Pheasant Fest presents unique experience for cooks and eaters of all stripes
This weekend, Feb. 14-16, Milwaukee will host the National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic at the Wisconsin Center.
Run by conservation organizations Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, the event is billed as the "largest show in the country for upland hunters, bird dog owners and wildlife habitat conservationists," and is a combination of outdoor trade show, wildlife habitat seminar series and family event complete with puppies, tractors, shotguns and art.
It's also – and maybe unexpectedly – a good place for chefs and home cooks who are interested in learning more about sustainability, local eating, and the preparation of wild game – including tricks to preparing succulent venison, techniques for cooking game birds and sausage-making and curing.
The fact is, the Wild Game Cooking Stage has been an attraction growing in popularity at Pheasant Fest, a phenomenon which Bob St. Pierre, Pheasants Forever's vice president of marketing, attributes to the locavore movement.
"The proliferation of television shows, books and magazines focusing on the exquisite flavors of wild game has lifted the 'gamey' stigma from these meats. Add pop culture's embrace to local restaurants sourcing local ingredients and a broader public is beginning to see the connection between food, animal and land."
This year, wild game food writers David Draper, Hank Shaw and Tovar Cerulli will be featured speakers on the Wild Game Cooking Stage.
An avid hunter and accomplished writer, David Draper has traveled the globe in search of good stories and good eating, yet his roots remain firmly planted in the soil of his family's farm on the High Plains of Nebraska.
Ever since his first deer came back from the butcher virtually inedible, he has made it his mission to learn all he can about taking wild game from the field to the table. He aims to dispel the notion that game meat has to be 'gamey' and that, despite what people, including many hunters, believe, wild game is the best and healthiest protein available. Draper serves as Contributing Editor for Field & Stream, where he is also the primary contributor to the Wild Chef blog.
I exchanged emails with Draper, who says he's always been a bit of a traditionalist and that local eating has always been part of his lifestyle.
"I grew up with grandparents on both sides that hunted and had gardens and foraged for fruit," he tells me. "Canning was a huge part of my childhood, so this whole movement toward eating local, while laudable, isn't really new to me. It's the way I was raised."
In fact, he says he's encouraged by the community that has built up around eating and sourcing local foods, and believes it's central to living a sustainable lifestyle.
"The more people do it, the better for the environment and the better for your health and family," he says. "I understand it's not easy, and can be expensive. But overall, it's a better way to live. Of course, I still give in to my cravings for a Big Mac sometimes. It's about balance and being aware of what goes into what you eat."
But, Draper also believes that hunting and cooking wild game is something that's often misunderstood – or perceived as difficult.
"I also got tired of hearing people who love to hunt talk about how the game didn't taste good," he says. "I couldn't understand that mentality so I kind of made it my mission to learn to cook game in a way that everyone would enjoy."
In fact, one of his seminars at Pheasant Fest, "Food Fight: put away the cream of mushroom soup or else…" will focus on on tired and over-used wild-game cooking maxims – like cream of mushroom soup and Italian dressing marinades – and why they're not the best way to cook wild game.
He'll also present on "Preparing wild game from the tailgate" and "From tough to tender: making the most of your venison cuts."
Hank Shaw, James Beard Award winning blogger and cook, visited Milwaukee this past fall for a special dining event at Hinterland Erie St. Gastropub. Self-described as "the omnivore who has solved his dilemma," Shaw seeks out what he calls "honest" food and teaches 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.
In addition to his award winning blog, Shaw has also authored two books on the topic of wild game cooking; "Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast" and last year's "Duck, Duck, Goose." He'll be offering three seminars during Pheasant Fest: "Happy Hour: Pairing beer and wine with wild game," "Getting the most from your upland birds," and "Wild game sausage and other curing techniques."
And lastly – but certainly not least – Tovar Cerulli might be the most interesting of the group. Former vegan-turned-deer-hunter, is author of "The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance."
Cerulli, whose work is aimed at bridging gaps between hunters and non-hunters, will be offering three different seminars at Pheasant Fest – the first will focus on his personal journey and his book, The Mindful Carnivore. The second, "Adult-Onset Hunting and the Food Factor" is based on his graduate research and will explore what makes hunting meaningful. And the third, "Wild Meat is Good Meat," will cover some of the preconceptions non-hunters often have about wild game and discuss ways for hunters to communicate about it more effectively.
Stay tuned to OnMilwaukee.com on Friday for my in-depth interview with Cerulli about his journey from veganism to sustainable living as an omnivorous hunter-gatherer.
Hours for Pheasant Fest at the Wisconsin Center are as follows: Friday, Feb. 14: 1-8:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 15: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 16: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Daily admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children age 6-16. Children age 5 and under are free.
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