Taking up arms in order to take down dinner is no easy feat in our modern world of mixed messages and changing demographics, particularly for those of us who didn’t inherit the culture of hunting at birth.
Tovar Cerulli and Georgia Pellegrini give us hunting rookies hope. Both came to the hunt later in life, not as a rite of passage but through an adult choice. One was a vegan starved for protein; the other, a former chef who wanted to live closer to the bones she made into stock. Their experiences, told in The Mindful Carnivore and Girl Hunter, are instructive for a new generation of would-be hunters.
Cerulli stopped eating meat after dispatching one too many brook trout as a young man. In a land of such plenty, it seemed somehow immoral to take a life. His vegetarianism led to veganism and finally, years later, to a trip to the doctor, who advised him to start reintroducing animal protein for health reasons. “I had more energy, felt more alive,” he writes of his change in diet. His philosophical qualms were not so easily assuaged, however, so he resolved to kill and butcher his own meat—humanely, and with deference to the environment. Fortunately for Cerulli, he had mentors to ease him on the path. Along the way he reminds us of the many ironies that attend contemporary discourse on hunting and meat-eating (for instance, deer are routinely killed to protect organic crops). Trying to live in harmony with our bodies and the natural world is harder than most people want to believe.
Pellegrini’s journey is one that will resonate with foodies determined to know where their sustenance is sourced—and how. Killing your own, after all, is the ultimate expression of this desire. She gives up a plum job in the wilds of Wall Street to go to cooking school, and one day finds herself faced with the sort of predatory act that is consistent with her new line of work: slaughtering turkeys. “The experience awakened a dormant, primal part of me,” she writes.
And so both Cerulli and Pellegrini embark on age-old transformations, learning what it means to be at the top of the food chain. Cerulli’s journey is mostly set in the Vermont woods of his home, where he patiently learns how to kill and eat the big game with the biggest payoff for a hunter trying to live in harmony with nature: white-tailed deer. Pellegrini’s journey is more episodic and includes far-flung hunting expeditions in pursuit of a variety of feathered and furred game and with a variety of mentors, a few of whom turn out to be less than savory. Both Cerulli and Pellegrini address head-on the popular image of the “redneck hunter,” but Pellegrini has personal run-ins with this species, and even in more upscale environs she confronts sexism and menace. Conscientious hunters will bridle at some of the situations she unwittingly falls into while trying to gain experience. She endures more than a couple canned hunts, and at one point gets bamboozled by a poacher. Implicit is the danger that faces a woman in an arena largely governed by men.
The ethics of hunting is a recurring motif in both books (and for those who want to delve deeply into this tricky realm, Cerulli recommends books by Ted Kerasote). What do we make of the fancy Texas “hunting” ranch, for instance, where the game is all exotic and hardly prepared for anything resembling the doctrine of “fair chase”? Or notions of the Great White Hunter in Africa (Pellegrini reminds us that trophy hunting pays for much needed conservation in poorer countries)? Or, closer to home for most hunters, the wounded animal that escapes only to suffer a long, drawn-out death? This latter conundrum is one of the events that weighed on my own mind after a hunt in Arkansas.
The point is, this hunting thing ain’t easy. About the moment of ultimate truth, Cerulli writes:
Holding the deer’s torn-in-two heart in my hand, I knew that oblivion had come swiftly. It was the shot I had hoped for: no more than a few seconds of shock, no time for pain to take hold. It was easier than most other ways a deer’s life was likely to end: in cold and starvation, across a car’s front end, at the teeth of four-footed predators. Yet that swiftness did nothing to alter the raw fact. I had killed this graceful creature.
Beginner and experienced hunters alike will find much to admire in these soul-searching accounts of learning how to kill for meat. Even though the authors are after somewhat different game—Cerulli wants to provide for his table while, as the title of her book implies, Pellegrini wants to take a seat at a table that was until recently not even available to her gender—the heart of the matter is how to live and eat honestly.