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Flash in the Pan

The hunting hangover

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One of my oldest memories is seeing my father walking in the front door after his first time hunting. I was only 3 years old, but I remember his bright hunter orange. Even more striking was another, much brighter glow emanating from within him.

Dad's hunting career was short-lived, consisting of three fruitless attempts. The fact that it wasn't a regular part of our routine makes it all the more significant that I remembered it. And it's revealing that at 3 years old I even understood the concept of hunting.

To understand hunting requires knowing what meat is, that it comes from dead animals, and that hunters go out in search of wild animals to kill and eat. That's a lot for a kid to learn in three years of life. It's hard to believe, in fact, unless you believe, like I do, that I was born with this understanding. When I saw Dad walk in the door, it was like a hammer striking a bell inside of me. Like my appendix, this bell is part of my structural makeup and had thus far gone unused. And like my appendix, I'd have it even if I never used it. But unlike my appendix, this understanding exists in every strand of DNA in every cell, and isn't so easily removed.

As another hunting season winds down, the hunting hangover weighs heavy upon those who still heed the call. As our bodies make the switch from cold forest to warm hearth, we dig in for the winter—hopefully with a stash of meat to chew on—but stronger and enriched regardless. The rewards of hunting go far deeper than the belly. It's an ancient itch we scratch, often until it's completely raw and bleeding. To not scratch this itch would leave us feeling incomplete.

When I saw Dad walk through that door, the history of our species followed him in like a gust of cold air. My filial love was augmented by reverence at the realization that my dad was a hunter, and it didn't seem to matter if he was "successful." What mattered is that he did it. Why does this matter?

Today, few of us have parents that ever hunted. It's more likely that their parents did, and less likely that our children will. This places us in the middle of a widening disconnect between generations that hunt and generations that don't. It's happening right now, as modern life continues to replace habitat with feedlots, and our existence heads steadily indoors. If the drive to hunt is in danger of becoming vestigial, like the appendix, that would be tragic. But fortunately, that's not going to happen any time soon. Unlike the appendix, hunting still serves a purpose.

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The body of evidence pointing to the importance of hunting in our history is broad and deep. Hunting provided our ancestors a concentrated form of energy that allowed our brains to develop. Hunting, along with the acquisition of fire, helped our ancestors migrate north from Africa during an Ice Age. Hunting helped drive the development of tool making, the understanding of physics and the refinement of art.

But the importance of hunting in our past doesn't explain why we continue to hunt. This is a question with as many answers as there are hunters.

Some do it for the food, though there are many other ways of acquiring meat—nearly all of which are cheaper and easier. Some do it for the antlers, a motivation I understand but don't personally feel. Some do it for the intellectual and visceral understanding that hunting makes you a part of your ecosystem, a player in the predator/prey relationships of your home ground. Nearly all hunters would agree that the experience of hunting, of being outside, alert and struggling against the elements, is a reward in itself.

Perhaps the most tangible rewards, aside from meat or trophy, are the charged moments when you see your prey, and are in active pursuit. The instant that prey is spotted is especially powerful. It's a kind of shock therapy that snaps you back to the crucible that shaped our species.

The pictures drawn on the walls of caves, such as Lascaux in France, are some of the oldest art in the world. They represent an archetype related to what I felt when I saw my dad come back from hunting. Those pictures embody the electric moment when game is spotted. You're scanning a distant hillside, binoculars covering ground that would take hours on foot. As your field of view passes over the shape of an animal in a clearing, a buzzer goes off in your soul. The shape of an animal, hardly different from those simple, ancient cave drawings, is like a flashing buzzer that triggers a wave of adrenaline and focus as timeless and powerful as a bolt of lightning.

The bolt passes through you and through your ancestors, connecting you to them like chunks of meat on an electric shish kebab skewer. This connection completes a circuit between past and present, earth and blood, flesh and energy. Closing this circuit is what made my father glow brighter than his hunter orange. This is why we hunt.

Ask Ari: Frozen stuck

Q: Dear Flash,

In a recent cold snap my garlic and winter squash harvest froze in my unheated garage. It remains frozen. Is this a bad thing? If so, what can I do to salvage/preserve what's left of it?

—Freeze Frame

A: It's not ideal, Freeze Frame. Garlic stands a better chance of withstanding a freeze if it has already sprouted, such as the garlic that you've (hopefully) planted for next year's harvest.

As for your frozen stored garlic, I suggest keeping it frozen while you thaw one head and test it. If it appears unscathed, with firm, supple body and strong flavor, then thaw the rest. Do it slowly but ASAP, and don't let it freeze again. If the thawed test garlic shows damage, your best option is to keep it frozen, because that will at least stabilize the condition, while thawing it now will give it time to deteriorate in the coming months.

The same goes with squash. Thaw one out and see if it appears like normal raw squash. If it's fine, give your brow a relieved wipe with the back of your hand, thaw the rest of your squash and don't let it freeze again.

But if the test squash thaws mushy, you should thaw the rest and cook it, either by steaming or baking. Freeze the cooked squash until you're ready to use it.

Because of the damage incurred by freezing, the squash won't be as versatile as it was. But even though it will have lost some of its body and texture, and you won't be able to stuff it, or add chunks to your breakfast taco, the twice-frozen, once-cooked squash will still perform adequately in soup, pie or pureed mush on the side of your plate.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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