Hank Shaw: Flavors of the Wild World

by Bruce E. Boyers

As Hank Shaw will tell you, there are endless amazing discoveries to be made in foraging for wild food. Hank is an expert forager, author and blogger who has, for the most part, fed himself and his family only from the results of his own foraging, fishing and hunting over the last eight years. He shares his adventures, as well as recipes and cooking tips, with a large following on his Hunter · Angler · Gardener · Cook website.

When I interviewed Hank, one of my own precious childhood memories came unbidden: As a child growing up in the San Jacinto Mountains of Southern California, I discovered wild strawberries growing in the woods behind my house. I didn’t tell my mom; I just voraciously ate them right off the plant whenever they appeared. Nothing has ever come close to that flavor.

Hank confirmed the reality of my recollection. “There is nothing more magical than a woodland alpine strawberry,” he told Calmful Living. “If you find them and you eat them, this tiny little strawberry that is maybe the size of your thumbnail has so much more flavor than the giant-cyst-sized things you get on the produce aisle that you wonder how they’re even the same animal.”

Forgotten Foods

One of the areas Hank is happy to concentrate on is foraging foods that many have never heard of. He takes his inspiration for such from some unusual sources. “One is the Indians,” he said. “I do a lot of research of Indian ethnobotany, because they were here first. They had a much better understanding of the natural world around them than white folks.

“The other source is just looking at old cookbooks, where you’ll see things and realize, ‘Oh, wow, I’ve never seen that in a market but I know where it lives.’ I think that the American diet as a whole has deteriorated over the last century. We have become a group of people that eats a lot of a little, not a little of a lot. The human species is designed to eat a small amount of many different things and not just gorge ourselves on corn and factory chickens and genetically modified whatever. I’m hoping to restore a little bit of that diversity in the American diet.”

Hank provided some illustrations: “Acorns were actually a staple for the Indians, especially here in California,” he continued. “I get a lot of interaction on how to process acorns, what to do with acorns, and so forth. I think it’s one of those great instances of an extremely rich and powerful foodstuff that is all around us. Everybody has a sort of core reptilian brainstem memory that ‘This is food; you should eat this.’ But the conscious mind is always like, ‘But I don’t know how!’ I’m not only looking at the old ways of how they used to do it, but also trying to push the boundaries of what you can do with essentially a nationwide source of starch, fat and protein that is highly underutilized.

“Another example: I do quite a bit of work with what people call ‘trash fish.’ Usually it’s a fish that has an extra set of bones, and people don’t like bones. So anything with an extra set of bones becomes a trash fish, when oftentimes they taste better than your typical glamour fish; they just require one extra step to process.”

Why the Wild World?

As Hank uncovers his treasures, he shares them; a good portion of his passion is to get others involved. “There is a whole host of reasons why you would want to make this part of your life,” he said. “First, it’s based on flavor. You get a set of flavors that you cannot find anywhere else. They tend to be stronger, no matter whether it’s plants or fish or game. The flavors are apt to be more pronounced—the wild strawberry I talked about earlier is a prime example. That’s true of pretty much everything.

“Secondly—and I consider this is every bit as important as the eating—it’s the getting. Food tastes better when you work for it. That is just a bottom line. The best case I can think of is, if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, going to a you-pick berry farm or an apple orchard or something like that. You have so much more—memories, fun and investment—in the berries or apples that you take home from that day than you would if you just haphazardly, absent-mindedly picked them up from a produce aisle.

“The other example is trout. Virtually everyone I know has caught trout in a mountain stream somewhere. That trout is way better, just cooked with maybe bacon grease or butter in a frying pan at the campsite, than any trout you’ll ever buy at the fanciest restaurant. The reason is because you’ve earned it. That in and of itself is, for me, one of the huge pluses of going out there and getting your own food.”

Practical Advice

Hank discussed what it takes for someone to be able to forage. “It’s not really that difficult,” he said. “But it is a learning process. It’s one of those things where you have to want to learn it.

“Case in point: Almost anybody can recognize the difference between a head of cabbage and a head of iceberg lettuce at fifty feet. Those same people might think it’s crazy to be able to identify one plant versus another in the wild world, but it really isn’t. The differences between a great many wild plants are a lot more profound than with cabbage and lettuce.

“It’s just a matter of getting a good guidebook—obviously one for your region. Always start in your yard or, if you don’t have a yard, in a nearby park. Just walk around with a guidebook and try to identify the plants in there.

“Start small with things that you are pretty sure are edible, like dandelions. One of the first things you learn about dandelions, wild chicories and wild lettuces is that you don’t eat them in the hot months because they’re horribly bitter. They’re terribly bitter and you will never want to eat them again. Pick them when the mornings are in the thirties or the forties and it’s not very warm, and you will be rewarded. They’re still bitter but it’s a lovely bitterness, similar to endive.”

Following the Passion

Like me, Hank also began foraging as a child, but unlike me he never stopped. Moreover, he was a fisherman and added hunting into the mix at age thirty-two. Throughout his original career as a political reporter, he continued wild foraging in all the spare time he could find. “I was a newspaper reporter for eighteen years,” he said. “I worked horrific hours and I was as busy as anybody has a right to be. I still managed every week or every other week to get out there and do something.”

Today Hank makes his living writing about foraging, fishing, hunting and cooking—and is extremely happy doing so. In addition to his popular blog, he has also just released a book entitled Duck, Duck, Goose: Recipes and Techniques for Cooking Ducks and Geese, Both Wild and Domesticated. Previously he published a book entitled Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His articles can be found as well in a variety of publications, including Field & Stream.

Jump On In

Underlying all that he does, Hank would love to see everyone discover this wild world.

“The macro thing that I’m really trying to do at all levels—no matter what kind of person you are or what you eat or what your politics are—is to introduce some element of the wild world into your daily life,” Hank concluded. “That’s what I want people to embrace. I don’t care what it is: It could be picking blackberries. It could be digging plants. It could be deer hunting. It could be mushroom hunting. Something out there is going to light a fire underneath you. I think it is just vital for us as a species to make some effort to regain our connection to the wild world, because I don’t believe that there has ever been a time in our history that we have been so divorced from nature. I’m hoping at least in a small way to change that.”

For much more information, please visit Hank Shaw’s Hunter · Angler · Gardener · Cook site at www.honest-food.net.