This Saturday I completed the Michigan Hunter’s Safety Course, the training necessary for purchasing a hunting license. To risk sounding overdramatic, it was the next step in a long journey that started when my friends handed me a fishing rod those few years ago.
Although I love everything about fishing– being outside, exploring new waters, encountering wild animals in their habitat, the skill needed to catch fish on artificial lures, and of course catching them– my initial attraction was the promise of food.
Before I ever fished, I learned how to bake bread. I love bread, especially the crusty kind that makes you think of France or Spain, a completely different animal from the average soft sandwich loaf at the grocery store (although I love that too). Bread was one of the first foods I attempted to make myself, even though I was thoroughly intimidated by its apparent complexity.
Turns out baking bread is easy. The first few baguette-style loaves I baked were a revelation: The bread was delicious, was made with four ingredients, and I made it from scratch. It was less expensive and more delicious than what I could buy at the grocery store. Those two facts appealed to both my cheapness and desire to eat things that taste really good.
That was the turning point when I got a little crazy about cooking from scratch. Once I could bake bread, in my mind there was no limit to the foods I could cook from scratch. During my first year of graduate school I lived alone in a 375 square foot apartment in Chicago. My free time was spent making music and making food.
In my mind, there is no real difference between the desire to cook dishes from scratch and the desire to procure the raw ingredients myself. It’s simply a matter of scale.
I had no idea I’d enjoy fishing so much. Admittedly, it was incredibly out of character for me to embrace something so tied to the outdoors (as I like to say, I was always an ‘inside kid’) but it wasn’t out of character for me to become so engrossed in it. That’s how I roll; I am not moderate. During those first few years of fishing, although I caught plenty of raw ingredients (fish) I ate very few of them due to the dubious water quality of the Chicago metropolitan area. I was primarily a catch and release angler. It was only on trips to Michigan that I caught and kept for the table with varying levels of success.
Since moving to Michigan I have caught, killed, and eaten plenty of fish; Not a large portion of my diet by any means, but wild fish is certainly represented. I thought at some point I would become numb to the act of killing my quarry, but thankfully that has not happened. I feel a strange combination of elation and sadness every single time I take the life of a fish. Sure, it’s “only a fish,” but like all animals they deserve to be treated with mercy and respect. Each time I wonder about the ethics of killing these animals.
I admire and respect fish, even love them– and yet I kill and eat them. This is the strange paradox I find myself contemplating.
I’m finding that it is possible to care about an animal, its well-being, its habitat, even its comfort, while simultaneously considering recipes for it. That may sound crazy– I certainly would have thought so ten years ago– but it’s true.
I have, at least partially, come to find an understanding with myself when it comes to eating animals. I take no pleasure in killing things, but take great pleasure in the delicious act of consuming them, making those things a part of me, hopefully in the tastiest way possible. I believe these wild things, the trout and bluegill and rock bass that swim nearby, have a good life. A life certainly qualitatively better than their close relatives in fish farms or distant ones in poultry factory farms.
Following that line of thought, I believe that other wild things like deer, rabbits, squirrels, turkeys, and geese also have a much better life than any animal raised and slaughtered for the grocery store or the fast food chain.
As I learn more about where our food comes from, I am often shocked, appalled, and saddened with the way we treat our land, our animals, and the people we pay to raise them. This is the point where many become vegetarians: How can we keep eating meat when the true cost of our $.99/pound broiler chicken is brutality and cruelty? Surely it must be better to survive on plants. If I only eat vegetables, my eating will have no effect on the lives of all those poor animals.
Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case, even with seemingly docile corn. Many animals die in the process of growing corn: habitat is destroyed to make way for vast fields of monoculture, animals are killed by machines that harvest the crops, and still more animals are killed to protect crops. Farmers regularly kill deer. That animal-friendly corn you’re eating is not so friendly after all.
Of course the material I’ve been consuming– Tovar Cerulli’s “The Mindful Carnivore,” Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dillema,” and many websites like Hank Shaw’s “Hunter Angler Gardener Cook”– lean solidly toward the direction of eating animals. I certainly need to consume more from the other side, perhaps literature from PETA or similar organizations.
But each time I do, I am stopped in my tracks with what seems to me to be idealistic and unrealistic reasons to avoid meat. The worst offender of this is a quote from PETA:
“In this day and age, there really is no reason to kill animals for fun or food. People should enjoy nature by hiking and get their food at the grocery store.”
Bullshit, I say.
If I didn’t sound preachy before, this is where it happens.
Where do you think that grocery store meat comes from?
You simply can’t tell me that the chicken in the factory farm– whose beak has been cut off without painkillers, who lives in a large building filled with hundreds of other chickens living in their own filth, who is constantly pumped full of antibiotics to stave off the inevitable sickness that comes from such conditions, who has a short, terrifying and terrible life, who may never have the opportunity to even go outside– has a better life than a wild pheasant.
Yes, the wild pheasant will most likely die at the hands of a wolf or coyote (animals do not die of old age!) but it is able to live as a wild and free animal, eating and doing what it wishes until it is killed and eaten by another animal.
And it’s not just the wild pheasant who has it better. We live about a thousand feet from a family farm that grows vegetables and raises livestock. We ate one of their turkeys for Thanksgiving. It was a good turkey, but it was not the best-tasting turkey I’ve ever had. In fact, it was slightly tough and dry, perhaps due to an older age than most grocery store turkeys.
But we drive by the farm on an almost daily basis. We see the cows in the pasture; We are greeted by chickens whenever we visit. These animals, although they are not wild, have a good life. They are cared for and treated with respect. They certainly have a better life than the factory farmed animals. Maybe they even have a great life. I feel perfectly fine eating those animals, knowing their lives were good and their ends were likely quick and merciful. But quick and merciful at the hands of someone else.
I want to know what it’s like to eat meat from scratch, from woods to table.
How did I get here? I was talking about bread baking and somehow got lost discussing the ethics of eating meat. What is the point?
This Saturday I took the Michigan Hunter’s Safety Course, the mandatory instruction required to purchase a hunting license. Along with a room full of 10-year-olds and my good friend Mark as my chaperon-of-sorts, I scored 100% on the exam. I shot a recurve bow, a .22 bolt action rifle, and a 20 gauge shotgun, demonstrating my absorption of safe gun handling and shooting. There was no question they wanted us all to pass– only 5% of the population hunts, and that number is quickly dwindling. My weeks of thorough studying material (most of which was almost completely new to me) paid off, and I can now legally gain a license to hunt.
If my rambling took things off track, I hope to bring the focus back to the impetus of this journey. I liked bread, so I learned where it came from and how to make it. In the process I ended up enjoying both the process of preparation and consumption infinitely more.
My newest goal is to shoot a rabbit, or a squirrel, or a deer, and eat it. I like meat, and I know animals are going to die regardless of what I do. I want to look that reality in the cute, furry face and discover what it means to me. Obviously this is much deeper than mixing some flour and yeast together; I’m not even sure I’ll be able to pull the trigger if I manage to find a bunny in my sights. But the way I see it, it’s the natural next step in my progression from baking bread. I want to know what it’s like. I want to face those realities. And I want to eat rabbit.
Until I actually see that bunny or squirrel in my sights, I’ve been practicing my shooting with the same enthusiasm and approach that I practice music. In practicing jazz, my goal was to create skillful and beautiful improvisations; With a gun as my instrument, my new goal is to shoot an animal in such a way that it will die instantly, without pain or suffering. And then I’ll skin it, cut it, cook it, and eat it, knowing full well what went into my meal.
So on my breaks from work, I grab my new Crosman Optimus .177 pellet rifle and practice my marksmanship on pop cans.