The Wild Side of Local Food


A friend brought me a gift I never dreamed I’d ever see, or rather eat. A loaf of pawpaw bread. Just like banana bread but with pawpaws. Why didn’t I think of that? He used English walnuts in it, where I might have used pecans, which is interesting in itself because the nuts came from a grove right here in northern Ohio, not in warmer climes where these nut trees are grown commercially. The Ohio Division of Wildlife planted the trees years ago and when my friend spotted them, with nuts mostly going to waste, he asked and received permission to gather them.

My pawpaw bread-baking friend, Bill, is a true revolutionary of the local food movement although he wouldn’t say that. He and his kind need more of our admiring attention for what they know and do about wild food. Bill never finished high school, and so by today’s educational prejudices, he should be living a life of dismal poverty. The truth is quite different. Although the humble job he has worked at now for nearly 30 years does not pay very well, he and his family have lived a contented and happy life thanks to their positive attitude and very careful parsimony. Years ago he grew garden produce and sold it directly to customers for extra income, but now he saves money by making use of free wild food and working as a professional hunter and trapper. He doesn’t always charge for his services, but the need for really skilled hunters is growing and with the surge in wildlife of all kinds, “pest control” is becoming a lucrative career. (You mean there is such a thing as a lucrative career without a college degree!!!) Bill traps beaver right here in our county. I had no idea beaver were again re-populating our area, but know that they can become quite destructive for farmers and orchardists. Beaver pelts sell quite high at the moment. Bill eats the meat and says it is quite delicious. He says that otters and bobcats are also increasing in number in this rather urbanized farming country, not to mention wild turkeys and Canada geese. Bill showed me photos of an astounding array of fish he has caught in rural ponds hereabouts, including large muskies (muskellunge), a species few of us ever dreamed would proliferate on their own in Ohio farm ponds. And the number of farm ponds continues to increase.

He also traps for mink and muskrat as so many of us did years ago. Muskrat fur prices are quite high now, going to China as I understand it. He also knows his way around wild mushrooms and herbs like ginseng and goldenseal. Right now, a delicacy called “chicken of the woods” to our mushroom hunters is being harvested (I can see the big oak stump out my office window where a clump of it comes up every year). Some of these fungal clusters weigh as much as fifty pounds each and are almost as good as springtime morels. We picked a meal’s worth of common meadow mushrooms from our lawn in September. Bill has planted wild persimmons and gathers them now too. Another visitor who grew up in southern Indiana coincidentally stopped by just the day before Bill visited, and he said that wild persimmon pudding is a delicacy in his family. And of course there are always hickory nuts and black walnuts to gather this time of year.

As readers on this blog site pointed out recently, squirrel stew is delicious. Young deer, especially does, make good eating too (two yearling deer were standing right beside the clump of chicken-of-the woods this morning) and as the deer herd increases, the state wildlife authorities will surely increase the number that hunters can harvest in a season. (“Harvest” is now the word of choice.) In a rural county like mine, where deer now outnumber cows, venison could become part of our usual diet.

What I am wondering, against all popular opinion, is whether, as wild plant and animal life increases (I even have wild peach and pear trees) the ancient art of food foraging may again become honored in society. Maybe people like Bill will take their rightful place alongside doctors, lawyers, home builders, master mechanics and farmers as valued professionals. I wonder who will be awarded the first PhD in Hunting and Gathering?
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Gene, I´m trying to catch up on your writings. Being a Mother Earth News reader for the last 25 years, I´ve seen comments on your books on the magazine and on the MEN´s website as well.

I have started with the Contrary Farmer a couple weeks ago and now I´m digesting Holy Shit.
Your writings are really inspiring! They are a tribute to whole Creation!

I´m currently living in my homecountry, Brazil. In a mid size town full of milking cows, coffee trees and lots and lots of electronic gadgets.

Wild life is growing back again all over the county (capybaras, boars, wild cats and wild dogs, porcupines – worst than squirrels for eating corn -parrots, toucans, cranes, pigeons…). You name it. But hunting is forbidden, countrywide. Bill would have to find other job and leisure activities to survive here. Would have to fit into the mould that some legislators have designed for him.

Unfortunately Brazil, as a large agricultural “country of the future to be” is a century behind the Contrary Farmer. “Industrial farming” and “grow for profit” are the words of the day. And with Family Farming is shutting down, slums grow rapidly.

Maybe you and Bill would be interested to take a look on how we live around here. We would have lots of interest to hear what you have to teach us. Let me know if you are interested.

    Celio, I have a hard time getting around the states of the United States these days, both from the standpoint of aging and being so totally employed by very much writing. It would be great to visit you, if that’s what you have in mind, but out of the question for me. I feel honored, however, at your interest. Governments will change on the wildlife issue. They will have to. I just noticed an article out of our Ohio State University, pushing the idea of getting more trappers here because of the sudden influx of beaver and otter into Ohio. Both can be quite destructive. The Wildlife people who introduced these things might some day rue the day. Something I just found out. A pair of otters can clean all the fish out of a farm pond in short order. Gene

I’ve gotten so I’d much rather have gound deer meat than ground beef,so many deer here hunters on mine and neighboring farms give me all I can use.Lambs Quarter is great in salads,usually just eat Persimmons as a treat and don’t forget Morels they’re delicious.

I had to overcome a predjudice that came to mind when I read this post. I am sure the fellow you speak of is an ethical person. Here in SE Ohio in the hills – unfortunately – some of the residents are on, well, “the dole” and augment that income from trespassing then pulling the ‘sang’ and goldenseal almost to extinction, and hunting animals in an unethical manner. A side income with no consequences. Some cruise our roads in the boonies here (low population), and shoot squirrels and deer from the window of the pickup truck, gut them and leave the ‘gut bag’ right on the side of the road. Nice sight when you’re on a morning walk. Or they cut out the backstraps, take a rack and leave the rest to rot. Their theory is that if nobody watching, it’s theirs. On the upside. There seems to be few people like that, but they wreak a lot havoc and heartache. I call them two-legged varmints. We’re working for an honest wage, they are on our hard earned properties that we try to protect. Off my soapbox from here, pretty much off the grid.

Two of my favorite wintertime foods are Goose’n’Noodles (homemade egg noodles if you are motivated makes the best) and homemade Goose sausage, where basically I filet the breast meat out of a fresh Canada goose, put it through a meat grinder, and then follow a sort of improvisational journey d’herbs that has so far never failed me. I have had raccoon stuffed and roasted like a turkey that was quite delicious as well.
Also, I have yet to find a meal that a little home-brew stout or brown ale doesn’t compliment quite nicely. Someday, I hope, frugality will again be hailed as an essential human virtue.

Next time I think you need a little home brew to wash down that wonderful bread!

I happened upon a wondrous bloom of Chicken of the Woods back a month ago or so and now have 3+ pounds blanched and frozen in my freezer. It is delicious. Ordered a nutcracker from Lehmans just last week to help me with the pounds and pounds of hickory nuts and walnuts I’m gleaning from the pasture edges. Looking forward to “harvesting” a few wild turkey hens and my limit of whitetail deer off my own farm here in a few weeks. I’m still settling in to south-central Kentucky so this is my first attempt at any of these wild harvestings, although years ago in Colorado I put an entire elk in quart canning jars and ate a delicious spike buck all winter long, so I’m no stranger to the art of processing.

But may I suggest a more apt certification of proficiency in these arts than a doctorate diploma… akin to the badges earned by boy and girl scouts for skills mastered. Myself, I’ve stitched on both my Junior Trailering Badge this summer, and my Junior Cow Handling Badge. Mastering or excelling in similar utilitarian and artisan skills such as Hunting and Gathering, Butchering Wild Game, etc just cry out for the earning of distinct badge levels such as the Scouts use.

After today’s wild chase to corral a pink-eye-infected calf for doctoring, I may need to do some remedial work just to keep my Junior Cow Handling Badge. These distinctions of skill level are hard-earned, and just as easily lost…

    Thistledog, when I was looking forward to retiring from my “real job,” I decided that rather than just wish the time away, I’d teach myself a new homesteading skill each month–some skills took longer of course. But the time passed more pleasantly and I was more prepared for this life when the time came. Yes, it was like earning a girl scout badge, although I’d forgotten all about doing that!

I worked with a fellow in Virginia awhile back that was 82. He ate nothing but wild game for meat that he shot himself. He was in fabulous shape for his age and very active and quite fond of Paso Fino horses. I remember the story he told me about his shooting abilities. 22 squirrels out of 23 shots! Not bad…. He claimed the one he missed was a ‘drought squirrel’ as it was too thin. 🙂


Interesting conversation about work – Bill Bennett (former Drug Czar and Education Czar spekaing with Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” fame. Rowe is absolutely spot on in my opinion.

My late Steve was a Bill until the TWRA hired him. They said they’d rather have him working for them than making his living from hunting and trapping on his own, when sometimes the line between what was legal and what was not became blurred. He also made money by being a hunting and fishing guide. I personally don’t know anyone else like him–practicality, knowledge, love, and reverence of the natural world. He taught me a lot.

This fall I have been gathering persimmons–have been foundering on straight persimmons, persimmon bread, persimmon pie, and persimmon jam. A batch of persimmon mead is also fermenting. This was a very good year for persimmons–not always the case.

Also gathered some passion fruit and made a rather tasteless juice from them–juiced up some watermelon from the garden to go with it and it was then very good. Also black walnuts and rosehips are plentiful. My hickory nuts, when cracked open, had nothing in them this year. Even so, in my part of the country, you’d pretty much have to be an idiot to starve to death.

Wow. That is great. My daughter even found a patch of feral grain (Now that is a concept,) baked some bread from it and planted some of the the seeds in pots to educate her students (She is studying to be a teacher) about grain, plants and food. In my area we don’t have many of the nuts and wild fruits you describe but we do have feral fruit trees, but usually the bears, deer, squirrels and even bighorn sheep consume the fruit. What I’m often amazed at is how much good quality fruit comes from these trees that are not cared for in any way, yet we are surrounded by thousands of acres of very pampered domestic fruit trees wherein there are heroic efforts expended to produce quality fruit. Hmm. I’ve observed a few wild crafters at local farmers markets selling mushrooms and delicious huckleberries (at $55.00 a gallon) from the woods and even our wild version of Chestnuts, the Golden Chinquapin. The Chinquapin nuts are great in soup and I’m sure in other recipes but they seem to be unheralded by the common public. I’m now thinking after reading Gene’s blog the nuts would be good in combination with wild fruit in bread or my favorite, pie.MMmmm.

Count your blessings with the deer. Locally, deer numbers are down becasue someone thought it would be great to raise exotic deer in a farm setting. The problem is however, that the exotic deer brought in a type of louse to which the native deer are susceptible with the result that they itch, scratch like crazy and lose large patches of hair, which precludes the deer, especially fawns and yearling to freezing to death. Combined with a huge increase in predators such as coyotes, cougars and bears, the deer are doing all they can to survive let alone thrive. Although I still hunt for bucks with archery equipment, I’m glad I have home grown meat to fall back on.

I’m looking forward to sampling some of your folk’s types of wild foods because I’ll be visiting my son who lives in Indiana during November. He greatly enjoys collecting the wild mushrooms and hunting tasty squirrels with a 22 rifle or archery gear and hunting abundant whitetail deer.

Wild foods of different regions are indeed varied and often abundant and tasty as are other resources such as animals for hunting ad trapping. The only problem is dependability, some years the harvest of wild foods is rather meager, but then that is why farming was invented. However, as we’ve found to our dismay, sometimes even high-tech farming doesn’t provide much food either. So it seems intelligent humans should encourage both sustainable farming and conservation of wild resources. I think to be able to hunt and gather and to farm is in large part what makes us human. More power to the Bills in the world.

Come on, Gene — no one is going to be awarded a Ph.D in Hunting/Gathering! That would mean the ivory-tower folks would have to admit that it’s possible to be extremely well-educated without attending their institutions (did you know that the word institution is a synonym for asylum?) of lower learning:-) Although I am quite well-educated, I learned much more in the real world and through books than I ever learned in the world of school. While I have the greatest of respect for those who really care about learning and not just about regurgitating what the teacher stuffs in or maintaining the party line, in my experience, too many folks are well-educated on paper but can’t think their way out of a paper bag. Great post. Let’s hear it for the Bills of this world!

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