Since emerging from a recent funk, I have come to some fairly garden-variety epiphanies. One is, life is too short to be on the mobile device when using the bathroom. As my sensei says, “Do one thing at a time.”
The other epiphany is less (or perhaps more) than garden-variety. Having dropped off my only kid at college a continent away in the City That Never Sleeps, it has become clear to me that parenthood is a decidedly temporary situation, especially if, like me, you are the one-and-done type. Oh sure, they say that once you are a parent you are always a parent, but the truth is that bouncing the kid on your knee and teaching her the alphabet are far removed from transferring the funds sufficient to cover her monthly subway ticket. I don’t know if other parents feel this way, but it seems like my work was essentially done after I taught the kid to drive — all but the worrying, which is a one-sided, ongoing affair.
After crawling out of this psychic crevasse — caused in large part by a self-induced identity vacuum — I have concluded that it is well-nigh time to reinvent myself. Of my 53 years, I have spent 19 as a parent and even fewer really punching that clock. It is part, but not all, of who I am — a proper fraction. As long as I have good years left, I feel obliged to make good use of them. Whatever you believe to be beyond this life, it is uncertain. Best to eat dessert first, or at least while you can. At the very least, go for the cheese plate.
At the nadir of my own recent personal shutdown, I got an email from the maternal unit, my mother. In an effort to simplify her own mise en place, she has been cleaning out the basement and garage, which have collected some four decades of detritus; it is mostly my father’s hoard, much of it animal body parts. She asked if I wanted one of the bison skulls, adding, “Your father certainly has had some odd hobbies.”
Bingo! If there is anything that will keep you going in this world, it is a couple of odd hobbies. If nothing else, it gives you something colorful to talk about at cocktail parties. I mean, my taxidermy days are long past, but it is amazing how often I find a way to bring it up in casual conversation, not to mention the impression it makes. When your sixth-grade science fair project won a blue ribbon with the theme “Taxidermy: For Fun and Science,” you tend to brag about it a little. At least, I do.
At this distance, much of my dirt-road childhood seems exotic now. How many people have scoured freshly plowed fields looking for flint arrowheads? Who has spent an afternoon wading in a knee-high creek, catching crawfish under flat rocks? Have you ever happened upon a cache of giant morel mushrooms, filling a grocery bag that today would fetch $500?
Of course, this was a place and time long ago. As a kid, some of my most delightful times were the early morning dawns of late August, when my dad would take me along to count pheasant broods. It gets no better than when it’s your job to count fledgling chicks, not to mention the other biological tasks he appointed us: doing pellet counts (deer poop), drumming grouse, and identifying the quavering songs of wannabe mating woodcocks. It’s stuff like this that sets one’s soul to soaring, or should. I don’t know about you, but my spine shivers when I hear a hooting owl in the gulch across the street.
One could make an argument for the spring woodcock census, but for me, pheasant counts were the best. We would rise before dawn, drink a cup of Folgers, and head out to drive the rural gravel roads of his region at 10 miles an hour or less. This is the trick to determining pheasant populations: in late August in Minnesota, the lowering evening temperatures converge with the high dew point, soaking the grasslands. As a species transplanted from China, ring-necked pheasants are ill-suited to the climate of the Upper Midwest, and they decidedly do not like getting damp especially the little ones. At dawn, the mommas shag their broods out of the soggy grass cover onto gravel roads, where they not only fluff their feathers but also scratch out a little grist for their gizzards. If you cruise the same rural routes, counting the chicks year in and year out, you get a decent picture of how the pheasant population is faring.
If this sounds esoteric, then you haven’t done it. You have to keep your eyes peeled — a phrase my father repeated with frequency, and advice that has held me in good stead regardless of my endeavor. You have to see the
brood before the brood sees you. Complicating matters is that you not only are charged with counting their numbers as they are skittering back into the wet grass but you must also attempt to estimate their ages. This seems an impossible task, but you would be amazed at how quickly you develop the knack. I am proud to be able to say that at one time in my life, I could easily differentiate a six-week-old pheasant chick from one eight weeks old.
Alas, my current day job does not involve doing things as exotic as counting pheasants or deer-poop piles. Instead, as I transition from my parenting days, I find myself seeking a consuming off-the-clock pastime that qualifies as colorful — something at least half as interesting as listening for mating woodcocks.
Finding himself at a similar psychic crossroads, the cook/novelist/poet/fly-fisher Jim Harrison (one of my favorite writers) decided to rename the birds of North America. I’m not sure I’m quite up to such a gargantuan task, but perhaps I will get serious about re-stringing this dusty Yamaha FG730S guitar beside my desk, take some lessons, and become a real bluesman. Certainly I have sufficient time on my hands to fashion this food blog into something more serious. God knows, there are places to go, sights to see, people to meet. Heck, I could read Moby Dick.
Toward that end, I leave you with a brief verse from Mr. Harrison:
The moon comes up.
The moon goes down.
This is to inform you
that I didn’t die young.
Age swept past me
but I caught up.
Spring has begun here and each day
brings new birds up from Mexico.
Yesterday I got a call from the outside
world but I said no in thunder.
I was a dog on a short chain
and now there’s no chain.
Pheasant Breasts with Chanterelle Apple Cream Sauce
4 pheasant breasts (no substituting chicken — sorry, it’s just not the same)
½ cup flour, seasoned
¼ cup vermouth
1 tart apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
¼ pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, chopped
1 shallot, sliced
1 cup heavy cream
First, shoot a couple of pheasants (alternatively, you may buy them at a store, but that is a poor second choice). Carve off the breasts, reserving the hindquarters and the carcass for making stock (pheasant legs are so tendon-y that they’re not worth the trouble, but their stock is tremendous). Dredge the breasts in seasoned flour and set aside.
Heat a splash of olive oil in a large saucier pan on medium-high. Sauté the pheasant breasts until golden brown on each side. Remove and tent to keep warm.
Add shallots to the pan and cook about one minute. Deglaze the pan with vermouth. Add the apples and cook five minutes, until softened. Add the chanterelle mushrooms and cook another two minutes.
Add the cream and reduce by half, until the apple/mushroom mixture has thickened. Add the pheasant breasts back to the pan and cook until finished. Season expertly with salt and pepper.
Obviously, this would go nicely with a commercial brown/wild rice mixture and the vegetable of your choice, such as wilted spinach. Various wines could pair here, but I’d try one of any number of Burgundy-style, un-oaked Chardonnays — these are becoming increasingly available and provide an excellent alternative to the cloying Cali-style Chards so popular until recently.
good stuff; thanks
John, you brought me back home with this posting. And to Nils Thompson’s class out at Rice Lake learning to see and hear nature(I loved the sight and sound quizzes). My summers were spent “up north” stomping around the forests and avoiding poison ivy and eating wild raspberries off the bush. The luxury of nothing to do is something our kids are missing.
I like your pheasant recipe, but my husband is one of those weirdos that won’t do fruit in a main course. I am trying to figure out a recipe with pheasant and juniper berries but can’t seem to tease out the finishing sauce. Ideas?
P.S. The kid off to college funk passes and it turns out they do still need us as a sane sounding board after the first semester.
Rosemary: Odd as it may seem, I have never cooked with juniper berries, so am no help there. Check out the sauce I use in the Italian (duck) Job post just previous to this. It uses stock, good jerez vinegar, and honey. If you use the carcass and legs of the pheasant to make the stock, I bet it would be great. The vinegar and honey balance themselves out and the mild gaminess of the pheasant should stand up to it nicely. If you have chanterelles, I would think a simple vermouth and butter pan sauce with chanterelles would be simple and elegant.
As for the kid funk, it was more the jolt of going from paid employee to independent contractor status that threw me, rather than being wholly out of a job!
One of your top three. Well done!