Any time I need a creative way to cook a creature from the wild, I turn to Hank Shaw’s website honest-food.net for inspiration. He’s a hell of a chef and an excellent photographer, but believe it or not, he’s an even better writer. Reading through some of his recipes, you can tell that the entirety of his soul is wrapped up in hunting, foraging, cooking, and enjoying nature. As I poked around his website the other day looking for some inspiration, I found two articles he’d written that absolutely floored me. One from 2011 titled “On Killing” and one from 2013 called “The Hunter’s Paradox: Loving What You Kill.” Before you read any further, follow those links and go read both. Take your time. My incoherent ramblings will still be here . . .
The typical format of most blog posts it seems is to find something you like, include some snippets, and add your own commentary. Both of Hank’s pieces are so good that they can only really be consumed in their entirety. And out of respect for Hank, I won’t cross post any of his thoughts here. But I will add my own commentary about the sort of visceral reaction that his writing brought forth in me.
First, I’m married to a hospice nurse. She spends her days caring for the dying and then comes home to tell me about it. We talk about death a lot in the Kee house. So to hear Hank talk about the distance modern society puts between itself and death struck a particular chord for me.
My wife has spent a great deal of time outside of work researching the various ways that modern and ancient cultures approached death and dying. While some might consider it a morbid fascination to have, it makes her a better nurse to understand the ways in which opinions about death have changed.
She has told me on many occasions that not too long ago, families would prop up their dead loved one in the home, have a big party, and people would come by to see their friend, family member, or coworker in peaceful repose. Participants in the ritual described a great feeling of closure at seeing the person they had known in a state of death. Modern American society has largely abandoned this process in favor of cremation or expensive mortuary work to make the dead look alive. As a society, we’ve pushed death out of our lives to only be dealt with at the very end.
I come from a very different place. I grew up around farmers, ranchers, and hunters. Death was a nearly constant component of life in rural Texas. I still distinctly remember sitting down for dinner at my friend Andy’s house at the tender age of 10. It was my first time eating cabrito. I remember Andy’s dad leaning back from the table after we’d finished, patting his belly, and saying, “Peanut was a good goat.”
Horrified, I realized that I had just eaten one half of the dynamic goat duo of Peanut and Norman, who had provided me many play opportunities over the last year. But alas, they had not shown well at the local stock show, and both had quickly gone to the butcher.
I was far too young at the time to understand the concepts of organic, antibiotic free, ethically raised, humanely harvested meat so popular with my fellow Austinites. All I knew at the time was that my mom and dad went to the store, and meat came in foam packages. But then I ate Peanut and later that weekend, Andy gave me my first piece of Axis jerky. Death was now a part of me.
It wasn’t until many years later, at the age of 16, that I killed my first deer. To this day, I remember crouching in an awkward kneeling position in the middle of an open field while an ancient eight point buck stared back at me through the scope. My friend Will calmly guided me over my shoulder. He told me where to put the crosshairs, walked me through clicking the safety off, and plugged my ears with his fingers when I broke the shot.
I still remember the roar of that old Ruger 7mm Mag. The smell of gunpowder, the way I could see my breath fogging the early morning air, and the shocking silence after the deafening roar. And I can still hear Will whooping behind me. I remember shaking uncontrollably, and the detachment I felt while we cut that old buck up into his constituent parts. I didn’t mind the blood, and the meat, and the smell of burning bone while we cut through skull to retrieve the antlers for my wall. We were boys playing like men.
Oddly, the thing I remember most from that experience was picking up my deer from the processor. I remember driving my thoroughly busted jalopy home with boxes of neatly wrapped packages in the back seat. And I remember sitting down for my very first bit of dried sausage from a deer I had killed on the land that I lived on.
Looking back now, I hope that one day, I’ll have a son who will come home with meat for the table. Because in that moment, I became a man. Death had not forced itself upon me. I had sought it out and further made it a part of me.
A year later, I got an invite to go hunt Axis at a ranch out in Junction, Texas. I brought along a good buddy of mine for the hunt. And at the time, I’d spent a lot of time shooting. I was a real Top Shot and I’d be the first to tell you about it. At 100 yards, off of sandbags, on a clear, windless day, I could keep ’em inside of a silver dollar with boring regularity. Again, just ask me about it.
So when an Axis doe stepped out on the road in front of me, I knew she was as good as dead. I lined up the crosshairs on her forehead, squeezed the trigger, and watched as our worlds fell apart. I’d hit her squarely in the jaw, stunning her, but definitely not dropping her. She stood, head down, front legs splayed out, but still supporting her, looking up at me with pieces of her ruined jaw hanging by pieces of tattered hide. It has been more than a decade and I still remember the sucking sound she made as she suffered in the last moments of her life.
I was completely stunned. I tried to reload, but I was shaking so badly that I couldn’t manage. The owner of the land brought his gun to bear, and quickly finished her. And as my tunnel vision started to open up, I saw the yearling that had been hers. Panicked, the yearling ran back and forth, first from her now dead mother to a spot twenty or so yards away. As we approached her mother’s body, she finally, reluctantly, left.
In that moment, death took hold of me. We were no longer casual acquaintances. We were bound for life. In those brief few moments of terror, confusion, and panic I realized that death wasn’t always swift, and I resolved to only take shots I knew I could make.
Once that Axis doe was gutted and in the cooler, we made the quiet trip back home. I handed the deer-filled cooler over to my good friend and asked him to make sure the cooler stayed packed with ice. We made plans to grind sausage together under the watchful eye of his very old, very German grandmother.
Two days later at school, the day before we were supposed to get together, he revealed that he’d forgotten to tend to the ice, and that the entire deer had spoiled. For the first time, I felt that I’d truly failed as a hunter. I had been given the gift of a life, and due to my recklessness, not only had that life endured suffering at my hand, it had been taken in waste. I resolved to handle my own processing from then on.
Killing is brutally hard. Anybody who tells you different is either psychotic or full of shit. Taking a life — from the smallest squirrel to the largest African game — is hard work. There’s this oft repeated mantra in the world of hunting that pulling the trigger is the easy part. I’ve recently found that to be downright absurd.
Oh sure, I “get it” but the truth is that the hard part is taking the life of something that had every right to it. And doing so means taking ownership of that life. Pulling the trigger means taking that life in every sense of the word. The gutting, the cutting, the grinding, and the smoking are my favorite parts. Those parts take hours and provide me with the catharsis to dispel the hurt from killing. Putting that work in equalizes things in the world.
I guess that over the years, I’ve “gone soft” when it comes to the killing part. I’ve had plenty of great deer and even an antelope or two in my sights over the past few years, only to put the gun back on safe. To kill tears me up inside, but it’s necessary.
I am human. I eat meat. It has always been this way. I find, and I feel that other hunters agree, that my yearly expeditions allow me to hit the reset button. It is so easy to go to the local grocery store, select pounds and pounds of meat, swipe my card, and go home. Taking to the field gives me that stark reminder of where my food comes from. And while I like a high dollar steak, nothing tastes so good as a hot slice of duck pastrami.