My maternal grandfather was a man of many hobbies. He liked to play, arrange, and collect music and he was an avid fly fisherman and wild game hunter. Mainly, he hunted wild birds and deer with his dogs, who he loved to watch ‘work’ as he called it. Through him and his hobbies, I was exposed to a variety of different game meats growing up. One of my favorites was pheasant.
After my grandfather hunted and killed the pheasant, he and my grandmother would marinate and then smoke the birds at their home in upper New York state. During the holidays, my grandmother would put out an enormous spread of food, including a variety of hors d’oeuvres, one of which was the pheasant that they had smoked. My grandfather’s smoked pheasant, along with my grandmother’s homemade liver pate, was one of my favorite things to eat growing up.
Because the pheasant was wild and hunted, as opposed to farm raised and slaughtered, there was always the chance of biting into a piece of bird shot when eating the smoked meat. My grandfather would always warn my brother and me before eating it to chew softly so we did not break our teeth on the lead shot. He then offered us a penny for each piece of shot we found in the meat while eating. This turned into a sort of game for my brother and me to see how many pieces of shot we could find and, subsequently how many pennies we could collect.
Whether he knew it or not, by doing this my grandfather normalized hunting for me. I am not a hunter myself, but it was never weird or scary for me to think about him hunting, killing, cleaning, and cooking the food we ate at his house. This little game of trading shot for a penny made it so that being part of the hunting process, even if at the final stage of eating the game bird, was fun. More than just fun, however, this ritual taught me about how the food, once a living creature, made its way to my plate.
-Robert Van Valkenburgh teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at Kogen Dojo