Both hands covered in tiny, painful, hair-sized prickles, I shook my fist at the sky and shouted, "Damn you, Hank Shaw!" And then I winced because it really hurt to curl my hand into a fist.
It wasn't actually his fault. I'd spotted an enormous prickly pear cactus bristling with deep fuchsia fruit on a corner in my neighborhood and immediately pulled over to pick some of it. Possibly, a wiser move might have been to keep driving and do a little research first. I could have pulled out Shaw's new book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, and discovered that you're supposed to pick the fruit with gloves because the prickles are so painful and so extremely difficult to remove. In fact, I still have one embedded in my finger that I haven't been able to get out.
Earlier that week, I'd gone down to the James River with Shaw, a former Richmonder and author of the James Beard award-nominated blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, to learn about what kinds of edible things were growing there.
I left smugly thinking, "I'm not as ignorant as I thought I was. Isn't that a great feeling?" When Shaw pointed out bunches of clover-like wood sorrel, I remembered chewing on the tart, lemony plant when I was a kid. I'd tie-dyed T-shirts with juice squeezed from the purple berries of pokeweed that he pointed out growing beside the path. Also, as a child, I'd smashed black walnuts from trees like the ones I saw with Shaw and had gotten in trouble for making a mess on the sidewalk.
Shaw was in Richmond in September to host a dinner at The Blue Goat, sign books and encourage others to look for their food instead of mindlessly buying it at the grocery store. In addition, he says, his book is for hunters who want to learn to cook or fishermen who want to learn to hunt — a kind of how-to book of the edible outdoors.
He also emphatically stressed the importance of doing research before eating anything in the wild. I took that to heart. After all, nature can kill you. I did not, however, make the obvious leap and assume that you might want to do a little research before you touch plants that you're not familiar with. As I learned, even the Technicolor deliciousness of the edible prickly pear is fraught with danger.
Shaw is surprisingly unburly for a guy who shoots his own game, catches his own fish and forages the rest to fill the empty space left on his plate. In between the baseball cap and the plaid shirt, he looks a lot like his previous incarnation — a journalist.
From 1996 to 2002, Shaw was a political reporter for Fredericksburg's Free Lance-Star, and for the last two years of his tenure there, he lived in Richmond and covered the General Assembly. He has smart, insightful things to say off the record about politics today. On the record, he says, "One of the reasons I got out of reporting is because politics started to get less interesting. It used to be about the art of the deal, but increasingly, it's become two polarized sides shouting at each other."
He started his blog in 2007. Prior to that, he'd moved to Minneapolis to work for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. An avid fisherman, Shaw was dismayed to find the fishing season cut short by the weather and decided to try his hand at hunting. He asked Chris Niskanen, outdoor editor at the Pioneer Press, if he would be willing to teach him what he needed to know. "Chris is an extremely able hunter. He knows exactly what can and can't be done." Niskanen took him out hunting weekend after weekend.
As he became more and more disenchanted with politics, Shaw began his blog "to keep me sane."
Instead of looking at hunting and fishing as simply outdoor pursuits, his blog examines them from a cook's perspective (Shaw is also a former line cook). On Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, he writes, "I spend my days thinking about new ways to cook and eat anything that walks, flies, swims, crawls, skitters, jumps — or grows. I am the omnivore who has solved his dilemma."
His book, however, is different. "It's for readers who have no idea how to start [hunting, fishing and foraging]. If you haven't grown up with it, it's an opaque pursuit." And his book does indeed take the reader step-by-step through the process of acquiring equipment (with recommendations), finding game or fish, and cleaning and preserving it. He also explains which wild plants are edible and what you might expect to taste when you eat them, and which plants are poisonous and should be avoided.
The core of the book, however, is its recipes. Shaw takes the wild and brings it into the dining room with dishes like nettle risotto, venison medallions with morel sauce, or rose-petal ice cream. And page after page, Shaw proves that he can cook with the best of them.
Nevertheless, to Shaw, the interconnectedness between your food and your world is the most important message that he wants to convey in his book. "The basic act of knowing how to find your own food," he writes, "to feed yourself with a meal you didn't buy, is a small act of freedom in an increasingly regimented and mechanical world."