Out of Bounds

Education of a Bird Hunting Fool

Someday maybe I’ll recognize the only thing I truly know is my morning path from bed to coffee pot

By Rob Breeding

A colleague and I were discussing youthful certitude the other day. The older I get, I told her, the more I realize how much I don’t know. 

Someday maybe I’ll recognize the only thing I truly know is my morning path from bed to coffee pot. Everything else, I added, I’m just making it up as I go. 

That’s true enlightenment.

Some distance remains on my journey, however. When hubris makes me think otherwise, life is usually there, eager to wag its index finger in my general direction and say, “Nuh-uh.” 

My most recent finger wag came in the form of Hank Shaw’s brilliant cookbook, “Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail: Upland Birds and Small Game from Field to Feast.” I consider myself a somewhat accomplished bird hunter, and a somewhat more accomplished home cook. But after thumbing through Shaw’s catalog of everything you need to know about upland game cooking, a sensation came over me like the one you get feeling around a darkened kitchen, desperately searching for the coffee pot.

I’ve so much to learn.

Shaw’s an outdoorsman, a chef and a fine writer. He earned a James Beard Award in 2013 for his website, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook (https://honest-food.net/). It’s his website where I first encountered his vast inventory of knowledge about wild game cooking. More than once Shaw’s website walked me through a pesky problem threatening to ruin dinner.

And it’s all assembled in “Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail” published in 2018. This was Shaw’s fourth book — you may know of “Duck, Duck, Goose” or “Buck, Buck, Moose.” 

I’ll review his latest, “Hook, Line, and Supper,” later this month.

“Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail” is essential reading for any upland hunter. I’m a self-taught bird dissembler, which is what happens when you promise to make turducken for Thanksgiving, though you’ve never so much as broken down a supermarket chicken. So I learn something every time I review Shaw’s methods. 

The first few times I hunted quail I did what many folks do with these tasty birds: skin them out. A hunting buddy showed me a quick and dirty campfire recipe using canned mushroom soup and a bit of brandy. For a time, that was good enough.

But I saw photos of plucked birds, skin intact and nicely browned and the emerging culinarian in me knew there was something beyond simple hunt camp recipes; that I was missing essential flavors by breasting out birds. Shaw breaks it down, explaining the value of retaining skin and fat, and also how to do so. He’s the mentor who taught me “plucking” feathers was actually an instruction, and that “pulling” isn’t its synonym.

It’s also from Shaw I learned of wet plucking, a technique that may be stinky and messy, but speeds the process when you’ve got a pile of pheasants that need separated from their feathers.

You can find a lot of this stuff on the internet, but sitting down with “Pheasant, Quail, Cottontail” is a reminder that ink on paper just does some things better than digital. A cookbook is one of them. 

After reading through the basics, including plucking and skinning instructions, gutting, breaking down small game, and hanging, I turned to the recipes. I found many I wanted to try, then discovered the one that comes next: Quail with Grapes and Pearl Onions. This weekend probably, though I’ll make it with pheasant.

I never would have Googled that.

Despite Shaw reminding me how vast the realm of the unknown remains for me, I’m not giving up. A day ago I had no idea I needed quail cooked with grapes. Now, my hunger won’t be satisfied until it’s in my belly. 

I suppose that’s what good writers do: inspire us to investigate what we don’t know so we might relish the treasures there that await us.

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