Some call them culinary pioneers, others call them counter-culture loving hipsters. No matter the label, it seems our little hunting club is getting bigger. Thereâ€™s no way around it.
Finally, the mainstream is digesting what weâ€™re serving, and itâ€™s time we recognized itâ€™s a good thing. Hunting is growing in scope and numbers, and those who go afield after organic eats are pushing the needle. There are facts to back it up.
A report released last September by the Virginia-based research group Responsive Management explains in real terms why hunting is growing in popularity after 35 years of decline. From 2006 to 2011, the study says, hunting participation nationally increased 9 percent. The new hunters likely causing much of the uptick in participation are younger, more female and suburban, in college or in the military. Urban hunters are increasing, too.
You heard that rightâ€¦urban hunters. As the world has evolved and consumption of food has become less about the why and more about the how fast, droves of previously disinterested Americans are suddenly willing to consider killing, cutting, and cooking their own meat. This isn’t your granddaddyâ€™s old redneck stereotype. Weâ€™re talking about a new breed.
But how did we get here?
From 1958 to 1975 the number of licensed hunters in America generally increased, the study says, before hitting a plateau in the mid â€™80s. Then things went into a general decline for decades with hunting not only facing stronger opposition, but also an even more dangerous absence from pop culture.
Hereâ€™s the reasoning, â€śIn both hunting and fishing, the decline in participation from the peak in the 1980s is partly attributed to a broad demographic change in the United Stateâ€”urbanization.â€ť According to U.S. Census data, 36 percent of the United Statesâ€™ population lived in rural areas in 1950. Now itâ€™s lower than 20 percent.
If this trend continues, the only chance to grow hunting would be to convince city folk to get involved.
Enter the Locavore Movement. Itâ€™s actually listed as reason No. 3 by Responsive Management for the recent swell in hunter numbers.
For the purposes of explaining their results, Responsive Management calls locavore hunters, â€śindividuals who go afield for reasons of self-sufficiency and a desire for organic, local, chemical-free meat.â€ť
This organic pursuit is nothing brand new.
In 2007, the New Oxford American Dictionary selected locavore as the â€śWord of the Year.â€ť At that time it was connected mostly to foodies coveting locally grown products, shunning supermarkets, and finding fresh ingredients in their own backyards. They also began aggressively trumpeting the negative environmental impact of mass-produced goods.
One of the more obvious connections locavores made early on was to the Paleo diet, an eating trend based on wholesome foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era.
The diet was first popularized in the mid-1970s, but over the years itâ€™s been adapted and promoted by scores of scientists and researchers. None have been quoted recently quite as much as
nutritionists Ken Edwards and William Rice.
Rice and Edwards say that our modern diets are out of sync with our genetic requirements. That 100,000 generations of people lived and ate as hunter-gatherers and only two generations have grown up on highly processed fast foods. Weâ€™ve become slaves to â€śdiseases of civilization.â€ť
Boy, does that ring true to a hunterâ€™s ear.
As this hunter-gatherer thing began to take off, some unlikely characters started to surface, linking foraging to hunting and hunting to self-sufficiency.
Author Michael Pollan was one of them. The California-based journalism professor penned the 2006 work, The Omnivoreâ€™s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which became a national bestseller and was named one of the 10 best books of that year.
Pollan had previously made a name for himself as the most prominent literary voice in the nature versus culture argument. The Omnivoreâ€™s Dilemma followed Pollan, admittedly a liberal-minded â€śindoorsman,â€ť on his first hunt for wild hogs.
As a well-known liberal foodie leading the cultural change of the day, Pollanâ€™s support for hunting through visceral descriptions in the book became a bridge. He writes â€śhunting is one of those experiences that appears utterly different from the inside than the outside.â€ť
As Pollan and the mainstream spiraled deep into the greener, more health-conscious life and the non-hunting population upped the ante on finding alternatives it was only a matter of time before the urban housewife saw the veggies on her plate and peered beyond her garden to the meddlesome deer standing in her backyard. For the first time, she might consider hunting.
Others have certainly explored this notion, but Pollan asked it bluntly in a 2009 article for The New York Times.
â€śHow did humans manage to choose foods,â€ť he wrote, â€śand stay healthy before there were nutrition experts and food pyramids or breakfast cereals promising to improve your childâ€™s focus or restaurant portions bigger than your head?â€ť
Answering this question is what the hunter-gatherer premise and the Paleo diet are all about. People going so far beyond the mass-produced, chemically enhanced garbage hawked by the American food industry that their diets have landed in the Stone Ageâ€”a time in which hunting was the only way to get meat.
Thatâ€™s one huge ironic circle of absurdity.
Non-hunters are being driven to hunt in an attempt to erase 2.6 million years of culinary evolution as a kind of last resort to eliminate modern diet-based diseases. As if the food alternatives in this country have become so poor (just picture the gray, slimy preformed filth hiding between the buns of a Big Mac) that even the most environmentally conscious among us canâ€™t deny huntingâ€™s patrimonial and nutritional appeal.
But even if we can all agree with this premise, converts have to come to terms with the gritty, bloody nature of killing a game animal. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where these liberal intellectuals and left-wing greenies must decide if theyâ€™ll be able to enjoy their venison steak without a side of misplaced guilt.
This reconciliation often requires a philosophical shift for those in the mainstream. As non-hunters begin to consider this more hands-on route to their consumption of protein, they run face-first into the fact that, yes, theyâ€™ll need to rip the guts out of a deer before they can have the tenderloin or tear the skin from a turkeyâ€™s breast before they can slice out the filets. And this only comes after shooting it.
Buying farm-raised venison at a local butcher or begging for a few packs of backstraps from your redneck neighbor is one thing, but feeding your family with meat that you manually
removed from an animal you killed is another. It’s about substituting that side of guilt with the pride of self-reliance.
Itâ€™s about not only eating meat, but also living the life of a meat eater. Throwing back with impunity the notion that hunting could ever become unnecessary through some modern innovation. As if putting a Whole Foods down the street could solve your need for fresh, organic meat or some stick-on label with nutritional facts could ever replace going to where an animal lives and killing it. Please.
To ground this idea into the roots of popular culture, we need faces at the forefront. Public figures able to convey the meat-eater message quite simply, continue convincing the masses to digest it, and get these folks into the woods. Someone the urban population can relate to, maybe the polar opposite of Ted Nugent.
Outdoor media outlets (this one especially) have always been quite good at handling the hunting niche, preaching to our choir. But with anti-hunting factions in this nation pushing with full force, itâ€™s time for a new game plan. The stage is set for some pretty revolutionary things.
The Pop Culture Connection
Andrew Zimmern, host of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel, might just be the most recognizable face this meat-eater movement has to offer. Yep, the bald guy that eats testicles on TV is a passionate hunter.
â€śIâ€™ve been hunting my entire life,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™ve hunted on every single continentâ€”big game, small game, waterfowlâ€”you name it, Iâ€™ve done it. Including some insanely crazy tribal hunts like going after 60-pound porcupines in Botswana and rodents in South America.â€ť
Zimmern is an icon for in the food world whoâ€™s been a spokesman for the likes of Target, Toyota, and General Mills. Heâ€™s not only openly pro-hunting, heâ€™s on a campaign to make a difference.
â€śI sort of see my hunting life, as documented on television and so forth, as a gateway for my audience,â€ť he said.
The Minnesota native has personally converted non-hunters in marshes and upland fields of his home state and served up fresh wild game to many more. Heâ€™s insisted on doing smart, impactful programming on hunting that ensures the topic remains smack dab in the middle of the national conversation.
Zimmernâ€™s view of how hunting relates to our culture has been crucial in shaping his efforts. He told me that the most seminal, the most rootsy, and oftentimes the best foods are hunted, and in the process he drew a direct line between carving out â€śa fresh backstrapâ€ť and gardening.
â€śI think hunting for animals should be spoken of in those same reverent tones as plucking the perfect summer tomato,â€ť he said.
Thereâ€™s value in that kind of thinking, in making the connection between growing and killingâ€”thereâ€™s a relationship to the land in both.
â€śHunting has allowed me to understand how our world works in a much more profound way and I think to contribute more to society as an evolved citizen of the world,â€ť Zimmern said.
As the most pop culture-friendly member of the meat-eater revolution, the Bizarre Foods guy is doing his part.
â€śI do believe that hunting and/or the eating of wild meats, foraged foods, or wild fish is crucial for spreading our food choice across a broader spectrum so we can restore balance to our food system. Relying solely on store-bought goods has led to a very bad system and a horrific American diet,â€ť he said.
Sounds kind of like a locavore to me.
The Revolution Will Be Televised
I first met Steven Rinella in 2011 on the heels of the debut of his critically acclaimed Travel Channel show The Wild Within. Back then, Rinellaâ€™s name was fresh, and the concept of his show was even more so. People were calling him cable TVâ€™s mainstream hunter-gatherer.
In front of a national audience Rinella, a then 37-year-old Michigan native, served dinner guests roadkill, chased red deer in the Scottish Highlands, and recreated the historic Louis and Clark Expedition. He was bringing the realities of hunting to a largely misinformed public during a time when the door was open for such an exploration.
Rinella is like most lifelong hunters in many ways. His father cultivated much of his early passionsâ€”he trapped furbearers and hunted with his two brothers and dad. But heâ€™s unlike most in the way he views the outdoors: through the eyes of an ancestral hunter-gatherer.
Rinellaâ€™s calling card, if you will, is his determination to shape hunting into what it once was and trace early manâ€™s skill, ingenuity and sheer determination to survive.
â€śI just find by representing hunting in the truest terms to me, that it has a positive effect on othersâ€”itâ€™s adventure, a lifestyle choice, an appreciation for an acquired skill and knowledge, and food,â€ť he said. â€śAnd if it wasnâ€™t for the food, I wouldnâ€™t be doing it.â€ť
In comes the term â€śMeat Eaterâ€ť .Â Rinella and his team used the idea of meat eating as a lifestyle to brand their next venture: a book and a subsequent new TV series on the Sportsman Channel.
â€śFrom my experience with people who are unfamiliar or uneasy with hunting, and I have a tremendous amount, the idea of the consumption of wild game works better to convince them than any other thing Iâ€™ve tried,â€ť he said. â€śAnd thatâ€™s kind of why we came up with the show nameâ€¦MeatEater.â€ť
Through his presence in pop culture, Rinella has become something new: a simple but authoritative voice that both speaks clearly to hunters and rings true to even the most ardent skeptics. In many ways, heâ€™s leading the meat-eater revolution.
â€śAt their core, people are pragmatic beings. I think we tend to not see them that way in todayâ€™s world, because social media has made everyone so dismissive, so polarized,â€ť he said. â€śBut I choose to believe that if you educate people about hunting, there is an open dialogue to be had.â€ť
Rinella, like many of the new converts to our pastime, is a hunter because he is a Meat Eater. And heâ€™s combating anti-hunting ignorance with patience, knowledge, and a keen sense of who we are as outdoorsmen.
Georgia Pellegrini is a girl with an agendaâ€¦and a gun. When I first picked up her 2013 book, Girl Hunter, I thought she might be reaching a bitâ€¦maybe over-branding. Pellegrini looked too much like a fancy Food Network chef to be a real down-to-earth outdoorswoman.
Turns out I was wrong. The real Georgia Pellegrini is a tasteful, stylish chef with a bit of gritty, shotgun-toting gal mixed in. It’s a combo that’s hard to ignore.
â€śI hunt and gather myself and hone my pioneer skills,â€ť she said. â€śI see everything through the lens of food. I hunt because as a chef I want to have more of a connection to my ingredients.â€ť
This classically trained chef, who didnâ€™t grow up hunting and had never really considered it, had a watershed moment while working in a restaurant in New York. The eatery had a farm attached to it, and she was asked to kill a turkey to serve to customers.
â€śI realized in that moment that even though Iâ€™m a conscious eater and I care so much about my ingredients, that I had a proxy executioner that was doing all the work for me,â€ť she said.
So Pellegrini decided to go hunting and face what it means to be a meat eater. It was time to â€śwoman up,â€ť she said.
Those experiences have spawned best-selling books, blogs, and appearances on national TV including FOX News, ABCâ€™s Jimmy Kimmel Live and more. Sheâ€™s carved out an image that works for urban chicks and backwoods foodies.
But what most characterizes her seismic change is another venture, an event she calls the â€śGirl Hunter Weekend.â€ť Pellegrini organizes adventure trips for women that include hunting, butchering, and serving up wild game. She takes all kindsâ€”everyone from lawyers from Chicago to accountants from New York Cityâ€”who are just craving a more visceral experience.
â€śItâ€™s so amazing to see the Amazonian look in their eyes after theyâ€™ve butchered an animal,â€ť she said. â€śI was in Montana with a woman whose husband sent her on the trip. She clearly wasnâ€™t all that excited. But after we had killed our limit of pheasants and I was showing her how to breast the bird, she just jumped in front of me and started ripping out the heart, lungs, and gizzard. She cleaned the bird, cut it up, and fed it to her children back in California.â€ť
Pellegrini has truly brought things full circle.She’s seen all sides of hunting, and just like all the other converts, its gritty, bloody, unforgivining nature hasn’t turned her away. She’s at the forefront of a revolution of sorts, a movement that is changing hunting’s identity.Â Spread the word.