Hunter / Gatherer

Harvesting Food in the Great Outdoors


Ben Norquist (left), of Baxter, Minnesota, steers a canoe as his brother, Mark, harvests wild rice in Cass County. Raw wild rice is shown above.

THOSE WHO ARE YOUNGER THAN THE BABY BOOM GENERATION MAY NOT REMEMBER EUELL GIBBONS. The mid-20th century nature evangelist preached a gospel of foraging for wild edibles. He lent the practice both visibility and a quirky charm with his 1962 book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Gibbons later became the iconic TV face of foraging in commercials for Post Grape Nuts cereal, asking and answering the provocative question: “Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible!”

Mark Norquist, a Brainerd High School graduate and founder of Modern Carnivore.
(Photo by Phil Aarrestad)

Foraging is most often seen as the gathering, preparing, and serving of wild plants and their fruits; morels and other edible mushrooms, wild salad greens, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, various nuts, and of course the book’s namesake—the wild asparagus. Stalking featured chapters on forty-seven different wild plants or plant families. 

Less well known is the fact that Gibbons ended his book with several chapters on the meaty side of the wild menu. Gibbons wrote of dining on fresh-caught bluegill and of serving carp, crayfish, turtle, and frog legs. Eager to skewer dietary prejudices, he also included guidance on preparing woodchuck, opossum, raccoon, even muskrat—the latter served in a dish whimsically called “Maryland potted marsh rabbit.” 

Gibbons’ focus on wild plants is understandable, reflecting the fact that only a minority of the U.S. population hunts or traps—true even then, in the 1960s—and many do not fish. Conversely, with little more than a field guide and an adventurous spirit, just about anyone could gather and dine on edible wild plants and their fruits; or so Gibbons and his publisher may have reasoned.

Game and Fish on the Foraging Menu

Mark Norquist has not appeared in any nationally-aired commercials, nor has he—as yet—written a best-selling book. But he shares Gibbons’ belief in the value of including foods from the wild side in our everyday lives and diet. That bounty, he will tell you, can and should include game and fish.

Mark Norquist holds a Lake Country walleye.

Norquist is a Brainerd, Minnesota, native, the founder and driving force behind Modern Carnivore, an enterprise that is an eclectic combination of internet presence, podcasts, seminars, outdoor skills retreats, and partnerships with natural resource agencies. Its purpose includes spreading the word about the benefits of including fish and game in our everyday diet, and broadening participation in the branch of outdoor recreation that—for want of a better term—has been called the “blood sports.” 

If you browse Modern Carnivore’s website, you’ll encounter step-by-step instructions for making pasta from nettle—the wild plant that makes you itch if you accidentally touch it—or a recipe for venison heart tartare.  There are also numerous podcasts on such subjects as foraging for mushrooms, rose hips, and other wild edibles, hunting and fishing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, or news on timely and urgent issues like chronic wasting disease in Minnesota’s whitetail deer. Underlying its communications is a theme of awakening and nourishing an interest in outdoor lifestyles that includes the harvest and consumption of what we catch with hook and line, or harvest with shotgun or rifle in field, marsh, or forest. 

Preserving Outdoor Opportunities

An active angler and hunter, Norquist admits that his motivation for establishing Modern Carnivore nearly a decade ago included the preservation of these outdoor opportunities. He shares with resource management professionals a belief that without a committed participant base to lobby and advocate for preserving access to outdoor places and quality fish and wildlife habitat, these recreations and the public lands that provide them will be increasingly at risk with an indifferent general public. 

Novice deer hunters Pierce and Alex went on their first hunt in Cass County.

“People who are connected to the land are the most conservation-minded people,” he says. “They support public lands, conservation, and fish and wildlife management with their votes and their dollars.” But the grassroots support this can motivate is no sure thing. “Between 1982 and 2016, the number of active hunters in the U.S. declined from 17 million to 11.5 million; almost by one-third,” Norquist notes. 

Minnesota’s hunter population has been declining, too, though not quite as dramatically. From 16 percent of the state’s population going afield with shotgun or rifle in the early 1980s, roughly 12 percent of Minnesotans are now licensed hunters. More Minnesotans fish than hunt, but that is trending downward, too. In the early 1970s an amazing 40 percent of Minnesotans age 16 or older held fishing licenses. That number is now between 25 and 30 percent. 

In response, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in 2015 established an Angler and Hunter Recruitment and Retention Grant Program, through which the agency provides funds to “to help local groups support Minnesota’s angling and hunting heritage.” There is also a citizen council known as R3, which stands for recruitment, retention, and reactivation of anglers and hunters. 

Modern Carnivore promotes programs like the Minnesota DNR’s Adult Learn to Hunt Whitetail Deer program, which includes pre-hunt sessions in deer ecology, hunter ethics, hunting skills development, and culminates in a mentored hunt with an experienced deer hunter. 

Healthy Eating

Mark Norquist also touts healthful eating as another reason to include wild game and fish in our diet. “It’s good to step back once in a while from commercial food production, with its heavy reliance on growth hormones and antibiotics in farm-raised meat. Wild food is generally healthier.” Norquist notes that this also dovetails with the growing interest in consuming locally-sourced foods, knowing where the food we eat comes from, and under what conditions it has been raised. 

Some skills are more difficult to acquire than filleting a walleye, or de-boning a northern. Modern Carnivore has also provided mentoring to aspiring game and fish foragers. “I’ve held deer butchering demonstrations in my garage,” says Norquist, “and I especially remember a young couple in their 20s; so eager—such quick learners—that they were more skilled at butchering than most experienced hunters I know.” 

Consumption Honesty

Norquist advocates harvesting and consuming fish and game for other reasons, too. He believes that—apart from those who are philosophically opposed to eating meat altogether—participating in an animal’s harvest is an honest relationship between consumer and consumed, man as predator and his prey in the form of fish or game. Not as an exclusive or necessarily a major part of our diet; but at the very least a symbolic link to the natural world we’re part of. 

“You’ve probably heard that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made a year-long commitment to eat only the meat he killed himself,” say Norquist. “It was one of the annual personal challenges he’s known for.” Not wild game, but domestic animals whose meat he would otherwise have purchased in a grocery store or meat market. Zuckerberg spoke of that experience for a published interview in Fortune Magazine. He told how guests at a pig roast said they loved pork, but preferred not to think the pig had been alive. Zuckerberg found it irresponsible to ignore the fact that an animal has to die for humans to eat meat, and we should accept this responsibility rather than refuse to think about where it comes from. Norquist wholeheartedly agrees. 

Harvest Sustainability

He is quick to agree that it’s not practical to exclusively consume wild-caught fish and harvested game. Notably, the catch-and-release ethic in angling has become widespread as a way to share finite fish resources among more fishermen, and extend angling opportunity. “But it’s well-known that there is a certain level of hooking mortality when fish are released,” says Norquist. “It might be better to catch fewer, but keep some to eat occasionally.” Or—if catching to eat is the goal—to focus on less-exploited fish, like bluegills or northern pike where they’re overabundant and stunted. 

Chef’s Choice

Chef Lukas Leaf

Historically, culinary practice has been more inclusive of native fishes than wild game. A restaurant menu with walleye or lake trout will raise no eyebrows. But one that features venison or rabbit may prompt a diner double-take. There are contemporary exceptions, adventurous culinary artists like Lukas Leaf, who during his tenure as executive chef at South Minneapolis’ al Vento restaurant surprised its patrons with such entrees as wild boar and elk, complemented by wild-foraged items like fiddlehead ferns, watercress, or spruce tips. 

“We opened their eyes with approachable dishes,” says Leaf, “and these non-traditional menu items were very well received; probably because there’s a level of trust between patrons and a professional chef. It’s so different from being served poorly-prepared wild game. There may be skepticism, but some will try it and find they like it. It’s an education as well as a dining experience,” says Leaf, who has brought his wild game cookery and foraging skills to Modern Carnivore as its on-staff chef.

“This is how people used to eat, with food they gathered for themselves,” he says. Leaf believes that wild-harvested foods are generally better for you than much of what you buy; animals that have not been raised using antibiotics and growth hormones, or have been as exposed to pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture.

A Teaching Moment

Kent Montgomery is a longtime acquaintance of Modern Carnivore’s Mark Norquist, and an instructor in the natural resources program at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. The program prepares students for careers in private industry or resource management agencies, perhaps as a forestry technician, parks and trails specialist, or in fisheries or wildlife management. 

Montgomery and his family have more than ownership ties to their land in Crow Wing County’s Long Lake Township, south of Brainerd. They’re active foragers. In spring it’s tapping maple trees to produce maple syrup for their own consumption, and limited sale. “We also forage for morels, sulfur shelf and other edible mushrooms, and pick uncultivated wild fruits, like wild raspberry,” says Montgomery. “My son is especially into finding wild hazelnuts.” 

The family also hunts deer on their land, its unforested acreage planted in cover crops most years. “We do our own venison butchering,” says Montgomery, “and do our own grinding” of the cuts that will go into sausage or venison burger. By any measure they’re all-in foragers, in the broadest dietary sense. He shares Mark Norquist’s belief that being direct harvesters of what people consume reinforces their place in nature, something his students will absorb in addition to techniques for preventing soil erosion, or restoring a wetland. 

These advocates share a belief that preserving a healthy and diverse environment—lakes and rivers, wetlands, forests, and grasslands where fish and wildlife thrive, where we can enjoy the recreations they provide—will depend on advocates who demand this of those who make policy and law. They believe that some of the strongest and most reliable advocates are those with the most intimate ties to the land, those who go afield or astream with rod or gun and dine on what they harvest. 

Grilled Spatchcock Grouse
with Apricot Sauce

Recipe by Lukas Leaf

2 whole grouse, dressed
Fresh vegetables for grilling
     (zucchini, asparagus, peppers, and onions)
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Apricot Glaze Ingredients
1 12-oz jar apricot preserves
1 cup white wine
½ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup Dijon mustard
¼ cup brown sugar
Pinch of kosher salt
½ teaspoon chili flake (optional)

Step One: Dress and spatchcock the grouse. To “spatchcock,” take kitchen shears or large knife and make a cut down the spine of the grouse, allowing you to flatten the bird with the legs facing the outside. Brine in a basic salt brine for 2-4 hours.

Step Two: Combine all glaze ingredients in a small sauce pot. Bring the sauce to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and reduce by half. Reserve half of the sauce for serving and half for glazing while grilling the grouse.

Step Three: Cut the vegetables into manageable pieces for grilling. Toss the vegetables in the olive oil and season with the salt and pepper.

Step Four: Start your coals, fire, or gas grill and bring up to temperature. Season the grouse and veggies with oil and salt and pepper and begin to grill. Lightly glaze the grouse with the apricot sauce every time you rotate the birds until they are cooked through and dark and caramelized on the outside. Remove the veggies when they are cooked to your preference. Let the grouse rest for 10 minutes. 

Step Five: Carve the grouse and serve with the sauce and vegetables.