season is a perfectly grilled American antelope loin paired with a pickled radish topping. The radishes come from my garden located at the family ranch. They are grown in the same soil that three generations before me once grew their own food. The venison was a handsome buck that lived in the grasslands and sagebrush plains of Wyoming. For some, steak and salsa might not seem very special. But for me, they represent quite a bit: the success of living off the land.

How do you connect back with your food and the land? Let us know in the comments.

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5 Comments

Nathalie July 19, 2020
I’ve been a member of Food52 for years and this is the first time I’ve felt strongly enough about an article to comment. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate other people’s comments immensely, but until now didn’t feel the need to contribute. So kudos to you for writing such a thought provoking article.
I stopped eating animals decades ago, and one of the reasons was because I care deeply for animals, and their quality of life. In my mind eating a steak would be like eating a piece of my Golden Retriever! But I have much admiration for your commitment to connecting with your food. You are approaching the taking of the animals life with a reverence and appreciation for that life.
I also believe if more people were this connected to the food they eat we would have a healthier society. So many people are focused on consuming the food that is cheapest, or fastest, or tastiest, and it’s led to a society that is sickening them selves with their choices.
You’ve changed my view of hunters, so thank you for opening my eyes to a more wholistic version of it.
 
Allan July 16, 2020
You did it sort of backwards, learning to prepare wild game prior to hunting, but you eventually did it! I found myself following in my brothers, dad’s, grandfather's footsteps and started hunting as soon as I was old enough. While the passion has stayed with me … it took 20 years after my first hunt to start to understand there’s more ways to prepare game. I now enjoy learning different cooking methods and having the knowledge to prepare wild game in a variety of ways brings even more meaning not only to the animal but the entire process. Solid article!
 
Garrett S. July 16, 2020
I think there are a lot of ways we can connect back with our food however one which I think isn't at least talked about but surely experienced is with whom we share it with and how the stories behind it also help connect us. Food connects people as it is however theirs a renaissance with its connection back with nature. You can tie that in with the stories of foraging, fishing, and hunting and how much experiencing those with people we care about really ads the salt or flavor to the entire experience and thus connection while sharing it. Personally, I love deep pitting a collection of wild game in a process we start the day before Christmas dinner for extended family.
 
Martah61 July 16, 2020
Hello Danielle, your article resonated with me a lot! I somehow suspected I could not be the only one... Our family has been eating mostly what either comes from our freezers(wild game meat that my husband or our suns kill and i butcher;.or our domesticaly raised rabbits, chicken and ducks)Our garden and sometimes, especially in early spring, foraging. Weeds are just a vegetable that has not been discovered! My kids(all 7) often told me: mom, your basics (as in food shopping) are not other people basics... so I will be reading your posts with a great interest, thank you.
 
Rob July 15, 2020
Love Danielle's story and want more recipes and content. Keep them coming