Hey, I'm Irish! Hey, I'm Native American! The Importance of Food to Tradition

I’ve often written about how hunting connects me with my ancestors as well as the natural world around me.  Sometimes people, okay, mostly vegetarians and vegans, criticize this because they say we should move on from that, we don’t need to live that way anymore. Yet, many of these same people can be seen drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day or waxing poetic about their Spanish ancestors.  As humans, we have some deep seeded need to know where we come from and this is why genealogy services like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me are huge businesses.  Wanting to connect to our ancestors is normal and is something cultures have done since the beginning of man.

If I’m asked to self-identify, I’ll use words like, “father”, “husband”, “hunter”, or “American”.  If we’re talking culture, I’ll proudly talk about how both sides of my family have been in Appalachia for over 200 years; my father’s family almost exclusively in East Tennessee and my mother’s family from Virginia and western Pennsylvania. And like many folks from this region, it’s safe to assume that the majority of our ancestors came from what is now the Scottish Lowlands and Northern England and it’s also safe to assume there’s some Native American in our lineage, usually Cherokee.  This is important to us, just as it’s important for the guy who has lived in Chicago or Boston all of his life to tell you he’s Irish, even when his ancestors arrived at Ellis Island during the potato famine. 

People also take pride in carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. This may be as extreme as participating in Scottish Games or it could just be growing tomatoes “like grandma used to do”.  We accept all of this as not only normal, but it’s looked upon favorably to connect to these traditions and this is especially true when it comes to food. The folks who call themselves Irish like to eat traditional foods and drink Guinness or Bushmills.  In my house it’s a mix of hillbilly traditions and my wife’s Polish traditions, but so many of those things are centered around food and drink.  

So, I have to ask, if food and drink are so important to us in carrying on those traditions, if we like to garden like our grandmothers used to do, why is it so hard for so many people to view hunting in this same way?  Why is it that their traditions, especially when it comes to eating meat dishes, are cherished, while ours are attacked as barbaric? Why is spending all day in the kitchen preparing corned beef and cabbage so different than spending all day in a tree stand trying to catch a whitetail?  

It might be hard for people to understand our traditions, they are ours, not theirs, but food and tradition go hand in hand.  Think of how many years Jews have sat down with their families to enjoy a Passover meal together – sharing food is sacred.  Perhaps the struggle the anti-hunters face is their inner conflict of knowing that they’re a lot more like us than they want to admit. I’m not the first person to suggest that the best way to someone’s heart is through their stomach, but perhaps it is time to think about inviting people over to your house some time-honored traditions of eating your harvests.

The Importance of Rituals to the Hunt

Ever since the first man killed his first game, there have been rituals associated with the hunt.  Perhaps it was simple superstition.  Perhaps it was a sacrifice of gratitude to the gods.  Whatever it was, humans are ritualistic creatures and although we only know of some of these rituals, it is safe to assume almost everyone had one.  Today, most of those rituals look very different than the rituals of the past, but not always.

Before we go any further, we should define both “tradition” and “ritual” because people often use them interchangeably.  Although traditions can be religious in nature, ritual is more specific to spiritual matters.  So, for the sake of clarity in this article, we will use “ritual” to describe spiritual matters and “tradition” to describe non-spiritual matters.

Most rituals, even for Christian hunters like myself, originate from our pagan ancestors.  Some of these rituals are pre-hunt and some of them are post-kill.  As humans, we have always asked for blessings before the hunt and given thanks for our success after it.  This is not so different than the pre-planting rituals and the post-harvest rituals in our agrarian history.  We need food to survive, so we ask for assistance and when we’re full, we express our gratitude in hopes that our appreciation will be looked upon kindly when it comes time to ask for assistance again.

Studies show that today, most American hunters identify as Christians, but I think it is important to recognize that when it comes to hunting, our faith overlaps quite extensively with our pagan ancestors and those modern-day pagans who hunt.  A few months back, I had the pleasure to sit down with Chas Clifton, a wonderful writer who I became acquainted with thanks to his essay, “The Hunter’s Eucharist” that was published in David Petersen’s classic A Hunter’s Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport.  We had a wonderful, albeit rambling, two-hour conversation centered around hunting, but one thing he said to me has stuck out ever since.  “The hunt is complicated, so I think the only way to approach it is to ritualize the shit out of it.  Because otherwise it becomes too complex to realize that you love something, but you kill it.”  

Here we will look at three of the more popular rituals.

·     Prayer– This is undoubtedly the most popular no matter the hunter’s personal spirituality and it takes many forms. Saying a simple prayer, asking God to keep you safe and help you ethically harvest game really makes too much sense not to do.  However, some hunters are more elaborate.  When I was in my 20’s and early 30’s white tail hunting every fall, I used to say a little prayer as I buried a small bit of tobacco as a sacrifice before walking into the woods in the morning. It’s a ritual that I borrowed from the Cherokee to not only bless my hunt, but to connect me with my distant Cherokee ancestors who held the white tail in such high regard.

·     Blooding– People are starting to have mixed feelings about this ritual thanks to diseases such as Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), but many people, myself included, still find meaning in using the blood of the freshly slain animal to mark your face (there is no evidence that disease can be passed through the skin, but I would advise you to be careful to avoid the eyes and mouth).  This is especially true for hunters on their first kill.  According to Patrick Durkin, “This rite traces back to the 700s A.D. as a tribute to St. Hubert.”  However, this ritual most certainly pre-dates Christian Europe.  This can be used as an initiation to a group and also as a way to connect yourself with the animal and with your ancestors.

·     Eating Raw Flesh– Thanks to the worries of diseases such as CWD, this one is quickly going out of fashion.  In fact, many hunters do not want to eat any meat at all in camp, even cooked, until it has been tested for CWD.  This too is a ritual based on ingesting the essence of the animal you harvested.  Many animals we hunt have many admirable traits and this is seen as a way to give yourself some of their strengths.  Personally, going forward, I am not sure what I will do, but I will say it depends on the animal and location; bear absolutely not, North Slope Caribou in Alaska absolutely yes.  The question for me soon will be whether I eat Colorado elk in camp.  

No matter what you choose to do or not do, adding a ritual to your hunt will give it more meaning.  Getting spiritually connected to the land isn’t something that just happens, it’s a relationship and that means you have to give in order to take.  Whether you are a monotheistic Christian or a polytheistic pagan, it’s really the same thing, you want God or the gods, to know your heart is pure and that you are grateful and humble.  You’re not an observer or a user of nature, you’re a partner or participant in nature.

Trailhead Diplomacy in the Age of Divisiveness

I’m not sure who came up with it first, but I first heard of “Trailhead Diplomacy” on a MeatEater podcast.  The idea is that hunters should engage in a kind and civil conversation with other folks we see out in the woods, be it hikers, photographers or any other non-consumptive user.  Anyone, in my opinion, of sane mind should support this idea but it brings up two questions for me.  First of all, in the best-case scenario, what does this look like?  And two, in 2018, is it even possible?

I think it’s possible.  Maybe. If we’re willing to do the work.  

If you’re thinking about online, then no, it’s absolutely not possible. Any post by the Department of the Interior or other government agency regarding the outdoors, even if it’s announcing something good, is met with vitriol and hate for Sec. Zinke and President Trump.  Even if it’s something as mundane as celebrating Public Lands Day, which neither of those men have anything directly to do with (this example I saw but a few minutes ago).  People hole up in their echo chambers online and talk much tougher than they would in real life.  I’m not saying don’t keep fighting the good fight online, but you’re gonna have to get off your ass and do it face to face because, in person, I know it’s possible. 

If it’s possible to go from vegan to hunter, then anything is possible. From Field to Plate recently posted they took a vegan hunting and Tovar Cerulli is another great example of a vegan turned hunter.  I have to admit that these cases are outliers and trying to go about converting vegans is probably not the best use of our time or sanity.  

So, this begs the first question, what does this look like?  In 2018, we often don’t engage any strangers, let alone when we’re carrying firearms in the woods.  A lot of us, myself included, like to talk to as few people as possible when we get out into the mountains.  Are we actually going to do this at the trailhead?  

I think we have to do this whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether it’s at the trailhead, the bar, church or your local PTA meeting. Any chance you have to engage someone in speaking about the outdoors, do it.  Most non-consumptive users are still omnivores and can still be won over but it might take a little time and effort.  We just have to reach them on a common level and this is probably the biggest struggle hunters have had historically in communicating our passion. As Brad Luttrell of the Restless Native podcast is fond of saying, these people don’t understand legacy or heritage, you have to give them something they understand.  

There’s two excellent ways to reach these folks: through their hearts and through their bellies.  

Reaching folks through their hearts can be difficult, but it’s what I’m trying to do here at Mountain Climer.  Folks have to have open minds and open hearts in order to be reached. They have to be seeking a spiritual connection to the land and to their ancestors.  They have to be interested not in the American legacy that Brad is talking about, but their human legacy as a hunter.  They have to know that most of the things in our culture don’t fill their God-shaped hole. These people, when reached however, are the ones who have turned around and asked me to take them hunting.  These people will then turn around and be ambassadors themselves.  Once these people connect on this level, there’s no turning back for them.  I know, because I am one of them.

Food, on the other hand, is the much more accessible route.  I see this every day in my work in the restaurant business selling wine.  People want all those buzzwords I talked about before: local, organic, free-range, hormone free, etc.  More than that, people want to know where their food came from and they’re taking great strides to get involved in the process themselves by gardening, learning to butcher and seeking out co-ops where they can buy food directly from local farmers.  These people may or may not decide they want to hunt for themselves, but they will respect hunting and support it because they now understand it and appreciate our connection to the land and our food.  

However you decide to do it, just be yourself and don’t be afraid to reach out to someone new.  If you speak from the heart and share your stories, you will connect with people, even in this age of divisiveness.  

Are We Really Being Honest with Ourselves and the Public When We Use “Whole Foods Buzzwords”?

This post was inspired by the 2nd hour of The MeatEater Podcast Episode 125: Live from Tempe featuring Steve Rinella, Janis Putelis, Matt Rinella and Dr. Karl Malcolm and can be found here as well as on iTunes and Stitcher.

I’m obsessed with ethics and morality.  If I’m honest with myself, I can honestly say that a time or two it has probably been more of a vice than a virtue and in my younger days it probably came across as judgmental.  Maybe I still come across that way sometimes when I believe in something as passionately as I believe in ethical hunting.  While I feel the need to stand up and speak out on what I believe in, especially here on this page, I do think there are more approachable ambassadors for hunting than me and that is why guys like Steve Rinella, Randy Newberg and others are so popular and are really inspiring both current hunters to do better and to bring new folks into our ranks.

Recently on The MeatEater Podcast, there was a conversation about the sincerity of many hunters these days who throw around, what Steve Rinella called something like, “Whole Foods Buzzwords”.  It’s true, growing up, I never heard anyone use words like “organic”, “free range” or “humanely killed”.  I grew up in a fairly rural area and I think we just assumed at the time all meat fit these three criteria.  It was only in the last ten to twenty years that many less than humane practices have come to light and we’ve started talking about the humane treatment of our domestic animals.  The guys on the show started questioning these words and I had to admit to myself, that although I meant it when I’ve told people how much better game meat is and why that is, I had definitely been looking at the issue with rose colored glasses on.  

So, let me break down a few of these buzzwords when it comes to wild game:

Organic – This is relative to the animal and the place where you hunt it.  Are you hunting caribou in the Brooks Range?  I’d call that pretty organic.  Whitetail or turkeys in Indiana?  Damn near impossible to call that organic when it is living amongst and around so much agricultural land.  You have to honestly ask yourself, what is this animal eating given where it lives?

Free Range – Unless you’re hunting a high fenced farm, I’d argue wild game is free range.  Some animals move very little (whitetail) and some migrate hundreds of miles (caribou), but if their movement is unrestricted, they’re free range.  You could argue that human infringement such as housing additions and energy development impede their movement, and I’d agree with you, but barring removing humans from the landscape, I think it’s hard to argue against this.

Humanely Killed – This was the topic on the show that really hurt me and stung my pride.  I’ve always made the argument that a double lung shot was as humane as it gets but as the guys on the show so eloquently pointed out, (1) agricultural practices have evolved a long way in this area and are much more humane these days and (2) how many times do you put your animal down by dropping it where it stands?  I have to be honest and say hunting is sometimes incredibly humane and sometimes devastatingly inhumane.  

As the conversation evolved, they came to the same conclusion that I ultimately have come to through the years, that there’s something you cannot put on a label or whittle down to a buzzword, what separates hunters and wild game as a food is our connection to the animal, our connection to the land and the bonds that are strengthened through the food at our dinner tables.  It’s doing the work and getting your hands dirty, just the same as you’d have more pride and more of a connection to a car you built from the ground up than a car you bought off the lot.  When you eat that food, you think of all the hours scouting, the nights in the cold tent, the camaraderie of your loved ones you went with, the field dressing, the pack out and finally, for many of us, the butchering.  You remember the folds of the earth, the feel of the wind, the ache in your back and the smell of the animal because there can be much more to food than how it tastes on your plate.

Dr. Karl Malcolm touched on something and the end of the conversation that I constantly preach about: gratitude.  He shared a story about his family and their practice of saying something they’re grateful for at the dinner table and his three-year-old daughter saying she was thankful for the moose that they were eating.  While I know there are plenty of people who are thankful for their food no matter where it comes from, I do suspect most Americans take this for granted.  I’m not throwing stones, it’s easy to do when you’re so disconnected from the source.  You go to the supermarket and there’s hamburger meat already ground up and packaged in a one meal container.  Or you go to a restaurant and you just verbalize you’d like a filet cooked medium and twenty minutes later it shows up in front of you. Our modern world can be magical in that sense, but there’s magic in doing it yourself as well.

There’s something powerful about putting food on your own table whether it is an elk steak or vegetables from your garden.  There’s a lot of work that goes into it, a lot of time that you sacrifice that you could be doing something else and so many opportunities for it to all go wrong, whether that is your mistake or Mother Nature not providing the right conditions.  That food is something to be proud of, something you are more willing to share, something you’re more likely to remember and, in my opinion, it just tastes better. While it’s important to have this conversation on a wide platform where words like “organic” are going to be thrown around, I’m not sure there’s a better way to share our love and passion for wild game than at the dinner table.  Our stories and arguments are much more convincing when we can tell them over the fruits of our labor, if for no other reason, our non-hunting loved ones can see how grateful we are for the animal and the chance to interact with it in order to feed our families.

Five Questions for My Vegan Friend

When I started this website, I asked an old friend who is a vegan and an animal rights activist, to have a conversation with me, either on camera or over the phone.  He said he’d “have to think about it” and I haven’t heard from him since.  I’m not going to speculate about his motivation for not agreeing or for not following up with me – I’ve always known him to be a loyal and generous man and I’ll trust he had good reasons.  In spite of our obvious differences, it wasn’t my intention to verbally beat him up, but I wanted answers for some questions and I trusted him to have an open and honest conversation with me.  Since I’m still curious, here are those questions.

1.     Since PETA runs kill shelters and kills thousands of animals every year, by the same logic of killing a few to protect the many, wouldn’t it make more sense to support hunting where the hunter feeds their family, than it would to allow populations to grow to the point cities are having to cull animals, or animals die in traffic accidents (killing humans as well) or dying from starvation and disease?

2.     If everyone went vegetarian, we’d need a lot more land for agriculture; for example, soybean fields for tofu.  How do you justify the animal deaths that would occur due to loss of habitat?  What would you do with the animals who would inevitably come to eat out of those fields?

3.     If Big Ag let all those cows and other farm animals go, they’d need even more land for grazing than we have now.  What happens to those cows, pigs, chickens, etc.?

4.     Hunters and anglers account for over 80% of conservation dollars in this country.  What do animal rights activists contribute now and what would we need to do to support these animals and their habitat in a world without hunting and fishing?

5.     The argument I usually hear from vegans regarding why it’s okay for other omnivorous or carnivorous animals can eat meat, but homo sapiens should not is that we are more highly evolved and can make the choice, they cannot. Considering most scientists agree that our consumption of animal protein is why our brains developed the way they did (and our facial structure and teeth changed) isn’t it somewhat arrogant, or perhaps, unfounded, to declare that we shouldn’t eat meat today? I will allow that some cultures have always been vegetarian and evolved to be so, but for the rest of us descended from omnivores, doesn’t it make sense to eat what our body is designed (through evolution) to eat?

I have no issue if one chooses a plant-based diet, none whatsoever.  Hell, I even admire their conviction, but the argument seems to always be about morality, never about facts, science or the practical issues that surround the issue such as a few that I’ve named above.  If we want to protect animals, we need to have an open and honest conversation about it.  Hunters are just as likely to get emotional in their defense of hunting, and while I understand that, I don’t believe we’re going to prevail with emotion.

Hunting, tradition, and our diet can all be emotional topics because they do intersect with our morality.  We’re never going to agree with vegans or animal rights activists in these areas, but I would like to know how they’d deal with the practical issues if they got their way.  I would also like to know, why when predation is so common in nature, that the predator is always the bad guy?  In the words of John Reiger, former executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, anti-hunters “would prefer to condemn the hunter who shoots a dozen ducks every waterfowl season in a swamp that in many cases only sportsmen’s money has preserved from the dragline and bulldozer, rather than (condemn) the developer who obliterates another swamp and takes it out of wildlife protection forever.”*

*Lifted from “The Hunter’s Eucharist” by Chas S. Clifton

Food Waste in America

According to the National Resource Defense Council (article from 2012), America wastes up to 40% of the food it produces. This number comes from all points from farm to table. It’s claimed that less than half of domestic beef is consumed by humans with the waste being dumped or fed back to the cows. I cannot say that hunters do not contribute to this as well. I admit that there have been times I’ve had business lunches for multiple days in a row and then ended up having to throw out leftovers at the end of the week. Also, I cannot (or rather will not) take home and reheat egg or fish leftovers if the portion size provided at a restaurant is too big (at home I simply only make what I will eat). 

However, hunters are far more likely to consume more parts of an animal and appreciate the meat, than non-hunting omnivores. We routinely eat organs, tongue, jowls, neck and other parts of an animal -- including caul fat. These all go into our freezer, or at the very least, are made into sausage. The parts of an animal used to make hot dogs that grosses everyone out? Yeah, we eat those happily. The idea that hunters kill animals, cut off their heads for the antlers and leave the body to rot is not only preposterous, it’s illegal. It’s called wanton waste and it’s against the law in all 50 states.

Overall, I think this tendency toward food waste, especially meat waste, occurs more and more because as time goes on, we become more and more disconnected from the Earth. All of us like to talk about how much we love the planet and how much we want to save it (or there are those who don’t want to open their eyes and realize we’re negatively impacting our planet). However, it’s not from the perspective of saving ourselves, it’s from the perspective of we’re above it all and we feel better about ourselves if we’re doing something. We feel good about ourselves because we eat organic, drive a Prius or we “rescued” a dog from the pound, and yet we waste food or buy a new house on the edge of town that used to be prime deer habitat, etc. We view ourselves as being separate from nature and above it all because we’re the most evolved. 

I’m a hypocrite, it’s damn near impossible to investigate every decision we make, nor are ideologues fun to be around. I’m not advocating for everyone to go without their HVAC or switch from automobiles to bicycles, but I am asking everyone to spend a little time thinking about how you waste resources. Go for a hike and don’t look at your phone. Halfway in, sit down, drink some water and listen. After about ten minutes you’ll hear a noise, you’ll think a moose or a bear is headed your way. You’ll realize it’s just a squirrel. There’s so much noise in our lives that once you tune it out, you’ll realize how much you’re missing every day. Once you spend time on their turf and on their terms, you develop a greater appreciation and respect for the animal and its habitat. You don’t have to anthropomorphize an animal in order to love it, but you do need to understand what it is in its own habitat – and zoos are not an animal’s native habitat.

Personally, I’m going to make some adjustments. If the menu at the restaurant doesn’t say how many eggs are in the dish, I’m going to ask. If I think I might get busy, I’m going to throw the leftovers in the freezer until I can get to them. Much like we placed laws on ourselves to end market hunting over 100 years ago for the betterment of wildlife, it’s time we reigned in our own behavior again.

Maybe there aren’t mountains of buffalo heads like there were in the 1870s, but there are mountains of food waste out there, we’re just not seeing it. 

My Story

I did not grow up hunting or fishing, though I have always loved the outdoors.  I did not have a father, grandfather or uncle who were hunters even though we lived in a rural area.  I came to hunting on my own in my 20s (and am only now coming to fishing in my 30s) through several unconventional ways.  I believe that part of it was living in urban metropolises and seeing some people’s negative views of rural people and their practices, it was beginning to care where my food came from and it was, perhaps most importantly, just getting to know myself for who I really am.

 

As a boy, I loved being outdoors and I had a BB gun, though that was the only gun that was in our house.  I liked the idea of hunting and fishing even back then.  I remember seeing A River Runs Through It when it came out and ever since then I’ve had a desire to learn to fly fish and go to Montana.  The books and movies stuck with me and I was always drawn to the Mountain West, it just took me a long time to get here.

 

Living in Chicago from 2004-2009 really hardened me in a lot of ways and forced me to figure out who I really was.  All these people were talking about “organic”, “sustainable” and all the other buzz words but when I’d bring up hunting, many people would become disgusted with me.  It never made sense: deer who lived for 2-5 years, free range, organically, hormone free who were then humanely killed seemed to be a lot better off than some farm raised animal (not that I have an issue with ethically raised domestic animals).  What irritated me more was sharing a meal with these folks and seeing them not eat all their food, especially the meat.  They put up a good fight about humanely treating animals and then they wasted their meat.  Almost unforgivable to me.  I know I’m weird, but when I eat, I eat my meat first and I finish it before moving on to my vegetables.  I try not to waste any food, but if I do, it’s not meat.  That animal’s sacrifice so that my family can eat is sacred whether it was harvested from the field or from a farm.

 

My defense of rural people and practices and my concern about where my food came from slowly evolved over time to something deeper.  As I went small game hunting with friends and hunted for whitetail in Indiana and Kentucky and went on multiple backpacking trips out west and in Alaska, I started to feel more connected to nature.  We humans like to toe the line between being above nature and then feeling guilty about thinking we’re above nature.  When you insert yourself into a role that has been played by man for thousands and thousands of years, you open yourself up to being connected to something greater than yourself.  You feel connected to the natural world – and we should – we are animals and a part of nature even if we happen to be the species that has the greatest impact on all other species. 

 

At this point I’m borderline obsessed.  If I’m not able to be in the wild, I’m reading about animals, habitat and conservation, writing about it, watching hunting shows online, listening to audiobooks or podcasts or at the very least thinking about it every minute I’m awake almost.  If it’s a good night, I even dream about it. 

 

My goal here is to simply try and reach other folks who feel like I do and find common ground with folks who don’t understand where we’re coming from.  Not everyone needs to be a hunter, but I am concerned about the future of conservation and wildlife and I am concerned about a lot of people who seem to be very unhappy with the postmodern world.  I think at least a few of them could find peace in the woods like I did.  If I can help introduce people to that joy and peace, then that will make me very happy.