It was about 35 years ago that I deliberately and consciously took a life for the first time. One fine May afternoon, at the tender age of eight, while visiting my grandfather’s dairy farm, I lined up my Russian break barrel pellet rifle on a house sparrow sitting on a telephone wire many yards away. I never expected to hit it and was firing at it more to watch it fly away than anything else — I’d fired at dozens since getting my new pellet gun that Christmas and I was initially quite good at scaring the birds. However, by this time the avian residents of Grampy’s farm were barely flinching as I had unleashed approximately five pounds of lead at them in 1/50 ounce doses – all to no avail. I was so ineffective that I wasn’t even annoying them anymore.
Now I know what you’re thinking. What kind of sick, twisted little bastard is allowed to run around shooting at tweety birds with no supervision. The truth is my father was always in the background – supervising without being too obtrusive. He knew it would do no good to try and stop me from shooting at the little birds since every little boy who ever owned a BB gun has either shot at little birds or been sorely tempted to. He had a plan though so he let me court mayhem without interference.
The pellet rifle thumped with that springy note peculiar to air rifles and with a small puff of feathers the sparrow did a spectacular back-flip off the wire and lightly thumped down onto the paved drive below – wings quivering slightly as the nerves tried to cope with the reality of their severance from the brain’s command and control. I was more stunned than anything. I’d hit it!
My excitement disappeared immediately as I heard my father intone behind me “You killed it. Now you eat it.”
I looked down at the rumpled little bird, a crimson pebble of blood welling from under its chin and thought, “Gross!” I was now also somewhat ashamed at what I had done and felt sorry for the little creature who had been placidly and inoffensively sunning itself on the wire.
My father had occasionally hunted and we had eaten game but it was always duck or grouse. I didn’t even know if you could eat a little bird without getting sick. Dad made me pick up the sparrow and we plucked it clean. It looked even more pathetic denuded of its soft and fragile feathers — skinny drumsticks sticking up from a tiny half-ounce carcass. In the kitchen of the old farmhouse Dad cleaned it, salt and peppered it and threw it in the frying pan with a bit of butter – cooking it until it was nearly black. This he then offered to me on a plate and bid me bon appetite.
To this day I don’t know what his intention was. Did he expect me to be so revolted by the tiny meal that I’d never think of shooting another sparrow knowing I’d have to eat it as well? Did he believe that my guilt would be increased by consuming the tiny morsel because I would realize how little there was to gain from killing the bird? If his intention was to shock me into refraining from wanton bloodlust, he somewhat succeeded. He didn’t do the local wildlife population any favours however.
The little bird tasted amazing. Salty-meaty with an undertone of flavour I couldn’t describe then but now realize is what many people refer to as “gaminess”. The bones had been cooked through and crisped and crunched deliciously between my teeth. I wanted more and to Dad’s surprise tore off out the front door, gun in hand, in an attempt to kill even more birds. He never admonished me for my actions but the rule held – if you kill it, you eat it. I adhered to the code all through my childhood and into my late teens but that didn’t mean that a lot of stuff didn’t die. It just died and went into the frying pan afterwards. I hunted and ate red squirrels, hares, black birds, crows and various other little birds and animals and was not afraid to try any of them on the dinner plate. This necessarily meant that I had to learn to cook too since my mother refused to touch any of the critters I brought home. My hunting passion kept me out of trouble and often on days off of school my parents would drop me and my gun off at the farm before they went to work and pick me up after. The woods was my babysitter and while modern parents may cringe at the idea of a 12 year old running around by himself in the forest with a loaded rifle or shotgun, it wasn’t considered bad parenting to do so in the 80’s in rural Prince Edward Island – or if it was, I didn’t know any better and then must thank my parents for being rotten at the job.
As I got older I also became aware of things like game laws and protected species and altered my practices to reflect the legalities to which I had previously been ignorant (robins are quite tasty but decidedly protected by Canadian federal laws).
Fast forward to the present and I support a family of four almost exclusively on meat that I (and now my sons) have hunted, fished or raised. I do not eat everything I kill now. Living in rural Alberta makes killing certain animals a necessary chore – wolves, coyotes, skunks, gophers, ground squirrels, crows, magpies and feral cats need to be kept in check if one wishes to maintain livestock and a garden. It is a task. I complete it as efficiently as possible. I feel none of the pleasure that I feel when I harvest a nice fat mallard or a sleek young buck for the freezer. In those latter instances I am already planning all the dishes I am going to make and nothing provides me more satisfaction than the knowledge that I have a freezer full of nutritious, hormone free, organic meat to take us through the winter.
- A young cow moose for the freezer.
My intention with this blog is to write about what I do here on “the farm” and about the animals we harvest – both domestic and wild – and the meals we make from them. It is a necessarily vain bit of writing but at the same time I hope that it gives some folks some insight into hunting your own food and cooking it in a manner that gives pleasure to both the cook and the eater.
I don’t know how long I’ll keep this up but even aborted journeys need to start somewhere. Let’s see where it goes.