by Maria Reidelbach
Just about everyone in the Hudson Valley has a bounty of food growing in their yards—even if you
aren’t growing domesticated fruit and vegetable plants, there’s an astounding variety and amount of wild plants to dine upon. And that’s what this column is about—eat your yard! The one food type that I’ve never written about is the animal kingdom. Three years of fruit, veggies and mushrooms! I’ve thought about covering backyard chickens, but I think those are overcooked for the moment. And then there’s hunting animals for meat.
There’s a reason I haven’t written about this favorite American food—full disclosure: I haven’t eaten mammals since I was 16 years old. I have my reasons. But I know that most folks consider meat an everyday essential, and, living in this rural area of the Hudson Valley, hunting is something to consider. With the reforestation of thousands of acres of land that once was farmed, many animals have reproduced like, well, rabbits. The land cannot sustain them all, and unless they’re killed by us or other predators, they would die of starvation, disease or accidents. The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation restricts hunting and sets seasons and “bag limits” for each animal to manage each species. Some species aren’t legally hunted at all—there are native animals that have their work cut out for them just surviving. But there are plenty of species of animals, birds, fish and reptiles with robust local populations. (Government hunting regs are often controversial, as well they should be—our responsibility to other animals is something I think we should have lengthy, in-depth conversations and arguments about.)
So I’m not qualified, but I recently met a local couple who agreed to share their long experience with me, and you. Nelson and Linda Graham from Olivebridge are amazing—through hunting, organic gardening, and foraging, they have provided almost all the food they and their two children have eaten for the last 40 years. Nelson and Linda both began hunting as kids, taught by family. Nelson is a professional butcher with decades of experience. If you’re looking for a locavore lifestyle alternative to big ag and long-distance food, these two are the gold standard.
I sat down with Linda and Nelson in their cozy, fur-bearing living room to learn some of the basics. First, of course—are wild animals tasty? Most are, it seems. Whitetail deer, one of the largest game animals in these parts, are delicious, especially young ones. Deer are considered by many hunters to have the most dependably high-quality meat. Nelson and Linda kill two to five a year and freeze the venison.* Rabbits are considered excellent, too—they’re common in meat markets in Europe. Squirrel, so prolific and often destructive, are a bit richer tasting; many love them and they’re supposed to be really great split and grilled. The ubiquitous woodchuck (called groundhog where I grew up, and whistlepig by some) is also considered good. If you’ve got a woodchuck fattening on your lovingly grown fruit and veggies, having it for dinner might be, um, just desserts. Nelson and Linda say bear meat is “awesome” and beaver, too. These two mammals are much less common than those above, but are legally hunted during a short season.
There’s fowl: turkey is the most familiar to most, and like its domesticated cousin, it’s pretty dry, but the flavor is great (brine it!). Grouse, pheasant and quail are all enjoyed by hunter-foodies. Some species of reptiles and amphibians like frogs, snakes and turtles are also locally hunted because they’re plentiful and taste so good.
So how can you get yourself some of this delicious, foraged food? The essentials: a weapon, training for skill and safety, a hunting license, hunting season data, and a legal place to hunt. There’s lots of info about all these things on the NYS DEC website (below). Linda and Nelson say that the best way to start is to find a mentor. If you don’t have hunting family or friends, there are lots of local rod and gun clubs with sociable members (see below). Hunting is a pursuit with a pretty steep learning curve, but one that brings you close to the food you eat and can provide you with local, sustainably grown meat, a good alternative to mass-produced supermarket fare.
* One son had his first beef hamburger at the age of 11, and he thought it was meat gone bad! Bryan has gone on to found Fruition Chocolate Works and Confectionery in Shokan, the only chocolatier in New York to produce chocolate from the bean, making his D-I-Y parents very proud.
Wonderful Wikipedia has a great history and overview of world hunting practices (“hunting”), and a comprehensive article about animal rights (“animal rights”). Both make good reading if you are thinking about hunting.
Essential: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation: dec.ny.gov, Outdoor Activities page
Below is just a sampling of clubs in Dutchess and Ulster counties. The culture of many of these clubs lean strongly toward the male and NRA members of our community, but hunting itself is the first focus, and many more women are joining lately. Think of it as an opportunity to find some common ground by participating in an age-old human practice.
Blackrock Fish & Game Club, Mountainville: blackrockfishandgameclub.org
Federated Sportsmen’s Clubs of Ulster County: fscuc.com
Federation of Dutchess County Fish and Game Clubs, Inc.: dutchessfishandgame.org
Hudson Valley Sportsman: hudsonvalleysportsman.com
Lake Katrine Rod & Gun Club: angelfire.com/ny4/lkrgclub/
Marbletown Sportsmen’s Club: marbletownsportsmensclub.com
Mid County Rod & Gun Club (Lagrangeville): midcountygunclub.com
New Paltz Rod & Gun Club: newpaltzrodandgun.org
Northern Dutchess Rod and Gun Club: ndrgc.com
Phoenicia Fish & Game Association: phoeniciafishandgame.com
Plattekill Rod and Gun Club: plattekill.lib.ny.us/rod&gunclub
Rondout Valley Rod & Gun Club: 845-626-0159
Ruby Rod & Gun Club: rubyrodandgunclub.org
Wallkill Rod and Gun Club: wallkillrodandgun.com
Whortlekill Rod & Gun: whortlekill.com
Wittenberg Sportsmen’s Club: wsclub.us
Maria Reidelbach is an author and artist living and eating in Accord, NY. email@example.com