Wild Food

Pheasant RoosterLike most people, I get my animal food products from the supermarket, cleaned and packaged, ready to be cooked in the oven or the frying pan. I’m actually not much of a meat eater, but I like fish and some poultry now and then. I used to go fishing with my kids when they were young, but other than that I had never hunted for my food supply. That changed lately.

A First-Time Hunting Experience Made Me
Appreciate the Value of Food Even More

For the first time in my life I went bird hunting, or as sporting enthusiasts call it, wingshooting. I didn’t have much shooting experience of any kind, so I was a bit apprehensive but also excited about my new adventure.

I comforted myself with the thought that I would definitely eat all I had killed, and that seemed to make it somehow more acceptable. After all, the slices of turkey breast I have for lunch or the salmon filet I poach for dinner also belonged to a creature whose life was taken for the purpose of feeding me. And the wild birds I was about to shoot had decidedly better lives than their counterparts grown on poultry farms.

Still, my scruples persisted, but that was probably a good thing. Taking life, no matter how you justify it, is always a serious matter. “The act of killing an innocent being feels – and will always feel – neither wholly wrong nor wholly right,” wrote Bill Heavey, an editor for the magazine Field & Stream and himself an avid hunter, in an article for the New York Times Magazine. After every kill, he makes a point of giving thanks to the dead animals and apologizes for his deeds, not an attitude you find much in slaughterhouses, I imagine. “What I’ve done feels subversive, almost illicit,” he says. “I have stolen food.” But then when the fresh game is served up for dinner, he knows it is special. My own experience turned out to be a bit like that, too.

After extensive research and numerous in-depth conversations with people in the know, it became clear that venturing off into the wild on my own was completely out of the question. So I chose to play it safe and sign up with a hunting lodge that welcomes seasoned hunters as well as rookies like me and knows how to meet their different needs.

The place I finally decided on is called Highland Hills Ranch, or simply HHR, and is located in the north-central part of Oregon. The name is well chosen. The rolling hills surrounding the 3,000-acre property are indeed reminiscent of the Scottish highlands I visited in my youth.

A ranch it is not so much. Although there is some agricultural activity, including a large cherry orchard, the primary purpose is to please the visitors. The amenities and service you find here can satisfy the expectations of the most discriminating sporting party. The owners, Dennis and Mindi Macnab, are experts at creating an atmosphere of relaxed hospitality and understated elegance that makes you feel right at home.

The lodge is a spacious log cabin-style structure with high ceilings, a massive fireplace, a large dining area and an adjacent open kitchen. Even the smaller cabins away from the main building are everything you can hope for in terms of comfort, which may be important after a day of hiking and stalking prey in thick brush.

Thankfully, a guide was assigned to me whose patience and encouraging support never wore out. Whenever I missed another “easy shot,” he was always quick to inform me how often that happens to even the most experienced veterans of bird hunting. “It’s just how the game works,” he kept telling me. Bless his heart.

As undaunted as he was, so were the four dogs he brought along. I learned how to keep my eyes on the “pointers” and to get ready before the “flusher,” a little bundle of inexhaustible energy named “Danny,” was sent in to chase the birds out of their hiding places. Witnessing this well-choreographed teamwork left me in total awe.

At the end of the day I was ready for cocktail hour and looked forward to swapping my first hunting stories with the other guests. The celebratory dinner that followed consisted of several courses, with game birds (of course) as the main dish. It was absolutely delicious.

Afterwards, I complimented the chef who gracefully gave me the recipe he had used that night. The birds I had shot were gutted, cleaned, filet, packaged and handed to me in a cooler. The vacuum-sealed bags almost looked like the ones from the supermarket. But when I prepared my prey back home, it tasted much better than any poultry I’d ever eaten – at least it felt that way. As far as the hunting experience goes – I’ve already signed up for a second trip in the fall.

Recipe for Basque-style pheasant
2 large pheasants (2.5 to 3 lbs. ea.), cut into 8 pieces, breasts halved
½ cup flour
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup brown sugar
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 shallots, finely chopped
6 fresh basil leaves
3 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
2 tbsp fresh ground pepper
½ cup green olives, seeded and halved
½ cup black olives, seeded and halved
2 cups fresh plums (about 6), diced

Preheat oven to 350º. Pound pheasant pieces to make tender. Heat oil in a large casserole over medium heat. Combine flour with salt and pepper in a paper bag. Shake well to mix. Add pheasant pieces, 3 to 4 at a time. Shake well. Remove pheasant pieces and put them into hot oil. Brown each side for 3 to 4 minutes. Remove and set aside. Complete browning remaining pieces. After completion of browning, return all pheasant pieces into casserole and add oil, wine, vinegar, brown sugar, garlic, shallots, basil, parsley, pepper, olives and 1 cup of plums. Stir, cover and place in oven. Bake for 2 hours or until tender. About 15 minutes before completion, add the remaining cup of plums. Serves party of four.

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