First stop, Mrs. Washington Crown This Monty In Olympia For Jena Cook , Who’s Taking Hunting’s Message To Beauty Contests
By Chris Cocoloes
As the contestants for the Mrs. Washington America Pageant gather in Olympia for the May 20 event, every woman qualified for a chance to reach national stage will have her own backstory. Here’s a guess: Mrs. Vancouver, Jena Cook, has one of the most compelling.
Cook’s submitted platform – the pageant encourages participants to document what they’re passionate about – doesn’t mention desiring world peace but instead “focuses on the importance of ethical hunting conservation through wildlife and habitat management and restoration.”
“It’s definitely been a topic of conversation,” Cook says with a laugh about the potential shock value of sharing her views on hunting with the beauty pageant community.
But this is who Cook is and she won’t apologize for it to the politically correct/anti-hunting establishment. And this will also provide her – and by extension, Northwest sportsmen – an opportunity to explain what she does and why she does it to an audience that probably doesn’t have much background in this arena.
“There have been a couple of people who have been a little sour on the subject, because all they can think of is animal cruelty,” Cook, 27, says on how she’s been received among the pageant community. “The way I try to approach it is, I always say I’m a hunter who hunts for meat, and sport comes with that. It’s not about putting a rack on the wall.”
MAKE NO MISTAKE, Cook grew up embracing the outdoors, even if she wasn’t yet “in love” with hunting. The Vancouver native was introduced to fishing by her dad, Craig Meriwether, who hunted with her older brother. More comfortable with a rod and reel than a shotgun, Cook stuck to fishing, but as she got older, she began to embrace the idea of knowing where the protein she’d eat came from. Already having learned to shoot at a younger age, the reality that she was dating a hunter made it a no-brainer to give it a try someday. Finally, she and her boyfriend at the time went waterfowl hunting along the Columbia River Gorge. It didn’t go very well.
“It was, and pardon my language, a sh*t show,” says Cook. “Of course, since it was duck hunting, the weather was sooo beautiful. I didn’t have the right gear and I was freezing. I was doing everything in my power not to complain so I wasn’t that girl that was dragged along.”
“I remember the dogs bringing back the ducks and I was fine watching the ducks get hit, come down and the dogs bringing them up and setting them down at my feet. And I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do right now. Is it like fishing? Do I bonk their heads?’ So my ex came up and said, ‘You’ve got to put them out of their misery,’ and grabs it and whacks it on a rock right in front of me. And it just sprays blood right at me and across my face. I happened to be standing in the right spot, so it went from my knees, up my torso and across my face – a perfect stream of blood. So that was my initiation into duck hunting.”
Cook ultimately kept dating hunting but not her boyfriend at the time. (“He’s an ex for a reason,” she quips.) And that she eventually fell in love with a longtime friend, Shaun Cook, who is also a passionate sportsman, only ensured that she would become just as obsessed with the sport.
They married in June 2015 and have shared, besides wedded bliss, numerous hunting adventures close to their Southwest Washington home and beyond, including memorable deer and elk trips to Wyoming, where Cook really fell head over heels for hunting, with a big assist from her husband.
“It was something he was really investing me – being his hunting partner, not so much that I was just along for the ride,” she says. “He expected me to pull my weight but I was there as an equal partner. Investing all that time together and bonding as a married couple, it was something that was so different. I feel bad for people who won’t get to experience that.”
Of course, they are husband and wife, so they’ll chirp at each other when they think one is making too much noise while searching out big game.
“He’ll tell me I’m the loud one,” Cook says, “and I’m like, ‘You’re delusional; you’re not the gazelle that you think you are.’”
ULTIMATELY, WHILE SHE enjoys the quality time with Shaun and the sport of the chase and the shot, Cook savors the idea of knowing exactly the source of what she and Shaun put on their table.
She’s also pregnant, and when she takes the stage at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in Olympia, she’s going to be eight months into her term. Not only is there a good chance that she’ll be the only woman vying for Mrs. Washington who hunts, she says she’ll be the first in the pageant’s history to be visibly showing while she competes.
“That’s already an added kind of intrigue for me,” she says of her chances.
The Cooks even went out hunting last fall when Jena was in her first trimester, though the mom-to-be-admitted, “I could really feel the difference, fatigue wise; I felt bad (for Shaun) because I wasn’t the best hunting partner. I just got burned out.”
The endgame, though, is harvesting meat without fearing what chemicals or byproducts store-bought meat can contain. So now that she’ll be soon feeding the family’s new addition, the idea of hunting to fill the freezer is going to be even more invaluable to their cause. She found it fascinating that Gerber, the venerable baby food company, initially bottled leftover organ meat (such as liver and beef heart), which was considered to be heavy in nutrients and promote growth in infants.
“I was looking at in Native (American) cultures; when a couple was expecting or starting to try to conceive, they always would give that couple organ meat from animals to make sure they were getting all the nutrients,” Cook says. “And I took that really seriously because going into this pregnancy I’ve been trying really hard to get enough of these iron-rich and all-natural meats. And I want to make sure that’s what’s going into my baby.”
So the next edition to the Cook family – the couple is going to be surprised whether it’s a boy or girl – probably shouldn’t expect all Cheerios or a couple French fries as a snack when hungry. Meat pâté or some other semblance of protein is more likely.
“I want to know that, ‘Hey, that came from our elk from last season, and I know for a fact that it hasn’t been processed or filled with any hormones.’ It’s really satisfying, and you can take pride in that as a parent and provider. It’s a unique experience that we are kind of losing, culturally.”
SO HOW DOES a woman who clearly likes to get her hands dirty – not only does she fish and hunt but Cook was also a former high school wrestler on the boys’ team – also masquerade as pageant participant just a step away from competing for a Mrs. America crown?
First and foremost, when asked if she was OK with carrying around a tomboy moniker, Cook skewed more towards “offbeat” than simply just one of the guys.
“Awkward and gangly – yes, but I did love messing with my hair and dying it every color under the sun. I wore everything from 1950s sock-hop attire to punk rock to country girl stuff,” she says.
And sure enough, when she was young – fifth and sixth grade – Cook entered a couple smaller pageants around the Vancouver area. (“What little girl didn’t want to be a part of that?” she muses.) Her parents offered this stipulation: If you want to do it, you have to fundraise yourself to help pay the fees. So Jena went door to door around local businesses to secure sponsor dollars so she could enter.
“I did my last pageant when I was 16 in a local event. But it wasn’t about the fun of it or the sisterhood of the community,” Cook says. “These girls had an eye on the prize and saw themselves as the future Miss America. It was a totally different ballgame. But even though I was competitive this was just supposed to be a super-fun experience.”
When she realized that fellow competitors were channeling their inner Mean Girls by attempting to sabotage each other in various ways, Cook seemed done for good. But now that she’s a married adult, the Mrs. pageants that are held around the state and the country don’t seem to breed such cutthroat competition. They’re more about showcasing what young women have accomplished in their lives already.
And if you can assume she may have the most unlikely of passions among her peers vying for the crown of Mrs. Washington, this is a golden opportunity to put hunting in a positive light. When she interacts with other pageant entrants, Cook will ask if they eat meat, then query them on what they know about where that piece of beef or pork came from. It seems like a fair and viable request, doesn’t it? Cook understands that such a potentially volatile and controversial passion will “either help me or hinder me.”
“I tell them, ‘I simply decided to take it upon myself to take responsibility for where my protein comes from. And then I give back with my conservation efforts to make sure that the resource remains available,’” she says. “When they say, ‘I couldn’t go out and kill something,’ nobody is asking them to. So why is it a bad thing that somebody is OK with accepting that responsibility to take it upon themselves with what they are eating?” NS
Editor’s note: To request appearances or if interested in sponsorship opportunities for Mrs. Vancouver Jena Cook, email Mrslisajacobsvancouver@gmail.com. For more on the Mrs. Washington America Pageant, go to mrswashingtonpageant.org.