Hopefully, we all know the sound that our tires make when leaving the pavement for a gravel road. That instantaneous soothing roar overtakes the senses and lets you know that you are departing the path more traveled and embarking on an adventure…or blessedly going home.
In my case, the gravel road led to my grandparents’ house. Whenever we would visit, we always seemed to arrive in the middle of the night. Looking back now, I’m sure it wasn’t ever past 10 o’clock, but it seemed like an eternity for me, as any minivan ride with three brothers surely would. Darkness had fallen slowly, eons before, somewhere along the sleepy ride. No matter how late it was, that telltale sound of the gravel road would wake me up and stir feelings of excitement and anticipation. I didn’t realize it then, but that road was setting me on a path to many wild and wonderful adventures.
The wooden screen door would squeak its way open, and a golden blonde head would pop out. “Y’all finally made it!” was her standard greeting. Then, this special lady would swiftly shoo everyone into the kitchen and ask the two sentences that would shape my life.
“Are you hungry? Can I make you somethin’ to eat?”
These questions were always asked together, in sequence, faster than the screen door could close with that unforgettable sound of it slamming against the farmhouse. It really didn’t matter if we were hungry. It didn’t matter if we said, “No.” Food would inevitably follow. But, this wasn’t just food. This was the purest expression of love that I could ever know. Come in. Let me spoil you with love and indulgence, was a more accurate translation.
I can still see my darling little mammaw, standing in her small kitchen with a matching gown and robe and her signature metallic house slippers. She portrayed the feeling of love in human form.
If you’ve ever had fresh, homemade sweet tea, then you know. The crackling sound of the ice…the warm-and-cold swirl of that sweet nectar of life as you take the first sip…My grandmother could make magic in a glass. To this day when I’m feeling down or homesick, I make a pitcher and just let the sweet memories wash over me. That’s the legacy she left me. She showed how to share love no matter where I go, how to always find those moments of “home,” and that the most significant inheritance has nothing to do with money.
Life is strange…and weird…and wonderful. Like a well-seasoned dish, life develops flavor and depth by our experiences. We try on different thoughts and practices, just like changing summer clothes for winter coats. And all these paths eventually lead to where we need to be, if we keep doing the next thing.
Yet, the path of my life hasn’t been as straight as my grandparents’ gravel road. In my teens, I was fortunate to start training and competing with field-bred English springer spaniels. This ingrained in me a deep and earnest respect for sporting dogs and the outdoor lifestyle. I didn’t foresee that Lyme disease would present a curve on that road and become one of my biggest teachers. My health deteriorated severely, and I was left in a wheelchair for years during my early 20s. I didn’t know at the time that the illness was just the perspective shift and course correction that I needed. I always knew I loved to cook, but this life-changing battle to regain my health let me know just how important food was for physical and mental wellness. Cooking became a way to heal my body and my spirit.
After recovering my mobility and a level of health, I decided to attend a nutritionally focused culinary school. I learned so much about beautiful food and addressing illness with diet. There was a major focus on how to celebrate vegetables and use Mother Nature to nurture us. But, the wild outdoors kept calling me back. I yearned for the connection to the earth, connection with my dogs, and connection to creation. Then when I least expected it, opportunity knocked. I received a job offer, one that was extended to me in the field, no less. Would I go to South Dakota and work as a chef at Pine Shadows Daybreak? The first and second time offered, I just laughed it off.
Working on location at a lodge wasn’t even a thought I had previously entertained. Culinary school was “the next thing” I had done because I knew it was right, but I didn’t know what came after that. The third time, when Mark Haglin reached out to me via Facebook with a request to come and work for the Haglin family and brand, I figured the offer was for real. And I said, “Yes,” to both the adventure and the challenge. The inevitable collision of nutrition, passion for the outdoors, and the legacy that my mammaw left me had created a perfect blend for my future.
The opportunity to be a chef at a hunting lodge has been a dream come true. I have a beautiful venue to create food and memories for our amazing guests. My dogs are with me on-site, and I get to guide some hunters, as the schedule permits, providing my canine companions with their dream jobs, too. In the offseason, I take time to rest and attend to health challenges that still persist. As a chef, I have had the privilege to invest in mentoring sous chefs and interns, while sharing food and love of the outdoors through a unique nonprofit organization.
During my time in culinary school, I learned about First Descendants, an amazing organization that offered kayaking, rock climbing, or surfing programs for young adults who were either cancer survivors or fighting the disease at the time. During their weeklong adventures, I witnessed how their lives were changed through their connection with nature, the feeling of being understood, and the bonding human experience of sharing meals with other people, often from diverse backgrounds. My role of creating food to support this physical exertion, while working to inspire and nourish from inside and out, has been a privilege.
It has taken me several years to find my culinary voice. I didn’t know if it was possible to marry the clean-eating perspective of my education with the “love and butter” mentality I inherited from my family as a child. I jokingly call the two parts “Jekyll and Hyde.” But food is seasonal, just as hunting is seasonal. So is life. My goal is to find a balance, so I look to infuse as much health and nutrition as I can into food that delights the soul. I lean toward approachable food with the hope of empowering others to create on their own. You won’t find me saying no to a kale smoothie or some fried pheasant. It’s easy to get lost in the details. So, the philosophy I now employ is this: Eat whole foods as often as possible. Minimize consumption of processed food. Maximize use of food close to its natural state. A cheese puff probably doesn’t qualify, but goat cheese definitely does. Try to connect to where food comes from as often as you can. Eat lots of vegetables but make them delicious and irresistible. And don’t be afraid to utilize some good quality pork nectar, a.k.a bacon fat, from time to time. This is my recipe for success.
I now know that a big part of the genius in my mammaw’s gift to me was to let food be fun. Let it be interactive. Taste. Feel. Create. Cooking is an art, not a science, so let go. This brings to mind a childhood afternoon—permitted as only a grandmother would—allowing me to throw pie dough scraps at the wall while the pies were baking. Imagine! My mom is still traumatized. But there is inspiration in the joy and indulgence of that memory. So this past fall, when I had the privilege of hunting with a teenaged girl at my workplace in South Dakota, I couldn’t resist pulling her into the kitchen to create a pheasant pot pie. What could make a golden flaky crust, tender meat, veggies, and a smoky creamy sauce better? Creating it with someone else, especially a younger set of hands. From rolling out savory dough to filling and fluting crust, and finally applying egg wash to ensure golden-brown perfection—we made a one-of-a-kind piece of edible art and memories. It was messy and joyous, just as Mammaw would have loved. I was so deeply honored to be able to spend some time creating, sharing a few laughs, and making a bit of a mess with this lovely young woman.
After the hunting season came to a close, I pondered those times in the kitchen, both as the young mind and now as the mentor. The pieces had finally all fallen into place. Does it age me a bit? Probably. But now, I am the one who can assist in creating that “loved up” feeling, just as Mammaw did for me all those years back. I have the privilege of passing on the joy that creating food can bring to the next generation.
So why should you get in the kitchen? Because it’s a way to share your story. Find the balance of nutrition and decadence that’s right for you. Why should you utilize game meat? Because it’s a pure connection to the source. Game meat is lean and nutritious and delicious. It stems from a beautiful partnership that we share afield with our companions, whether they are canine or the two-legged variety. And why involve the younger generations? Because it’s an honor. It’s a tribute. And it will be our legacy.