Tuesday, May 31, 2011

ALONE: My harrowing real-life survival story

One of the reasons I love hunting is the sense it gives me that if everything went to hell - I'm talking a massive collapse of civilization - I might actually be able to survive.

What I didn't realize until recently, though, is that survival situations can come in many forms.

Then, on May 15, Hank headed out for the first leg of his "Hunt, Gather, Cook" book tour, and my real-life survival story began.

What happened, you ask? I'll tell you: This guy's been cooking for me pretty much every day for the better part of the last four years. He has completely domesticated me, and that, my friends, has left me virtually unable to feed myself. (Yes, you read that correctly. It's all his fault.)

I moped for a while after he left. Nature rewarded me with a massive thunderstorm, complete with hail - a fitting soundtrack to my self-pity.

Then the skies cleared, my stomach growled and I asked the question: What next?

Step one: Assess your food supply.

I opened the door of the refrigerator and found it was almost empty, except for beer, a half-drunk bottle of wine and condiments (which, in our case, means stuff like small vats of duck fat and jars of strange green things oddly mislabeled "cranberries").

But wait, what was this cardboard box?

Oh yeah! Hank had taught a sausage-making class in Sausalito the day before he left, and we'd come home with leftovers. Awesome. I love sausage.

I opened the box, and discovered, to my horror, that they were not cooked sausages. Oh no. How the hell do you cook these things?

Momentarily stumped, I decided to go over the photos I'd taken the day before to see if there were any clues.

Cracking dirty jokes about sausage making? No, that won't work.

Expounding? No, no, no - that doesn't generate enough heat.

Then, I saw it:

There it is, in the background: a frying pan.

That sight was enough to jog my memory - I distinctly recalled Hank telling the sausage students, "Slow and low - you can never cook sausage for too long."

So, I broke out a frying pan, turned the heat down really low, then dropped a link in there, and I'll be damned if 45 minutes later I didn't have a totally delicious, perfectly cooked sausage.

That knowledge - and that cache of links - kept me going for a good three days. I even took the extra step of browning rice in the fat that remained in the pan before tossing it in the rice cooker. I was delighted with my ingenuity.

Step two: Forage for foods you know are safe.

I may not know how to cook, but I do know how to drive, so I got my butt to Costco and looked for survival food, and there it was: peanut butter! Organic, creamy, Kirkland-brand peanut butter. In a two-pack, no less!

In the cart it went, and voila! All I had to do with this stuff was stir, then dip a big fat spoon into the jar. Healthy, nutrient-dense - ahhhhhhh. That got me through the next several days' lunchtimes.

Step three: OK, go find some real food.

Peanut butter gets old fast, so I started longing for one of the staples of our kitchen: roasted duck.

I remembered roasting ducks. Yes, I've actually done it! I even have a recipe on this site. It's so easy: Brown it in a cast-iron pan, roast it until the breast meat hits 135 degrees, remove from oven and cover with foil for five minutes, then EAT.

First, I had to find a duck. Given that it was May, I knew I couldn't legally go out to kill one, so where's the next best place?

The freezer!

I trooped out to the garage and dug through a baffling array of frozen meats. Gizzards. Livers. Unidentified sausages. Goose breasts - closer! Then, I saw it: A grocery bag full of frozen ducks.

Bufflehead? Oh, heavens no. I mean, I shot it, but Hank says buffleheads can taste fishy. I'll leave that one for him.

"Gadwall with stinky butt?" Ooooooh, yeah, I remembered that one. Very stinky duck. Also beyond my skill level. Good thing Hank labeled it.

Then I found it: "fat gadwall." This I could do.

I defrosted the duck, browned it, and popped it in the oven. After 10 or 12 minutes, I went to check it with a meat thermometer and


I texted Hank. WTF, did you take the meat thermometer with you?

He texted back. Yes. Deal.

A meat thermometer. On book tour. What, was he cooking the books?

So I guessed and took it out then. After I let the bird rest, I sliced into it and saw it had come out a bit rare. No, a lot rare. Gadwall sushi, anyone? But I just popped it back in the oven for a few more minutes, and it was fine.

The next day I bought a cheap meat thermometer at the supermarket. Then I ate duck every day for the next six days - roasted one day, leftovers the next.

But that wasn't all I ate. I had rice too. Browned in duck fat first, of course.

Step four: Mastering the kitchen.

After eating all those ducks, I now had quite a collection of duck carcasses. I saved them in part because I was raised by parents who grew up in the Great Depression, which made me loathe to throw away food. But there was something else.

A smell.

The smell of the house during duck season. Warm, almost spicy.

That's it! When Hank broke down ducks during duck season, he always roasted the bones and then made broth with them. Mmmmmm. Broth. Delicious by itself, or you could use it to jazz up other cooking.

How does one make broth, though? I had a vague impression: roasted bones, water, onion, celery, carrots. I'd tried it once before, sans recipe, and it hadn't come out well. So I asked myself: What would Hank do?

What would Hank do? Holy cow, he writes a food blog! He's probably blogged about EXACTLY how to make broth.

I ran to my computer and hit a few links on his site, and there it was: Dark Duck Broth. I printed it out. Gasped when a second sheet of paper came out of the printer. Two pages??? Then ran back to the kitchen.

First, I had to forage for ingredients. Onion? Check. Garlic? Check. Fennel? No thanks. Celery? Rubbery, but check. Rosemary? All over the front yard. Red wine vinegar? Check. Red wine? Check. Tomato paste? Check.

I popped all my bones in the roasting pan, then into the oven, and started assembling and prepping the other ingredients. When I got to the can of tomato paste, I dug for the can opener, then tried to attach it to the can properly. Then fumbled. Repeatedly.

Wow. I had actually forgotten how to use our can opener.

I'm choosing to spin that in a good way - we just don't have many canned goods in the house. I usually have to make special purchases to donate to canned food drives during the holidays.

After several tries, I figured it out. Yes, just like I figured out how to cook sausage, buy peanut butter and find ducks in the freezer. I was getting the hang of this survival stuff.

Next, I needed a tablespoon of peppercorns. I opened the spice cupboard, which is so full of bags and jars and tins of whole spices that they all threaten to fall out every time you open the door. But not one of these containers had peppercorns.

Time to text Hank. Are we out of peppercorns?

Hank: They should be in the cupboard.

Me: They're not.

Hank: Adapt and overcome.

Oh I HATE it when he says that.

I picked up the pepper grinder and gave it a crank and it became clear that was empty too.

Do you see why Hank's not in charge of buying toilet paper? Sheesh.

Oh well, screw pepper. I kept going, tending to the burbling broth pot all night, through a phone call with a student, a phone call with my mother and at least one episode of the Real Housewives of New Jersey. When I was ready for bed, I removed the bones and veggies, poured the broth through a strainer lined with cheesecloth, and gave it a taste.

Hot damn, it was good!

I felt accomplished. I'd gone from recoiling at the sight of uncooked sausages to making my own broth from scratch, despite tragic obstacles like the absence of pepper. And now I had a bunch of broth to cook with!

I'm gonna make some damn fine rice with that.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Elise said...

Suffering succotash Holly!

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

It's 'Holly of the wild frontier' LOL

Holly Heyser said...

Suffering is right, Elise! Despite my miraculous survival, though, I'm still counting the days 'til he comes home.

SBW, don't you know it.

Shewee woman said...

Holly, Hank has truly spoiled you, but I think you will have a new appreciation for him upon his arrival. I could send out my kids and then you would have three teenagers staring at you waiting and wondering what you will whip up for dinner. Nothing like a little pressure. :-0

I am glad you prevailed, and I am disappointed Hanks tour is only coming as far east as Pittsburgh in PA.
Love your stories...... keep them coming!

Hil said...

DO let us know when you find out why he took the meat thermometer on a book tour. :)

Mike Dwyer said...

Great post Holli! I have been wondering how you were doing with Hank gone. I suspect my wife would have a similar story if I were to leave. What is it with you modern women letting us men do all of the cooking for you? Is this what Gloria Steinem had in mind? For shame!

Maybe you should start foraging on your weekly hikes? If not, let us know and we'll overnight you some frozen pizzas. LOL!

Nora H. said...

Fantastic post! Can't wait to read the next one.

neonaura@comcast.net said...

Proud of you Holly. Looks like you rose to the occasion.

I am not the creative cook in our household either and when hubby leaves, there is a realization that a new survivor focus better kick in soon or I'm in trouble. I guess it's good for us (every once in a while).

Chris Lewis

Holly Heyser said...

Shewee: Hank's tour isn't all set in stone - he's still doing a lot of arranging - so there's hope. I know he's doing something in Providence - is that closer to you?

Hil: He says he took the thermometer for fish. I've never seen him stick a thermometer in fish before. But then again, I don't spend that much time in the kitchen (or at the grill).

Mike: I actually did some foraging at one point - found some puffballs on my daily walking route. But I'm told they're very boring - best eaten battered and deep fried. And I draw the line right there - I am NOT breaking out the deep fryer.

Nora: Thanks!

Chris: The good news is I'm content with simple eating. Most of the greens I've eaten while he's been gone I ate sitting on the edge of a raised bed in the garden, eating stuff as I pick it. And a big spoonful of peanut butter really will take me a long way.

Here's the saddest part, though: I used to cook all the time. We divided kitchen time pretty much 50-50. But he's always been the better cook, and once he began writing about his food, he had a legitimate business need to hog the kitchen. So I let him. Now every time I open a cupboard, it's like a foreign country to me.

jryoung said...

A two pack of peanut butter from Costco, what's that like five or six gallons? ;)

Josh said...

Great story, and even funnier when read aloud to family.

Holly Heyser said...

Oooh, good thing I kept the pottymouth in check!

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, JR, they're actually normal sized peanut butter jars. Surprisingly.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Ha! I love it. You're a true survivalist now.

Holly Heyser said...

Maybe not. I have one last serving of rice and leftover duck, and for some reason I've been in no hurry to eat it. Perhaps I've met the limits of my tolerance for no variety...

Phillip said...

There's always McSatan's or TacoHell. ;-)

Ingrid said...

We have the opposite situation here. Hugh's on the road 50 percent of the year or more, but when I'm on a business trip and he's home alone, I return to a pristine kitchen ... maybe one coffee mug in the sink. I don't have any delusions he's been cooking or even looking for peppercorns. So, I would say soup stock is pretty damned admirable, Holly! :)

Holly Heyser said...

Phillip, I resisted fast food chains, though I did succumb once to rotisserie chicken at Raleys.

Ingrid, the pristine kitchen is nice - I'm enjoying it. But I'd rather have Hank home than have a tidy countertop without him.

Anonymous said...

Great Post Holly! I sympathize and understand - when Mark's away I usually eat soba and greens. I'm pretty good at boiling water...

Richard Mellott said...

There is a good reason you are a survivalist! You can live on practically nothing! I salute your endurance, and persistence, in the face of adversity and solitary confinement!

Gary Thompson said...

Mission accomplished. I guess it's time to move onto smelting your own bullets?

Blessed said...

Too funny Holly! At least you know how to make coffee - a good cup of that can keep me going for a long time!

Holly Heyser said...

Liz: Subsistance eaters! I'm visiting Hank now in Austin and we had a wonderful meal last night. It was really good not to be eating ducks and brown rice.

Richard: Thank you for understanding my journey and my triumph.

Gary: Perfect! I'll put that on my list.

Blessed: Thank you! It was awesome to meet you :-).

Loo said...

Hilarious post! You can always come down here and I will feed you, but I suspect you may not like what I make :) I secretly loathe the fact that I am in charge of food in our house, for no other reason than schedules. Rick is a vastly better cook than I am so it makes me cranky that I have to make dinner. If left on my own I don't cook: I snack. For weeks on end.

Sarah said...

Loved the post Holly. Come over and we'll feed you sometime, especially if you donate some of that broth to the cause. Aaron's been making a wonderful french onion soup with duck broth lately. And it's strangely still cold enough here to enjoy it in June.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Holly, does it mean I'm not a serious hunter if I say that this is probably my favorite post of all time? God I hope not.

Necessity is mother of all dinners that aren't peanut butter.

You go girl.

Gary Thompson said...

What are the chances of you and Hank joining me and an number of other bloggers at Grouse camp in the Rocky Mtns. this coming September? It promises to be a culinary experience as well as a shooting extravaganza. What can I say, you're on my list of people I want to hunt with some day. 303-324-5767

Holly Heyser said...

Loo: Bingo! Endless snacking.

Sarah: I finally killed the last of that broth, but one of the last things I did before coming to meet Hank here in Austin was put my last batch of carcasses in the freezer, so I'll be making more broth when I get home.

Tamar: You crack me up. This is funny, because I've been telling people I meet at this food conference that some of my favorite hunting stories are about the animals I missed. Hope THAT doesn't make me a not-serious hunter.

Gary: Me? Zero. I can afford one trip in September and it's NYC. I don't know if Hank will be near Idaho in September, but Sept-Oct-Nov is his northern swing across the country, so maybe there's SOMETHING he could do there - I'll pass on your info.

Deus Ex Machina said...

Holly, I was bemoaning the fact that I haven't spent enough time foraging lately. Little did I know that some of this stuff counts, too. Heck! I forage the cabinets and refrigerator eveyday, particularly when I get the munchies.

Great post.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh, yes, those are very real skills. And one thing I forgot to mention: The day before I wrote this, I went on an epic shopping trip that required incredible foraging skills, and I was very successful. I think I owe it all to this harrowing - yet instructive - experience.