On the first Saturday of May, an outdoor plaza in Boise bustles with hunters and anglers working quickly to prepare dishes for a slate of judges. The competitors will be scored on presentation, creativity, taste, and in a twist on the usual culinary competition, how effectively their dishes represent the landscapes from which they are sourced: This cookoff is focused on wild foods, with no domesticated meat allowed. All dishes feature ingredients hunted and gathered from the home ground of the teams, who represent Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) chapters from around the country.
The cook-off is now a staple feature of BHA’s annual Rendezvous event, a gathering that attracts well over 1,000 attendees. Hundreds show up to watch the teams prepare and serve their dishes; a small group of judges — this year including U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) — circulates, learning about and trying each dish.
There’s venison and fish of all kinds, of course, but other dishes feature lovingly prepared squirrel, grouse, barnacles, oyster mushrooms. Last year, a team from Alaska brought bowhead whale, sourced from Utqiaġvik. This year, the Michigan team went for venison pasties with a cherry and morel sauce, served alongside trout and wild rice. Arizona, represented by Johnathan O’Dell and Michael Cravens, won for the second year in a row for a dish of antelope jackrabbit tacos alongside elote-style cholla cactus buds, bacon-seasoned rattlesnake, and a “Phoenix margarita.”
The cook-off’s meticulously crafted dishes challenge an assumption inherent in American meat consumption: that game meat isn’t considered a particularly desirable meal. The word “venison” can cause otherwise easygoing eaters to turn up their noses, assuming they’re about to consume something tough and chewy with an off-putting flavor. “Everybody who has an elder in their life who hunted deer in the ’70s knows that horrible, overcooked fried venison cutlet,” says hunter and chef Hank Shaw. Squirrel? Forget it.
Wild game doesn’t ascribe to the platonic ideal many of us have about what makes a quality cut of meat — wild game animals don’t live the kind of cozy, pastured life that people associate with expensive beef cattle. Meat that tastes “off,” or too wild, is described as “gamey.” Game meat is low on fat, and because game animals eat a wild diet, it often tastes like the ecosystem from which it came.
But to many hunters, that connection to an ecosystem is the point. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, after all, isn’t a food organization. It’s a conservation group, a growing advocacy arm of the sportsmen and sportswomen’s community driven by a politically diverse membership — largely young people — passionate about public lands and wildlife. The connection between hunting and advocacy might not seem immediately clear, but in much of the United States, hunting hinges on access to public lands, as well as functioning ecosystems and healthy wildlife populations. Many sportsmen and sportswomen will speak readily about the personal connection — sometimes even identification — that they feel with the animals they hunt.
It’s no accident, then, that food is so central to Rendezvous, and the restaurant-level quality of the dishes on hand reflects a shared respect for food as “the most long-held spiritual connection to wild places,” in the words of BHA board chair Ryan Busse.
“There isn’t a dinner on the planet, regardless of price, that has any more authenticity and labor involved,” Busse says of the Rendezvous cook-off. The event is particularly fun “for a lot of us who grew up thinking and being told that wild game, a pheasant you shot, was a compromised food,” he adds. “It’s good. It’s exquisite. It’s not a compromise.”
When the topic of hunting comes up, many non-hunters picture rec rooms full of taxidermy and incessant talk of trophy bucks, but nearly all hunting in America is, at a basic level, hunting for food. Today’s hunting laws often even require retrieval of meat from game animals as a condition of a legal hunt. To kill an elk and leave its unbutchered body in the mountains is illegal. Worse, to most hunters it’s unethical, unthinkable.
But that narrative is often lost to a mainstream hunting culture focused more on “how giant my deer’s antlers are,” says Mahting Putelis, founder and owner of the apparel company Hunt To Eat. In this mold, a ”bigger and better” trophy is an easy metric of success, and probably not surprising in the context of 20th-century capitalism: Hunting “to eat” may be a reality, but subsistence has rarely been marketable. “I’ll be the first one to tell you that ‘hunt to eat’ is not a novel idea,” Putelis says. “It is the original idea. The original hunter wasn’t out there just to kill the thing; he was out there hunting to get the protein.” But, he continues, “in the last 30 to 40 years, the storytelling around hunting for food has lost all of its romance. It didn’t sell.” And for the increasing numbers of Americans who didn’t hunt, emphasis on “trophy” narratives over food led to a basic, yet pervasive, misunderstanding about what motivates hunters.
Putelis founded Hunt To Eat to reflect and represent his actual experiences as a hunter—the deep, visceral connections forged with the place his food comes from. As the company has grown, Putelis has increasingly connected with conservation organizations, many of them newer groups (BHA, Artemis Sportswomen, Sportsmen for the Boundary Waters), and others older (National Wildlife Federation affiliates). But the groups partnered with Hunt To Eat tend to have in common a commitment to creating more diversified, ecologically conscious hunting narratives. These groups speak about the passion and respect for wildlife and wildlands that hunting builds in hunters — aspects of hunting culture that have, until recently, been less visible than the marketable “big buck” narrative.
Reportage about “hunting to eat” as a trend suggests that upstart young hunters — millennials — are the ones behind it. It’s true that after decades of declining hunter participation, the recruitment of new millennial hunters is an important component of sustaining and strengthening a hunting legacy. As an “adult-onset” hunter, I’m happy to be a part of that cohort. But positioning millennial hunters as the enlightened new other hunters, a departure from the hunters of old, has always struck me as a little shallow.
Not to mention that that narrative erases the cultural importance of hunting — and long-held hunting practices — that exist within indigenous communities. And it entirely ignores the existence of people who think of hunted meat as an economic necessity. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Association, there were 11.5 million hunters in the U.S. in 2016, though it’s hard to find precise statistics that reveal how many of that number hunt solely or primarily for subsistence. That “millennials will save hunting” narrative also flattens hunted meat’s role in relieving food insecurity across the United States.
I grew up crabbing and fishing, and I ate a lot of game meat before I became a hunter. When my now-husband and I were young, broke, and living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Cheyenne, my brother-in-law would periodically deposit antelope and elk into our freezer. It was a winter of eating almost nothing but venison and other game that ultimately led me to buy my first hunting license. I went on my first bird hunt in 2011, and my first elk hunt a few years later.
“The number-one reason any new person is going to go hunting is the food,” Putelis says. The role of food in hunter recruitment is especially powerful among women, Busse noted in our conversation — and women are hunting’s fastest-growing demographic. Beyond just attracting people to begin hunting, food can play a powerful role in retaining new hunters. “It was an adventure to start eating wild game. It’s a whole new experience,” says Mandy Nelson, a millennial who was half of last year’s winning Rendezvous cookoff team from Arizona BHA. “It makes me want to go out and hunt more, and get different kinds of meat.”
The truth is, hunting is richer, deeper, and more rewarding than the old trophy-mount stereotypes might have led non-hunters to believe: Hunting is about building a culture and kinship ties that sustain you during a time when Americans feel more isolated than ever; about being intimately, personally connected to your food during a time when we are largely disconnected from food production systems; and about feeling an immediate relationship to the ecosystems that support you at a time when we spend less and less time outside.
When I came to hunting as someone motivated by my desire to source my own food and deepen my relationship to the wildlands I loved to explore, I was following in the footsteps of every other hunter who ever came before me. “Hunting to eat” is not just a search for “ethical” or “sustainable” meat — it’s about a connection to an experience, a place, a blood tie to the ecosystems that support our daily lives.
On a cold October morning last year, I had a mule deer in my rifle scope, and was preparing to gently squeeze the trigger. I felt almost lightheaded with anticipation and anxiety — this was my first season hunting deer, and finally, I’d come to a real opportunity to put venison in the freezer. I had watched this buck through binoculars from the top of a hill a few hundred yards away, and as the sun ever so gradually started to rise, I’d slowly, slowly crept downhill toward him with my .308 slung over my shoulder. I’d been careful; I hadn’t given myself away to him.
When I was sure I was well in range with a shot that I could make, I’d sat, set up my rifle on my knee, and watched the deer for a long while. Ostensibly, I was waiting for him to turn broadside so that I could take an easy heart-lung shot — the cleanest, most humane way to shoot an animal. But even when he finally turned, I waited even longer. I watched how he glowed almost golden in the cold morning sun, how he browsed curiously in the sagebrush. Eventually, I fixed my aim on a little patch of fur behind his shoulder and tried to focus on controlling my breathing.
I squeezed the trigger gently, evenly, and aiming all the while. I’d always been told to be easy enough pulling the trigger that you don’t flinch anticipating the shot, to let the shot surprise you — that morning, it did. The deer dropped; I felt a wash of relief coupled with a sudden flush of adrenaline. Without so much as waving uphill to my friends and husband who waited above me, I began to cross the distance toward the deer. I needed, as soon as possible, to reach his body. On one level, this was because I wanted to be very sure that the animal I had taken had died cleanly, and if not, to quickly end its suffering. But on a deeper, more primitive level, I simply needed to see and feel the animal — to reach the place where I had taken a life, to sit and feel awe, and to give thanks.
The deer season where I was hunting was short, and I’d really wanted to bring home meat. So I hadn’t come out alone; I happened to be hunting hills that were relatively new to me (“a place somewhere in western Wyoming,” we’ll say, to obscure the precise ridgelines and map points that guide us to our secret, favorite spots), and I was with a friend who knew that country well. He had stalked toward the deer with me, sat near me as I set up my shot. My husband was on that hunt, too — paying back the help I gave to him processing his deer earlier in the season.
Though plenty of hunters like to go out and hunt alone, most spend some significant portion of the hunting season in the company of other hunters, sharing camp, or comparing knowledge and spinning yarns, maybe even helping each other out with the labor associated with a hunt. Although she wasn’t present on that day, another friend ultimately knew the very deer I’d killed, had a photo of him when his antlers were still covered in fuzzy velvet. She’d spent a fair amount of time watching him during the lengthy bow season she spent following a different deer.
This is the culture into which new millennial hunters, seeking out sustainable meat for the table, are entering — one in which meat is ethically sourced, yes, but also representative of place, labor, time, and community. Hunting is work, especially for those who pack into the backcountry to challenge themselves and to take time to observe and admire wild animals: Meat represents hours, days, sometimes weeks spent in the field. Even if you shoot a deer in someone’s backyard, field dressing an animal and then processing the meat is no easy task — if you opt to do it yourself, butchering an elk, for example, can occupy the better part of a couple days. I have a friend who describes the volume of his meat freezer in number of days of labor represented. “Filling your freezer” isn’t always accomplished by putting a rifle to your shoulder, either — you might fail to kill an animal yourself, but wind up with meat in your freezer because you helped a friend lug hundreds of pounds of meat out of the mountains.
Before last year, I’d always casually opined that I preferred eating elk to deer. But after eating backstrap (the strip loin) from my 2018 deer grilled simply, with salt and pepper and oil, I had to reevaluate. The taste of that deer meat was perfect: savory, tender, flavorful. With each bite, I thought of the deer from which the meat had come and the vivid beauty of the wild landscape where he’d died.
Last year’s deer helped feed my husband and I through the long Wyoming winter and fitful spring, and even made an appearance at a Fourth of July cookout. I’ve cooked steaks, meatballs, stews, roasts, curries, tacos, stir fries with his meat. Each time I sit at the table with one of those dishes, I touch at least a small, fleeting piece of the morning that brought the deer to my plate — the smells, colors, the bite of October wind, the rolling sagebrush. I taste and savor it again.
Filling the freezer could take one shot and days’ — sometimes weeks’ — worth of preparation. But what does an eager, ecologically conscious hunter actually do with that meat once they have it?
Since 2007, Hank Shaw has been running a website dedicated to wild food, anything that “walks, flies, swims, crawls, skitters, jumps — or grows.” He calls himself an “omnivore who has solved his dilemma,” a reference to the Michael Pollan book. Shaw has also written numerous wild game cookbooks; I own them, and they changed my life. His recipes and techniques taught me not to simply copy beef and chicken recipes for venison and game birds — “a ditch chicken” (a colloquial term for a pheasant) “is not a chicken,” he notes. More than that, his work empowered me to think more ambitiously about my own diet: to try more things, seek out new opportunities to harvest game, to fish and forage. Ultimately, it was paging through his recipes that led me to imagine that I could feed myself primarily on the meat that my husband and I harvest — something we actually managed to do this year.
Shaw has long been in the business of showing hunters new possibilities for their harvest. Often, he tries to turn attention to a frequently overlooked part of an animal, such as shanks or wings. It’s unusual for hunters to prepare them the way he does, but if you could have turkey wings Shaw’s way, “you’d kill as many wild turkeys as you could to get to the wings.”
The dishes that Shaw produces are tantalizing, gorgeous. Kansas pheasant with nopales and masa dumplings, drunken squirrel with pumpkin dumplings, maple-glazed turkey meatballs — a dish I would have attempted had I not been completely ghosted by the turkeys of the Black Hills on my first-ever turkey hunt this spring. But “I’m not necessarily always doing those fancy chef-y dishes,” Shaw clarifies. “I’m teaching you how to fry your damn fish right.” It only takes a few very simple things to do your wild-game meal well; he focuses on those, communicating techniques that are accessible but sometimes novel and revelatory for the average hunter. “I’m not a fancy eater,” he says. “Whatever it is you do, do it right.”
Due to the work of Shaw, influential outdoorsmen like Steven Rinella (MeatEater), and groups like BHA, the visibility and appeal of game meat is growing. More social media exposure for wild foods and the means by which they’re prepared doesn’t hurt, either.
“We live in a really polarized world,” Shaw says. “Urban people and rural people barely know … each other.” And that has consequences, including that new hunters from both urban or suburban areas “come into the pursuit with an idea that people in rural areas or who have been hunting their whole lives somehow disrespect the animal.” (The “trophy” narrative certainly didn’t help.)
But it’s hard to imagine anyone who sees a clip from the BHA cookoff coming away with that impression. Contestants move quickly but thoughtfully, cautiously preparing the limited stash of game meat they have available. They plate their dishes beautifully. Some speak of the respect they hope to confer to the specific animal they are serving. The visibility that comes with events like this is important when hunters are “fighting for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Americans,” as Shaw puts it. Misconceptions abound: “I guarantee, you have approached a non-hunter, and that non-hunter wanted to know if you eat what you hunt.” (He’s right.) “Because,” he explains, “the default answer [for them] is no, and when you say yes — they’re relieved.”
For Shaw, the best way that we can bridge the gap between hunters and non-hunters is through personal connection. Putelis has seen wild game forge those kinds of connections, and believes that the intimacy inherent in the food being served is part of its power, its ability to create a bridge in understanding. “There’s something personal and proud about serving meat that you killed yourself,” he says. “To be able to have friends over and say, ‘Here’s this amazing thing. It came from the field to you, through me.’” It’s in moments like that, over antelope tacos or roasted grouse, when non-hunters can glimpse the deep connection to wild places that hunters bring to the table. Last November, a friend signed up for his hunter’s education class not long after coming to my all-game-meat Thanksgiving. The dishes my husband and I cooked turned out well (again, thank you, Hank Shaw), but more than that, I think it was the joy we shared in serving the food and the tangible remembrance of the hunts and the animals who fed us that were most compelling.
“Taking [my] first elk is the most spiritual experience I’ve had in my entire life,” remembers Putelis. “The closest I’ve ever felt to God, or the idea of God.” Then, Putelis says, he experienced the strangest thing: the elk became meat. “As soon as that animal’s hide came off… it just made sense, the parts and pieces.”
And I remember that too: I thought of that morning in the hills approaching my mule deer, how I dropped to my knees and cried when I reached him, stroking his warm body, looking outward as dawn spilled over the ridgelines surrounding me. I thought of the blood up to my elbows, cutting into and through the body; how days later I’d stay up late butchering the meat, how elated and tired I felt through every step of the process — and most overwhelmingly, how grateful. Those were all feelings that touched me again when I marinated and stir-fried meat from the hind quarter of that deer for a recent weeknight dinner.
That “hunting to eat” isn’t radical for hunters might be a surprise to some outside the hunting community. But those are the misconceptions that can be solved by conversation — maybe even a conversation over Kansas pheasant or jackrabbit tacos, or a simple sous vide elk tenderloin. After all, says Busse, “You can weave [wild game] into your life… The cook-off is just a manifestation of what we do everyday in our homes.”
Though I’m not evangelical about it, the more time I spend in the field pursuing my own hunting experiences and learning from other hunters, the more I find myself looking for opportunities to bring wild game to open-minded non-hunters. I wear my excitement about hunting, and my love for the diversity of wild food options in my freezer, on my sleeve in conversations with friends and strangers alike (I apologize in advance if you ever have to sit next to me on an airplane). Talking about cooking wild game as an exciting and rewarding enterprise is important, I think; I want it to feel normal to eat and serve wild food at dinner parties and potlucks, no matter where you live. I want it to feel accessible to go into the sagebrush or mountains and come home with food.
No amount of recipe-swapping will ever diminish the magic of hunting, or the emotional and spiritual alchemy of sitting beside an animal’s body in grief and celebration. On the contrary, food has the visceral power to cut a path back to the wildlands each time a piece of deer, rabbit, or even rattlesnake makes its way to a plate. In the end, that’s exactly what makes a wild meal truly special: the immediate, everyday connection to an ecosystem, and to the humbling fact of mortality, that is unavoidable when game meat is served at the table.
Kristen Gunther lives in Lander, Wyoming with her husband and two bird dogs, and works as a conservation advocate; she holds a PhD in ecology and MFA in creative writing.
Francisco Galarraga is a freelance painter and illustrator living in Quito, Ecuador.
Fact-checked by Andrea López Cruzado