Hunter-chef Hank Shaw’s latest book takes on bucks and bulls, from kill to freezer to pan to plate.
By Randy King
It was still dark when Hank Shaw and I sat down in the Idaho sagebrush. It was opening day of general rifle mule deer season and Shaw was on a mission. He was going to write a book on cooking venison and I was trying to help get him a buck. As we sat waiting for the sun to begin illuminating the hill to the east, a bull elk sounded off. Then another. It was too late for the rut, but the elk serenaded us anyway.
It felt like such an honor to be deer hunting with Shaw. The man’s a legend among the “cook what you kill” movement. His website, honest-food.net, is a James Beard Award winner – think Oscars for foodies – and I had met him a few years prior when he was promoting his first book, Hunt, Gather, Cook. I’d interviewed him for a local paper and was thrilled to find another person in the wild game chef sphere. He became a go-to source for my wild game culinary questions – a valuable one too. And he had single-handedly gotten me to look at the plants – not just the animals – around me as food. My wife made fun of me for being a “weed eater” as I examined and cooked the contents of my lawn one spring. And now this well-known and well-published author was looking to me for a deer. I did not want to disappoint.
AS SHOOTING LIGHT neared, I was feeling confident. I had hunted this general area hard in archery season and had even missed a doe near the spot we were sitting a month prior. In fact, I’d sent Shaw a map with two X s proclaiming the locations where he was likely to get his buck. We were overlooking one, playing the waiting game as the deer slowly moved uphill, away from the water and into bedding areas, as the morning began.
As the light grew so did our field of view. Two bull elk crested the horizon, antlers silhouetting on the ridgeline in the distance. We waited and glassed and waited and glassed. But nothing came; it was time to move to X number two.
We were slowly backing out of our location and making a wide swing to a different ridgeline when Shaw caught sight of the first deer of the morning. “Flat head,” he declared in new-to-me terminology for a doe.
The deer was about 200 yards off and feeding away from us. A good sign, but not a buck. We glassed the sage and juniper country for a while longer, then Shaw caught sight of another deer.
“I think it’s a little buck,” he said. I had the better optics and gave the mule deer a gander. Sure enough, a little forked horn was feeding away from us. “Perfect shooter,” I replied.
We were hunting a management unit that limits harvest of general season bucks to no more than 2 points on one side. This created a “trophy unit” for those lucky enough to draw the tag. It also created a “meat unit” for those who do not care about such things, so this 1½-year-old buck was a great legal option.
Shaw and I slipped in behind a large juniper in the distance and began to close in on the little buck. The lone tree created just enough of a shield to get us within 70 yards or so. He was in the lead when we caught better sight of the buck’s antlers. It was not a forky but a 2×1. Shaw turned and whispered to me, “You shoot this one; I want a forked horn at least.”
I slipped in front of Shaw and took up my shooting stick, anchoring it in a sage, and bore down on the buck. I watched as his ears flicked; I could see his chest move as he breathed in and
out. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of something else. I took my eye out of the scope to see another buck looking right at us. Quickly I pulled up my binoculars to check if he was legal – a perfect little 2×2! I turned to Shaw and handed him back the shooting stick.
“A forky!” I exclaimed, a little louder than I should have. Now both deer were looking at us.
Shaw took the stick back and began to pull up on the buck when it started to stot off.
“Shoot, shoot, shoot!” I exclaimed, perhaps a little too pushily.
“I don’t shoot running targets,” Shaw said, quieting me down and making me check my ethics. I would have shot; I felt a little ashamed. Both deer crisscrossed several times and then stopped under the shaded canopy of scrub brush at about 100 yards, broadside and looking at us. Shaw pulled up his .270, fired and one of the bucks dropped. I pulled up on the other buck, which looked at us for a few seconds, but could not squeeze the trigger. I was hoping to shoot my first whitetail that year and wanted to save my tag for later in the season. Plus, my main mission was now a success: Shaw had his Idaho mule deer on the ground.
Unfortunately in the chaos, he had shot the 2×1 he’d wanted to pass on. To this day, I feel guilty about pushing him into shooting. But his buck was legal and he seemed happy to have it, so no harm, no foul. What I know about little bucks is that they are delicious – this one would be no exception.
You learn a lot about a person while dragging a buck up a hill. You learn if they are tough, if they are patient and if they have grit to get a job done. Shaw does, and that was good to learn. We trudged the little buck up to a fence line, crossed and situated it in a meadow. I left to get the ATV.
We were back at camp by 9:30 a.m. and rested the remainder of the day. With meat secured, Shaw soon left for his home in California. We have since foraged, fished and hunted together a number of times, and fast forward three years and Buck, Buck Moose is about to hit the shelves. I might be riding coattails here, but I feel like I helped. Shaw needed a buck for his book and he got one. Oh, and by the way, he got it within 100 yards of one of those Xs on the map I sent him.
Randy King Book three, Hank – what is this one about?
Hank Shaw Buck, Buck, Moose is something of a follow-up to my last book, Duck, Duck, Goose. Where the duck book covered all things waterfowl, this one, as you might imagine, covers everything you might want to know about prepping and cooking venison – in all its forms. One of the reasons we named the book as we did was to give people a sense that it wasn’t just about whitetail deer – sure, deer bucks, but also antelope bucks, and moose and elk, etc … Also, well, we did think it was a fun title.
RK There are other venison cookbooks on the market. What makes Buck, Buck, Moose different?
HS It is far more comprehensive, in all respects. The book covers everything from the moment you have the deer on the ground all the way to the freezer, and beyond. I go over food safety, detail general differences in the various meats by species and region, and I offer a style of butchering that can literally be done with a pen knife and a pocket saw – although I’d suggest a proper boning knife and a Sawzall, if you have them.
Buck, Buck, Moose also looks at venison cookery from a nose-to-tail and a global perspective. You will see recipes for venison from all over the world. Why? Because every culture in the world has at least a historic tradition of eating deer, elk, gazelles, moose, antelopes and the like. Similarly, it is important to me to open up to home cooks new ways of cooking the animals we bring home to feed our families. I’ll never ask you to eat innards because I think you ought to out of some moral obligation. But I will ask you to try my recipes for things like hearts, livers, tongues and kidneys because they taste amazing. Give them a go and you’ll see.
RK This book was funded via Kickstarter – full disclosure: I am waiting for my copy – why did you choose the self-publish route versus the traditional publisher route?
HS Primarily for editorial control. I was able to create exactly the book I wanted to, and include as many photos as I wanted to, with no restrictions. It is liberating. Another huge reason is because many (but not all) mainstream, big-city publishers flat out told me they had no idea how to sell this book to the people they normally market books to. Remember, for the most part, people aren’t buying venison, they’re hunting it. It was an eye-opening look at a little sliver of this cultural divide we’re experiencing in this country. I don’t blame the editors for passing on the book, but it may have proved to be a blessing in disguise.
RK You are about to start the book tour – mind telling me what that entails? The life of a traveling author seems so glamorous, after all.
HS Oh, God. Yeah, it’s basically like a rock-and-roll tour, only with no explosions, groupies, money or drugs. Long hours in planning every detail – a 55-event tour has innumerable moving parts to it – driving endless miles solo, being in and out of airports (who doesn’t love the TSA?), nights in hotels watching ESPN. You lose your voice at least twice every tour, and Nyquil becomes your best friend because you invariably get sick meeting so many people.
But those are the down sides to this sort of tour. The upsides are the events themselves. Book dinners, presentations, parties, cooking demonstrations and classes. They’re all fun in their own way, but what really keeps me going on all those days on the road are the people I meet. Long-time readers, people who’ve never heard of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, rich people, poor people, rural, urban, left, right, black, white: I see all kinds when I am out there. And seeing each night how so many people of such disparate backgrounds come together over a shared love of wild food cements why I put myself through this. Gratifying is putting it mildly.
RK What is your “date night” recipe in Buck, Buck, Moose?
HS Oh, there are many of them. There are more than 120 recipes in the book, and most could be done for a date. But if I had to choose one, I’d say either venison loin with Cumberland sauce or Steak Diane. They are both classic dishes many modern cooks snub, but they are classics for a reason. Both are fairly easy to make, and taste more fancy than they are. If I were back in my 20s, I’d memorize these two dishes: They’d be an ace in my pocket for a hot date.
RK Give me a “top three” pieces of advice for cooking venison.
HS 1) Never cook the loin, tenderloin or whole-muscle roasts from the hind leg more than medium, and cook the shoulders, neck and shanks longer than you think you need to. 2) Don’t grind everything. I like burger as much as the next guy, but unless you are shooting lots and lots of deer (some people do), for the love of all that’s holy, please don’t grind the luxury cuts. 3) Don’t forget the bones for stock! Bones and little bits of sinew and gristle make the best stocks and broths. The only caveat to this is if you live or hunt in a place where there is widespread chronic wasting disease, where you might not want to keep the bones.
RK What exactly defines venison? A cow is not venison, but a moose is? What is the line in the sand for determining what is classified as venison? Is a wild goat venison?
HS Venison to some means deer and only deer. But most people in the English-speaking world use “venison” to mean any deer or deer-like animal. So elk, moose, all the deer and antelope, as well as caribou, would all be venison in this sense. This is the way I use venison in the book. The French use venison to mean all wild game. While I would not call wild goat or sheep or muskox or bison venison, you could use all of these meats as a stand-in for venison for any recipe in this book.
RK Can you tell me about your two prior books?
HS I’d mentioned my last book, Duck, Duck, Goose, which is a fullcolor, hardcover, comprehensive waterfowl cookbook. My first book, Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast, is something of a primer on the wild world. Experts in each of the many fishing, foraging and hunting sections of that book may not learn too much from the techniques I describe (although most will pick up at least a few new tricks). But the real value of the book is to open up extra skills to someone who loves self-sufficiency and being outdoors. Anglers might learn more about the wild edible plants they are around when they fish the banks and beaches. Hunters might pick up new tricks on foraging. Foragers might read the hunting section and decide to finally take the plunge and begin what can be a lifelong pursuit.
RK Can you tell me more about honest-food.net?
HS Hunter Angler Gardener Cook is the core of what I do. Honestfood.net is the URL to get there, and I gave it that name initially back in 2007 because I wanted to deal with what I call honest food: Nothing industrial, nothing overly processed and certainly nothing that came from a lab. Honest food does not have to be wild, but that is my area of expertise. So the site, over the years, has become the largest source of wild food recipes on the internet. There are almost 1,000 recipes, tips and technique posts covering everything from wild game to fishing, clamming, foraging, mushrooms – you name it. I post every week, and often twice a week, and this is the home of most of my more thoughtful essays on this wild, edible world we live in.
RK And just what is a James Beard Award?
HS Quite simply, it is the Oscars of the food world. There are few higher honors for a chef or a food writer. I was honored to be nominated, which means top three, in 2009 and 2010, and was overjoyed to have won the award in 2013.
RK I know you and Steve Rinella, “The MeatEater,” are friends, but in Steve’s new book he proclaims that most red meat is interchangeable with other red meat in recipes – especially in big game. How do you feel about that? Do you think a person can substitute antelope for mule deer in a recipe?
HS Sort of. There are differences, especially if you begin to stray into more esoteric red meats, like beaver or jackrabbit or mountain goat. These are all red, yes, but some can be strongly flavored. Sticking to venison, there are subtle differences in texture, color and flavor, but most of the flavor differences have to do with diet, age of the animal and proper field care, not species. One important and true difference is size. You cannot sub a moose shoulder for a whitetail doe shoulder in the same recipe without major adjustments. Sure, in the end they might taste similar, but things like cooking time and the amount of additional ingredients will be vastly different. But at its core, Steve’s right: You won’t see too many recipes in Buck, Buck, Moose that demand you use, say, antelope loin as opposed to whitetail or muley loin. You might see things like, “Use a young animal,” or “This one’s for a big animal, like a moose, elk or big muley buck,” but no species-specific recipes.
RK I hear you did one helluva dinner at the Backcountry Hunters & Anglers convention last year. Care to tell us what was on the menu?
HS Ha! Yeah, I busted out a technique from the 1600s called à la Ficelle, which means “on a string.” I had a bunch of antelope hind legs to cook, and I seasoned them simply with olive oil, herbs, salt and lemon, jammed a bunch of garlic cloves in the meat, and then hung them over hot coals. I twisted the twine holding them up to the point where they’d spin on their own, basting themselves and making sure they cooked evenly. They came out great.
RK Speaking of podcasts – and awkward transitions – care to elaborate?
HS Sure. I started a podcast called Hunt Gather Talk. It is a great way to have fun and talk to interesting people about all kinds of topics that touch the wild world. I’ve done solo episodes, which are something of an audible essay, a few where I answer listeners’ questions, but mostly they are conversations. It’s been a lot of work, but I am learning new skills, like audio editing, and I’ve had a great response.
RK I ran out of gas one time with you in my truck, yet you still came back to Idaho to hunt with me. You either really like to hunt Idaho or are crazy.
HS Both, probably. And my ability to give you a hard time about it until we’re both old and senile was more than worth it. Hunting Idaho is still new to me, though. I’ve hunted deer there, quail, rabbits, grouse. I am hoping to get a sage hen this season, and someday draw an elk tag, or maybe even a moose. You can be sure I’ll be back to bother you every year.
RK Can you tell me some of your favorite activities in the Pacific Northwest?
HS Geez, that’s a hard one. The PNW is a wonderland for a guy like me. Mushroom hunting, wild berries up the ying-yang, salmon, albacore, trout, sturgeon. Blue grouse hunting in the mountains, quail in the lowlands, some of the best clamming on planet Earth. You name it.
RK What is your go-to hunt at home?
HS Ducks. Northern California is one of the best places to hunt waterfowl in North America. I probably spend more time hunting ducks and geese than anything else. It is the one kind of hunting where I feel very comfortable in the role of a guide.
RK If you weren’t on the book tour, what would you spend September doing in the woods? Foraging, fishing, hunting?
HS Yes. All of the above. Albacore offshore, mushrooms in the
woods, grouse in the mountains, doves on Labor Day, blacktail deer hunting on the Sonoma Coast. There is always something going on.
RK What book can we look forward to next?
HS To complete the hunting trilogy, my next book will be all about small game, from upland birds to small mammals. As this was what first got me into hunting, I am really looking forward to it. NS