I’ve been in a funk lately, a malaise. For weeks I’d attributed it to the exhaustion of being on a book tour for months on end. I knew that focusing so hard on making Duck, Duck, Goose as successful as I could would naturally sap my strength to cook, write and to make Hunter Angler Gardener Cook as good a website as I can possibly make it.
But I’ve been home more than a week now, sitting quietly, and I know there is something else at work. The realization began to creep over me as I was catching up on other websites and reading colleagues’ cookbooks. It solidified when I thought of all the amazing food I’d eaten at my book dinners over the course of those four months. Clear-eyed and cold, I sit here with the stark realization that I am simply not that good.
Maybe it’s just age talking. As we grow older all of us begin to test the limits of our abilities. Our world narrows. The stars we shot for so long ago seem even farther away. It used to be that I could see a chef on TV perform some act of culinary prestidigitation and glibly comment that I could do that, given some time. Now, having seen in person real chefs perform real feats of magic in the kitchen, I am no longer so sure.
In Austin, I had all the time in the world to think about a dish to serve at the finale of my book tour, and all the time and equipment I needed to cook it. I made a German giblet soup called ganseklein, served it with acorn spaetzle, and drizzled a little Austrian pumpkinseed oil over each plate at service. It was a lovely dish. But I’d be a braggart and a liar if I did not say that my friend Jesse Griffiths, who made a German duck kasekrainer sausage with sprouted wheat, pickled radish and homemade mustard, did not blow my dish from the water.
Even in my wheelhouse I was bested. And this was not the only time it has happened. I am not being overly prideful here. I’m not hurt that professional chefs have cooked better duck dishes than I have: I am ashamed of myself for lacking the imagination and ability to either conceive of or execute some of their dishes. In their collective shadow, I’ve been proven to be a competent cook, but nothing more. My knives should be sharper. I need to become a more skilled baker. I ought to be better at sous vide. At desserts. At plating food. At the simple act of cooking beans.
The raw fact is that the exigencies of running this website pull me in so many competing directions I find that I have become the proverbial jack of all trades and master of none. I am a good forager but I know better. I am only an average hunter, and a somewhat better-than-average angler. I can break down animals and fish with the best of them, but even in this realm I know there is a lifetime’s worth of knowledge I have yet to master. Same goes for the act of roasting birds, or searing fish or making ice cream.
It is also a fact that I must earn my living from this website. To do that, I know that most people come here looking for recipes for things like venison chili or roast pheasant or salmon chowder. This is the sort of recipe that quite literally pays the bills, and I honestly enjoy making and eating them. But for every such classic I post on this site, I feel an equal need to create original dishes like Oyster! Oyster! Oyster! or The White Sturgeon or Dessert from the Mountain. In many ways this push-pull of the everyday and the esoteric are what make HAGC as fun as it is to create — and I hope to read.
Several years ago I wrote an essay called A Restless Craftsman. In essence the piece was about me trying to elevate the craft of cooking to an art. I am over that now. Art has become, at least for me, something unattainable in food — fancy plating and odd ingredients do not art make. Art moves the mind, sends it to higher places. Food simply cannot do that. Food can entertain, amuse, divert and even alarm. But can food spark someone to sit back and contemplate greater human truths? I doubt it.
Writing, however, can. A reporter asked me recently what, of all the skills I possess, do I consider that I am best at? Writing was the easy answer. I’ve written for publication virtually every week for 22 years. If there is any real art in anything I’ve ever done with this odd, meandering life of mine, it lies within the written word. Yet even in this realm I feel flat.
Which is why I am writing you this letter, dear readers.
I am still a restless craftsman. Only now I am hoping to renew and restore my love of the crafts I have chosen to pursue: Hunting, foraging, angling. Butchering, cooking and yes, writing. I spent almost the entirety of last year as a public person. I drove nearly 30,000 miles to and from events, traveled to 45 states, did scores of media interviews and talked with literally thousands of people. By the end I felt like a caricature of myself, and I began to hate the sound of my own voice. I will not do this in 2014.
I have found my limits, and they are humbling. Depressing, even. But they are only my limits today. Today I will learn something new, in the field, on the water, in the kitchen or at my keyboard. Today I will become better than I was yesterday. And tomorrow I will get up and do it again.
This is my vow to you. I hope you stay with me for the journey.