Hunter, angler, gardener, cook: Hank Shaw in Milwaukee
Hank Shaw isn't exactly a Food Network-level brand name.
But, the Sacramento food blogger and author of the James Beard Award-winning tome "Hunt, Gather, Cook," is gaining a national following for his fondness for hunting, gathering and feasting on foods that other people tend to overlook.
Take the leopard shark, for instance, which Shaw cooked up during a recent shoot of "Bizarre Foods America" with Andrew Zimmern.
"I seared the sharks in California olive oil," Shaw tells me, "And served them with a relish made primarily from pickled kelp, which tastes like cucumber pickles, only a little brinier and crunchier. On top of that I sprinkled a "salt" made from dried, ground sea beans, a seaside vegetable that is naturally salty. It was a beautiful, simple dish."
Shaw describes himself as "the omnivore who has solved his dilemma." A seeker of what he calls "honest" food, he walks a path less-traveled, teaching people to hunt, fish, forage and cook meats and vegetables that seem to have been forgotten over time. From pigeons and cardoons, to shad and acorns, Shaw sheds the light on discovering and preparing some of nature's most delicious foods.
Intrigued? The former line cook and newspaper reporter will visit Milwaukee on Oct. 16 during his 39-state tour to promote his newest book "Duck, Duck, Goose." While he's here, fans will have the opportunity to get their fill at a special $65 dinner to be held at Hinterland Erie Street Gastropub, 222 E. Erie St.
According to chef Dan Van Rite the five-course menu, which will be a collaboration between Hinterland staff and Shaw, will include: cocktails and charcuterie, cured goose with mushrooms, a pasta course featuring duck or goose offal, Luna Stout smoked goose, and duck fat tart with blackberries.
The menu aims to capture the attention of Shaws fans, a rapidly growing segment of the American cooking population whose lifestyles reflect that of self-sufficient, eating-off-the-grid foragers, farmers, fishermen and hunters. And Shaw promises it won't disappoint.
"All I can tell you about the menu is that you can expect to see both charcuterie and a heavy emphasis on beak-to-feet duck cookery," he tells me. "Come with an open mind and we will not disappoint you!"
Shaw has worn many hats in his lifetime. For a time he was a line cook, and he also spent time as a commercial fisherman. These days, he hunts or fishes for nearly all his meat, and grows or forages nearly all his fruits and veggies.
It's a life that some call "old fashioned." But, that's exactly the way Shaw likes it.
"No doubt about it, doing what I do is extreme – but my purpose is to show what's possible, not what's normal," he says. "Scaled back, anyone can do some of what I do. Look, we're in Wisconsin, so let's take deer hunting. I can guarantee you that there are a great many families here that rely on venison, not beef, for their red meat at home. Shoot two deer and you have enough red meat for a small family for the winter. I can't think of anything more practical."
Shaw was raised by a mother who encouraged fishing and foraging. She also provided him with the foundation for his love of cooking – which he began to hone while living at home, and continued to develop in college – with, as he says, "some spectacular hits and misses."
While completing graduate school at UW-Madison, Shaw worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant called the Horn of Africa.
"My boss, Meselesh Ayele, soon promoted me to her sous chef," he tells me, "Which sounds more grand than it was: I was the only other cook besides her. But she taught me a lot, and I went on to work in a couple other Madison restaurants before I left town to become a journalist."
But Shaw never really left his love for cooking behind.
"Once I left the line, I continued to teach myself year after year, for nearly two decades, until I returned to the professional ranks in 2010," he recalls. "It's not been a linear learning curve, I can tell you. Every week I learn something new, even now."
When I asked him what he most enjoys cooking, Shaw shares two things.
"The first sort of dish I really enjoy creating is one that takes an unloved part of an animal and makes it roll-your-eyes-back-in-your-head good ... and easy to do," he says. "One example of this is my recipe for corned duck gizzards. You cure them overnight and then slow cook them for hours and hours until they are so tender you can squash them with a fork. I do this sous vide, but it works just as well with a regular ol' Crock-Pot. Anyone can make this recipe, and it's a stunner."
"The other kind of recipe is where I push the boundaries of what wild food can do," he goes on. "Dishes where the ingredients all make sense together and are balanced in flavor, temperature, texture and color. I do a lot of dishes based on geography, meaning that everything on the plate was also together in the field or water or woods."
But, for Shaw, field to table cooking is about more than discovering new flavors. In fact, he took up hunting in his early thirties as a "conscious rejection of factory farmed meats."
"I think anyone who takes a clear-eyed look at our industrial meat system in the United States will come away deeply disturbed," he explains. "Beakless chickens. Hogs in crates so narrow they can't turn around. Cows standing forelock-deep in their own waste and being fed ground-up byproducts of other cows. It's diabolical – and virtually impossible to escape. Even I am forced to eat factory meat from time to time. I don't like it, so I do what I can to minimize it."
He views hunting as an honest way to feed himself.
"The animals I shoot led the lives God intended them to until that last day. No pens, no antibiotics or dubious 'improvements' to their breeding. It's cleaner. And I'm good at it."
And he must be. Shaw says he hasn't purchased meat or fish of any kind more than a handful of times since 2004.
Here in Wisconsin, hunting is fairly common. But, it's not for everyone. And Shaw gets that.
"Even if you don't hunt, there are farmers raising meat animals humanely pretty much everywhere," he says. "In a perfect world, Americans would eat a smaller amount of higher-quality meat – and more of each animal. Cooked well, heart, tongue, liver and other variety meats are every bit as wonderful as a steak."
Shaw says he thoroughly enjoys teaching others how to do what, for him, has become second nature. And, while he doesn't expect that most will follow in his footsteps, he does maintain hope that there's a message in his books, and on his blog, that really resonates.
"My strongest hope is for people who read my work is that they take a piece – or many pieces – of what I do and make them their own," Shaw says. "Even if it's nothing more than taking your children blueberry picking, or your daughter deer hunting or your girlfriend fishing for walleyes, that echo of what we once were is enough to keep you connected. Part of your soul dies if you can't touch the earth or feel the wind through the trees."
Shaw, who says he hasn't been to Milwaukee since 1998, when he and his now ex-wife had their wedding reception at The Pfister Hotel, says he's looking forward to exploring the city in the short time he's here.
"One thing I need to do is get myself to Usinger's," he says. "I am an obsessive sausage maker, and for me places like Usinger's are stops on a holy pilgrimage. I also want to find some kick-ass pierogis."
The Hank Shaw Dinner will begin with a reception 6:15 p.m.; dinner will follow between 7 and 7:30 p.m. Signed copies of "Duck, Duck, Goose," will be available to purchase for $20. Make reservations by calling Hinterland at (414) 727-9300.
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