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August 5, 2009

Dinner in the Lion's Den

A dinner pairing hunters and vegans has some very satisfying results

The Humane Society of the United States

  • Classic, all-vegetable antipasti: Pickled sweet onions, balsamic pickled beets, pickled fennel agrodolce, sweet peppers roasted over a wood fire, home-cured olives, tomato “salami” and garage-dried tomatoes in olive oil. Holly Heyser

by Jennifer Fearing

It’s not every day (read: almost never) that hunters and vegans break bread together. I guess on its face this doesn’t seem a natural opportunity for friendship—one group finds pleasure in killing animals to eat them; the other disavows the exploitation of animals completely.

But last year I met an anti-factory farming hunter who forced me to accept that our ethical perspectives were more aligned with each others’ than with the vast majority of consumers. Despite their concerns about the predominant methods of raising animals for food in this country and their desire to see government do something to improve things (to wit, a 2007 poll funded by the American Farm Bureau found that 75 percent of American adults would vote for state laws requiring farmers to treat animals better), most American omnivores fail to act on these concerns in ways that would be easiest: with their own fork.

Hunter/blogger/reporter Hank Shaw and I are both frustrated by this.

Hank’s Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog was recently a finalist for “Best Food Blog” in the prestigious annual James Beard Foundation competition. Hank is sure he eats far fewer animals per year and he finds vegetarian (and now vegan) cooking enjoyable and delicious. He wishes more meat-eaters would follow his hunting lead, but he recognizes that his lifestyle isn’t sustainable if adopted universally (there are only so many animals left in the wild after all). In fact, he knows that factory farming is the only way to churn out 10 billion animals for American plates each year. He’s definitely an advocate, like New York Times food writer Mark Bittman and celebrated author Michael Pollan, for reducing our consumption of animal products.

So, when this hardcore foodie took up my challenge to prepare a haute cuisine vegan meal, and in fact, invited me into his home, I didn’t hesitate. Well, I might have been somewhat queasy in anticipation of the “stuffed animals” that Hank has on display. But ultimately it was an easy decision to join him, his hunter girlfriend Holly, omnivore Jim, vegetarian Ellen, hunting advocate Sarah and her once-vegetarian husband Aaron, for what could be described as a good, old-fashioned salon last Saturday night.

For a summary of the political side of the evening, I can’t possibly beat Hank’s description. As he concludes in his blog post about the evening:

“We are not going to agree with Jennifer on a host of things, but after eating at the same table, nor are we going to see each other as cardboard demons to be burned from a distance. We will fight our battles, mostly (but not always) on opposite sides, and at the end share a drink and razz each other over our little victories. This used to be normal. I pray it becomes so again.”

But let’s get to the good stuff… what did we eat? How did the hunter do with cooking for the vegan? And did the other guests go hungry?

Let your mouth water at this line up (copied from Hank’s blog post; links will take you to the recipes):

Right out of the gate, the antipasti items (served with a very strong dirty martini) told me this wouldn’t be your ordinary meal.  The tomato “salami” was my favorite (giving my incisors a workout) followed by the pickled fennel (scarcely required teeth, it was so tender).

While last Saturday was fairly mild for a July day in Sacramento, that didn’t diminish the refreshing and crisp impact of the gazpacho. With its fresh ingredients – the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions all came from Hank’s garden, one of the neighbors’ plots, or from the farmers’ market – and high quality olive oil, I had to stop myself from picking up the bowl and drinking it down. And actually, there was something extra pleasing about sipping this chilled soup off a cold metal spoon.

The salad was really unique, comprised of wild herbs and no lettuce at all. The leaves alone would have been too tart to eat, but the creamy walnut dressing tempered it and made for a really chewy, gritty mouth-feel.

My favorite dish came next, which shocked me since I am not a big zucchini fan. Its typically soft, mushy consistency isn’t something I am drawn to. But Hank’s ingenious garage-drying technique produces a squash jerky, and each of us consumed nearly an entire zucchini on our small plates. I could have eaten more, but there were still two more dishes and dessert to go.

As for the main dish, Hank impressed us all with his story of how he made the pasta by hand, ordered fresh porcini mushrooms from Oregon, and spent two days bringing the sauce to perfection. Porcini definitely has that “umami” thing going for it (the fifth taste, savory umami is sometimes associated with a feeling of perfect quality) and this dish is a real masterpiece.

Hank then served a “bonus” dish of yard-long green beans that had been prepared flawlessly. I ate them so quickly I was teased by the others at the table… yeah, I like beans. And salt. And pepper. And oil. A lot.

Finally, out came dessert. I’m more inclined toward savory food than sweets, for the record. In fact, I’d pick French fries over chocolate about 99 percent of the time. So when Hank said he’d put wild blackberries in elderberry syrup (very sweet) over a beer bread (savory), I was excited to try it. And despite being quite full from the previous six courses, I had no trouble scarfing it down. I especially liked the crust, which was chewy and somewhat woody, like the maple syrup that he’d brushed on.

Throughout the meal, the wines kept switching to go with the food…rosés, whites and reds from all regions of the world. They perfectly complemented our food and ensured we’d all stay to keep chatting after dinner (while our blood alcohol levels legalized).

The meal was fabulous. One of the better ones I’ve eaten. But the real test was whether the other omnivores at the table were satisfied, and from their “oohs and ahhs,” I’d say it was a resounding “yes.” Everyone concurred that Hank’s foray into the woods of vegan cooking was a great success.

I’d like to have them all over to my house next time. Ironically, thanks to the good-natured spirit of our hunter-gatherer confab, I’m more intimidated by the prospect of meeting with Hank’s culinary approval than I am at debating him about right or wrong on the hunting front.

But I’m up for both. 

Jennifer Fearing is California senior state director for The HSUS.

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