PhotoTwo birds from my hunting trip with Chef Seamus Mullen of Tertulia. My friend scrunched up her nose. “You shot this?” she asked, referring to the two birds—or, rather, the breast meat from two birds—on the table in front of us on a recent night. “Maybe,” I said. “I shot two birds, a pheasant and a partridge. But we can’t be sure the ones I shot are the actual ones we’re eating right now. These are definitely from that same hunt, though.” “I could never shoot a bird,” she said. No, she could only eat one. And it’s that kind of disconnect, so prevalent, that made me curious to have a hand for once in killing an animal I was prepared to ingest. If I’m fine—if we’re fine—with someone else tackling that assignment in the service of our dinner, shouldn’t we be fine with tackling it ourselves? That was my thinking when I went hunting, for the first time, last week. I described that trip in a column, noting that hunters’ rights and potential inconveniences are often mentioned by opponents to new restrictions on firearms. I figured that a brush with hunting, no matter how fleeting or limited or contrived, might give me at least a few new insights into that opposition, a few new questions about it. And it did. Some readers wrote to me to complain that my experience of hunting wasn’t a wholly representative one. They’re right. It was confined to birds, and it was done not in the wild per se, but on a preserve, or hunting grounds, where pheasants and partridges are raised—and then let loose—expressly for hunters, or shooters, or whatever the right noun for those of us visiting preserves is. It’s hunting, of a sort, made convenient. Hunting lite. But such hunting isn’t uncommon at all. In Pennsylvania alone, as I noted in my column, there are more than 300 bird preserves. And to the extent that the birds in these preserves are raised only to be shot, well, the pork and beef and chicken that’s sold in supermarkets or served in restaurants come from animals that are raised only to be slaughtered, and usually from animals raised in much more confined circumstances than the birds on the preserve, which roam in large pens prior to their release. I visited the Pennsylvania preserve with the chef Seamus Mullen, whose restaurant Tertulia, which serves Spanish food in Greenwich Village, I adore. He had hunted many times before, and not only at preserves, and he offered to be my tutor and guide. Before we turned our attention to the actual birds, he had me shoot clay pigeons, for practice, because I’d never previously fired a shotgun. Or a handgun. Or a rifle. Or anything other than the kind of weapon you use in a game like laser tag, which I’ve played with nieces and nephews. He schooled me in gun safety. And only after that did the three of us—Seamus and I and a friend of his named Ernie Sabine, who is the designer and owner of the New York menswear and men’s accessory label Ernest Alexander—grab the preserve’s Brittany spaniel, which would find and flush out the birds for us, and spread out through the fields and forests of the preserve. Between us we shot 17 birds in all. I definitely shot one of them, a chukar partridge, or chukar, and probably shot another, a pheasant, though there was some confusion about who had hit that particular bird. And that elicited a strange brew of feelings. There was a bit of an adrenaline rush. Some nervousness. Some anxiety. Some squeamishness. Even some sorrow, for lack of a better word. And overarching all of this was indeed a sense that there was something honest about what I was doing, to the extent that I was taking ownership, if only partly and briefly, of how my food came to me and where it was coming from. I emphasize partly. Seamus gutted the birds. Seamus plucked and cleaned them. And he cooked them, for a dinner two nights later, to which I brought three companions. For the gastronomes out there, here’s a bit more detail about how Seamus cooked the chukar and the pheasant that we ate: He deboned the legs, ground the flesh and seasoned it with pimenton, garlic and other herbs. The ground meat was used in a paella-style rice made with brown chicken stock and with a jus that incorporated the birds’ innards. PhotoThe final preparation, ready to eat.Credit The breast meat of the birds was left on the bone, browned in duck fat, and then smoked over oak wood on a grill before being carved and served, in petal-shaped pieces, over the rice. On the side was a sauce made with the jus and with butter, sherry, several kinds of pepper and braised mushrooms, among other ingredients. On top of the rice Seamus put not only the breast meat but also a few pheasant eggs poached in duck fat. It was a great-looking dish, and if I were more adept with my iPhone’s camera, and hadn’t been taking the pictures of the meal in such a dark room, you’d see that. But I recounted Seamus’s construction of the dish not just as an exercise in food porn but as a bridge to the following observation: by the time the dish appeared in front of me, so much had happened—so much that I’d had no hand in—that I felt nearly as disconnected from it as if the meat had been bought from a butcher. I didn’t look at it or take a bite and think, “That’s my quarry. That’s my doing.” I thought, “That’s delicious, and apparently has something to do with my hunt the other day.” It didn’t taste better, worse, more or less immediate. It just tasted like dinner. With one difference. As I chewed one bit, one of my teeth clamped down on something small and hard: a bit of bird shot, apparently. In the final picture below, on the left of the plate, you can see something that looks round and metallic. That’s it. PhotoThe finished meal, with a pellet of bird shot on the left of the plate.Credit
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