Friday, September 23, 2011

Wild Cooking!

There’s a new blog for all my chow-lovin’ friends to look at! “Woods to Food” follows on the trail blazed by blogger Julie Powell in her famous “Julie/Julia Project,” and other cookbook-guided blogs like “Nose to Tail at Home,” “French Laundry at Home,” and the sadly disappeared “Georgia on My Thighs.” (That last one was going to be based on a Paula Deen cookbook; wonder what happened to it?)

But in “Woods to Food,” bloggers Fred and Ann Koenig aren’t grabbing headlines by challenging themselves to cook their way through some big TV-celebrity chef’s national best-selling cookbook—instead, they’re going native, going local, and that’s why their project is so very, very cool!

They’re not just going to talk about making the recipes; they will also tell the stories of hunting, fishing, and foraging the comestibles their dinner comprises!

The cookbook upon which this blog is based is a new (2011) publication by the Missouri Department of Conservation, Cooking Wild in Missouri: Savoring the Show-Me State’s Game, Fish, Nuts, Fruits, and Mushrooms, by Bernadette Dryden. Dryden recently retired from the publications branch of the MDC, and for years she’s been a leader of the local “Katy Trail” chapter of Slow Foods, not to mention a true Queen of the Kitchen.

(Look, I’m not putting in all these hyperlinks for my health: Check them out!)

Have you been holed up in a little cabin for several months, and the letter carrier’s not delivering your free copies of the Missouri Conservationist? Well, let me fill you in. Cooking Wild is a wild foods cookbook for twenty-first-century America. Yep, it uses foods that were hunted, hooked, or plucked from our own Missouri landscapes, but it approaches them with a global palate and an eclectic pantry. You might need to head to St. Louis for some of the ingredients, even if you only need to go as far as the back forty for the entrées themselves.

Here are some of the recipes, to give you an idea of the level of “foodiness” we’re talking about:
  • Moroccan spice-braised venison
  • Pawpaw frozen yogurt gelato
  • Cioppino, made with bluegill and largemouth bass, shrimp and mussels, and, optional, crayfish (some of this seafood isn’t quite local!)
  • Bass-and-crappie spring rolls
  • Papassinos, made using pecans or hickory nuts (What are papassinos? Well, get the book and find out!)
There are plenty of less “exotic” dishes, such as “wild turkey dropped-biscuit pie,” but throughout, the emphasis is on an elevated, sophisticated cuisine—which of course is incredibly popular right now.

Now, when you go to buy yourself a copy of Cooking Wild in Missouri, you might find yourself confronted with a choice, because there’s an excellent chance that right there next to Dryden’s two-hundred-page, full-color volume will be a humble copy of Cy Littlebee’s Guide to Cooking Fish and Game. Written by Werner O. Nagel, who was also a longtime MDC employee, this cookbook, like Dryden’s, is published by the Missouri Department of Conservation. (Actually, it was the “Missouri Conservation Commission” back in 1960 when it first came out—it’s now in its seventeenth printing!)

Nagel’s book has certainly stood the test of time. “Cy Littlebee” isn’t exactly an “author”; he was a character Nagel invented to represent an ordinary, down-home, rural Missourian, and the Conservationist used to carry his entertaining columns as a regular feature. You don’t see much written these days in Ozark vernacular (as opposed to garden-variety “Suth’un”), so it’s a treat to bathe in the grammar and cadences of old-time Missouri dialect.

“Cy” apparently was well-known in his day, but I suppose Missourians have mostly forgotten him now. (Pity.)

Here is a sample of the writing style, from the section on cooking rabbit: “You take a state where from four to six million rabbits is eat in a year, not counting tame rabbits nor any shipped in, and all you can figger is that either a lot of folks likes some rabbit, or some folks like lots of rabbit” (p. 30). (I’ll bet Nagel and Vance Randolph knew a lot of the same people!)

The Littlebee cookbook represents a base camp for cooking wild foods; its recipes, hardly changed since settler days, were certainly passed down from farmwife to daughter to granddaughter, from hunter to son to grandson. This small volume presents many recipes by women (yeah, mostly women) who sent in their best wild-game dishes. These are “good- ol’” recipes, like “baked rabbit,” “fried groundhog,” and that venerable southern favorite, “opossum and sweet potatoes.” Naturally there are a lot of venison recipes, but there’s even a recipe for skunk!

So which book do you get? Do you get the one that represents a rich tradition, our true, elemental, cultural roots, the simple cuisine endemic to our nation and our region? Or do you get the exciting, fresh, globally inspired cookbook that “figgers” the sky’s the limit? Decisions, decisions!

Well, fortunately, the answer is simple: You buy both! Dryden’s volume sells for $15, and Nagel’s little chestnut is just $3.50 a copy. So you can get both for under twenty bucks.

And then, when you have the other kind of “bucks,” then you’ll know how to fix them!

Meanwhile, let’s stay tuned to the Koenigs’ cooking adventure!


annbumbly said...

My mom had purchased that wonderful cookbook, and when I was home for a visit, we made the trout cakes. They were over-the-top delicious! My daughter who now lives in Columbia has vowed to "cook the book" , too!

Julianna Schroeder said...

Ann, I hope you and your daughter will get in touch with the Koenigs so you can compare notes! It sounds like a really fun journey.

Thanks for commenting,