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Wendy Petty

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Rocky Mountains, CO

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Wendy Petty is a forager, photographer, and wild foods consultant.
She believes that wildcrafting foods deepens her connection with the place she loves most, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Her quest is to experience deeply local cuisine -- the meats, vegetables, fungi, fruits and herbs that breathe the same air and occupy the same land she does, and express the taste of that place. Her blog is Hunger and Thirst: searching for food ... and finding presence.

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Dandelions: Great In Soup, Lousy Houseplants Image

“So, let me get this straight. You are keeping dandelions as a houseplants? Can’t you see it’s snowing outside?” My buddy aimed her attention toward the straggly weed I’d positioned near the window to catch early morning light, “Why?”

I explained that I had wanted to be like Euell Gibbons and grow my own salad greens in the middle of winter. “Ewe … who? I thought you have a black thumb.”

It’s true. I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever touched. One even died of thirst in the cruelest of places, hanging above my shower. Still, as a forager, my desire to enjoy fresh dandelion greens in the snowy months had overcome any fear of dooming another plant to die inside my home.

Gibbons is considered by most to have ushered in the modern era of foraging with his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” originally printed in 1962. I must have read Gibbons’ book a dozen times before I went to college. Still, when I opened it again last summer, the words sparkled on the page, as if I were reading them for first time.

Having stocked my pantry with wild food for many years, I’d come to take for granted the book written by the man some refer to as the grandfather of foraging. When I reread the chapter titled “A Wild Winter Garden in Your Cellar,” it felt as if I’d been given a gift.

In it, Gibbons chronicled how he grew wild vegetables indoors in winter. He used a method not dissimilar from the one some use to force bulbs such as tulips or hyacinth to grow out of season. In the fall, Gibbons dug up and potted dandelions and left them outside in the cold so they’d go dormant, then brought the pots inside his cellar to reawaken and grow tender new greens to nibble throughout the cold months.

Dandelions wintering in the garage

Facing the looming winter of the Rocky Mountains, I excitedly planned to harvest dandelions and force them to grow throughout the off-season, just as Gibbons had done. Late in October, word came that a winter storm was approaching. I went out into my yard with a bucket, dug up several dandelion plants, and placed them in my cold garage for safe keeping.

Fast forward to the beginning of February when I engaged with another snow-weary forager, bemoaning the lack of fresh greens. I dramatically complained that I’d give my left leg to taste bitter dandelion leaves. Only then, months after I’d dug them up, did I remember my plans to make dandelions dance in winter as Gibbons had done.

I rushed out to the garage, and sure enough, there was my bucket of dandelions, exactly where I’d left it the previous fall, between a stool and some rakes. The poor plants had been freeze-drying all that time, piled in the bucket without any water. I reached in, and fished around the dirt clods for a plant. My heart fell as I pulled out a hard, shriveled root.

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

Dandelions foraged from outdoors. Credit: Wendy Petty

As much as I felt like it might take an act of wizardry to revive the dandelions, I hated the thought of wasting plants more. Without much hope, I planted a few crusty taproots in a bowl, gave them some water, and tucked them into a corner of the kitchen.

I hate to admit that I once again forgot about the dandelions, which is why I nearly spilled my cup of coffee when, one morning the next week, my gaze fell upon that bowl and the tiny jagged leaves it contained. I did my best Dr. Frankenstein impression, “It’s alive!”

Filled with renewed enthusiasm for my project, I smothered my little potted dandelions with TLC. Every day, I moved them from the east window to the west, so they could catch the most sunlight. I sang to them and kissed their leaves goodnight. It was exhausting, all the effort it took to grow weeds.

After a month of babying, my dandelions had only produced a few disappointingly spindly leaves, not nearly enough to make a salad. Worse, I couldn’t bear to eat them because I had grown attached (I wasn’t kidding about the lullabies and kisses). Experiment failed.

Spring brings a new wild crop of dandelions

Let’s face it, I’m no Euell Gibbons. No doubt he was the type of guy who made his bed every day and polished his foraging boots. I, on the other hand, am famous for killing houseplants, and dug up a bucket of dandelions, only to forget them until it was nearly too late. I’ll admit to feeling a little melancholy about my dandelion misadventures.

Then one day last week, I noticed the early March sunlight had coaxed the first dandelions out of the ground. After only three days, they were larger than my dandelion houseplants had grown in a month.  I happily dug them and enjoyed my first taste of spring in the form of dandelion miso soup. In the future, I think I’ll leave the dandelion gardening in the expert hands of Mother Nature.

Dandelion Miso Soup

Serves 1

Ingredients

2 cups water

2½  tablespoons white or yellow miso

2 newly emerged dandelion plants, washed and chopped

1 tablespoon minced chives or green onion tops

Directions

1. Prepare the dandelion plants by washing them under cool running water. Chop the plants in their entirety. If they are the first of spring, the roots should be tender enough to eat. You will be able to tell because your knife will slice through them as easily as a carrot.

2. Over high heat, bring the water to a boil, add the dandelion roots, and cook for 7 minute.

3. Turn off the heat, and briskly stir in the miso until it dissolves completely into the water.

Gently fold the dandelion greens and chives into the soup, and enjoy it immediately.

Top photo: Dandelion Miso Soup. Credit: Wendy Petty

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The Winter To-Do List For Snowbound Foragers Image

As a forager who lives in a place with a definite off-season, I still manage to fill the winter months with wild food-related activities. Looking out the window of my Colorado office this month, the landscape alternates between snowy white and stricken brown. Today, the wind blew with such force that I found my trash can having a tea party with its friends two blocks from home. There just aren’t many wild edibles that I could forage right now aside from conifer needles.

Sure, I can pick handfuls of cold-hardy greens in the dwindling months of autumn and again when spring leisurely awakens. But the meat of my foraging season occurs between April and September, when plants grow with such urgency here at high altitude that I spend nearly all of my free time picking and processing at a numbing pace. During the foraging off-season, I’m still able to accomplish much as a wild foods enthusiast since it is the perfect time for study and planning.

When the wild plants are bountifully growing, I’m careful to preserve them for the winter. I dry big tins full of nettles and linden flowers. The freezer fills up with blanched greens, and the shelves get lined with stonecrop pickles and elder cordial. Rows of half-gallon jars filled with dried porcini are my pride and joy.

Foragers taking stock and studying botany

My goal is to eat from wild foods as much as possible for the entire year, especially from abundant and invasive weeds. Come late winter, I’m able to analyze my stocks. I take careful notes on which plants I’d like to harvest more in the coming year, and also which recipes or foods aren’t being eaten with enthusiasm. This helps me adhere to the second rule of foraging (the first being never eat a food you’ve not identified), never take more than you can use.

This year, I’ve found that I didn’t pick nearly enough linden flowers to support my love of linden tea. Because linden mostly grows as an ornamental locally, there will be no problem with harvesting more next year. On the other hand, I seem to be the only one who eats the wild mustard kimchi, so I will plan for a smaller batch come spring, even though the plant is an invasive and can be picked freely.

Perhaps the greatest luxury that down time affords me as a forager is the ability to study. I check enormous stacks of books from the library, everything from foraging guides to cookbooks, and novels, too. Seeing the words and projects of others fills my sails with inspiration and sends me off in new directions of exploration.

Snow-covered wild plants in Colorado. Credit: Wendy Petty

Snow-covered wild plants in Colorado. Credit: Wendy Petty

Winter is my best opportunity to dive headlong into the study of botany. I came to foraging through a love of food, so studying botany with seriousness after falling in love with wild plants is a bit backward. I wish I’d known more about botany from the outset. Being able to recognize similar characteristics among plant families and unlocking the meaning of Latin binomials opens  the world of foraging and makes learning new plants infinitely easier.

Studying botany needn’t been intimidating. I highly recommend starting with a book called “Botany in a Day,” by Thomas Elpel. While you may not be able to learn it in a day, any tidbit you can learn about how to accurately describe plants can be very helpful. Being able to determine something as basic as whether the leaves on a plant are opposite or alternate gives you a huge head start in identification.

One of my favorite challenges of the off-season is going for walks and trying to identify dried brown plant remains, and trees without leaves. It’s one thing to be able to identify a plant when it is in flower, it is much more challenging to identify its dried skeleton. But if you can do so, it may help you scout a new location. The same goes for being abile to identify a tree by bark and bud alone. A fellow forager memorized all of his local trees in the summer, and in the winter, he’d practice identifying them by bark alone, calling out their names as he passed them on bike.

Filling notebooks with adapted recipes for foraged ingredients

The final piece of my off-season puzzle is brainstorming recipes. Often, in the heat of summer, I’m too busy teaching or processing large batches of wild foods to spend as much time as I’d prefer coming up with new recipes. In winter, I take the time to really consider my favorite ingredients, and how best to highlight their unique flavors. I have a notebook divided into four sections, one for each season. When I come up with a recipe idea, I write down the basic concept, and note where the idea originated. That way, come harvest time, when my attention is elsewhere, I’m able to open up to the appropriate season and see a list of recipe ideas, ready to go. I take the greatest amount of inspiration from my friends. Some of my closest friends right now are Persian, Mexican and Indian, and I can see the flavors they’ve introduced to me seeping into my own recipes. I love to look at a traditional recipe, as made by a friend, and spin it in my imagination with local wild ingredients.

It used to be that winter made me sad. Especially in the digital age, when I could see the harvests of people living in places where there is something to forage all year long. I’ve come to learn that my own off-season can be productive, even if I’m not able to harvest plants. I’m able to take inventory of my pantry, study botany and brainstorm recipes for the coming year, none of which I have time to do when the plants are exploding with the growth of summer.

Top photo: Dried foraged foods from the pantry. Clockwise, from the upper left and moving clockwise: porcini mushrooms, cota tea (sometimes called Navajo tea) bundles, sumac and nettles. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Don’t Think Twice! Porcini Hot Chocolate Is A Holiday Treat Image

Porcini hot chocolate might be the most unusual holiday drink recipe you try this season. It is polarizing, to be certain. Most people will run in the opposite direction from the very idea of mushroom hot chocolate. But for those who dare to taste it, porcini hot chocolate is a unique and decadent treat.

I developed this recipe one night when my friend furnished a lovely rich meal of Mangalitsa pork and roasted vegetables, and I was asked to supply dessert. With such a filling meal, I knew that my dessert needed to be light. Immediately, my mind went to sorbets. But it was a cold and snowy night. It finally occurred to me that hot chocolate might be the perfect way to end the meal. The only question was how to make it special.

I’m known for my pantry full of wild Boletus edulis, aka porcini, mushrooms. It seemed that hot chocolate might be rounded out with mushrooms. It was certainly worth the experiment. I ran a quick test batch, knowing it would either be brilliant or horrible.

That first batch was so delicious that, with mug still in hand, I raced to the computer to tell all of my foraging buddies. Most of the foragers were excited. But one friend confessed, “that sounds really gross, but I’ll trust you.”

I served it that evening with the roasted pork to great success, and it has since become the staple item that I bring to all holiday parties. Each time, porcini hot chocolate gets a decidedly mixed reaction. Some politely decline, and others race to fill their cup. The people who try it are unanimously pleased with the way chocolate combines with mushrooms. Both are rich and earthy, and each seems to complement and make the other fuller. The powdered mushrooms also thicken the porcini hot chocolate, as if it were made with cream. When topped with a hit of whipped cream, and some extra cocoa for a bitter contrast, I can hardly think of a dessert I’d rather cozy up to during the holidays.

Porcini Hot Chocolate

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

4 tablespoons porcini powder, from sliced dried porcini

4 teaspoons packed brown sugar

32 ounces whole milk

whipped cream

extra cocoa powder, for dusting

Directions

1. Begin by making the porcini powder. This is best done by placing sliced dried porcini mushrooms in an electric spice grinder. Buzz them until the porcini are as fine as cocoa powder.

2. In a small bowl, combine the cocoa powder, porcini powder and brown sugar. Use a spoon or fork to stir the ingredients together until they are evenly combined.

3. Add the milk to a medium saucepan. Over low heat, whisk in the powdered ingredients until no visible powder remains on the top. Bring the heat up to medium-low, whisking every 30 seconds or so, until the porcini hot chocolate is hot.

4. Ladle the porcini hot chocolate into mugs, and top them with whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa.

Top photo: Porcini hot chocolate. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Luxurious Porcini Stuffing Adds Wild Card To Thanksgiving Image

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to revisit the year past, particularly for a wild foods enthusiast. This last foraging season was a doozie in my little corner of the Rocky Mountain region. It was a hard year for the plants, even harder for the people who endured the natural disasters, which only increases my gratitude for the wild foods I was able to pick, including porcini mushrooms for Thanksgiving dinner.

Rough year for wild food

Despite what was, in nearly every way, an unusually hard year for foraging, I was still able to harvest foods throughout the growing season.

This year there were regular snows and hard freezes right up into May, which meant that nearly all of the tree fruit crops were lost, including wild plums and apples. Summer looked to be a repeat of the previous years’ droughts, complete with destructive forest fires. Then, just as summer was about to end, a flooding rainstorm hit the area, shredding the landscape and forcing people from their homes.

I won’t forget my joy in finding the first green tops of wild onions in the spring, and preserving them in butter kept safe in the freezer. High summer scented my fingers with Monarda fistulosa, also known as beebalm or wild oregano. As summer started to drag its heels, I made my annual trek into the forest to chase down Boletus edulis, porcini mushrooms.

Even now, in what I’ve taken to calling “the year without fruit,” months past the first freeze, and having endured many snow storms, the land still provides. Some hardy greens still cling tightly to the ground, and I’m looking forward to a quiet snowy day in the coming months when I can pick black walnuts out of their shells. My pantry is wonderfully well stocked.

Foraged Thanksgiving classics

I will revisit my year of foraging at Thanksgiving with dishes tickled with wild ingredients. They will taste distinctly of this place I love and cement my foraging memories. It is possible to make a nearly all-wild Thanksgiving meal, and I’ve done so in the past. But because the holiday is a time to be surrounded by friends and extended family, many of whom are unfamiliar with wild cuisine, I usually restrain myself from making an all-wild meal. Instead, I prefer to make a wild twist on traditional dishes — cranberry sauce mixed with highbush cranberries, turkey basted with wild allium butter, or pumpkin pie made with a black walnut crust.

Among my most successful wild-infused Thanksgiving dishes is a stuffing loaded with foraged porcini mushrooms, which can also be purchased from a store if you aren’t lucky enough to find your own. Stuffing made with porcini mushrooms tastes at once wild and luxurious, but also comfortingly familiar. Using the porcini soaking water in place of the traditional broth adds an extra dimension of mushroom flavor to the dish. The eggs in this recipe add extra binding power to the bread cubes, but they may easily be omitted if you are serving vegans or those with egg allergies. This Thanksgiving stuffing may also be made gluten-free by using gluten-free bread.

Wild Porcini Mushroom Stuffing

Serves 8 to 10

Ingredients

1 pound sourdough bread, cut into ½-inch cubes

3½ cups boiling water

2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms

8 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, chopped

2 stalks celery with leaves, sliced

8 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped off the stems

½ teaspoon salt, plus more if needed

10 fresh sage leaves, chopped

Freshly cracked pepper

2 eggs, beaten (optional)

3 tablespoons Italian parsley leaves, chopped

Directions

1. Evenly spread the bread cubes on two baking sheets, and toast them in a 350 F oven until they dry out and the edges begin to brown, 15 to 20 minutes.

2. In a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried porcini mushrooms. Set it aside.

3. In a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, celery, thyme. Salt to the skillet and cook them until they turn soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.

4. Use a strainer to fish the mushroom slices out of the soaking water. Let the water drip out of them for a few seconds before adding them to the skillet with the onion and celery. Continue to cook the vegetables and mushrooms for another 5 minutes. Stir in the sage, and add cracked pepper, plus more salt if necessary, to taste. Remove the skillet from the heat.

5. Gently pour the mushroom soaking water into the skillet full of vegetables and mushrooms, taking care to leave behind any dirt that has settled in the bottom. If you are using eggs, whisk  them into the liquid.

6. Transfer the bread cubes to a large bowl. Pour the contents of the skillet over the bread cubes and toss until the bread cubes have absorbed all of the liquid. Stir in the parsley.

7. Transfer the mixture into a greased two-quart baking dish, and bake at 350 F for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the bread is heated through and the top looks crunchy and brown.

Top photo: Wild porcini mushroom stuffing for Thanksgiving. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Wild Mushroom Hunt In Rockies Unearths Family Recipe Image

Unusual things start popping up in the quiet forests of the Rocky Mountains following the late-summer monsoon rains. First, all manner of berries, from strawberries to raspberries to huckleberries, make their presence known. Next, mushrooms emerge in an astonishing array of shapes and colors, followed closely by the appearance of equally colorful wild mushroom hunters. Known to be an eccentric bunch, people who hunt mushrooms are almost always characters.

When I first learned to find mushrooms, people would remark to me that most of the mushroom hunters in Colorado were of Eastern European descent. I dismissed this as some sort of myth. Over the years of listening to other mushroom hunters in the woods, it turned out that I did, indeed, frequently hear accents that had a distinctive European lilt.

Most years, Colorado is dry, painfully dry, with an arid climate that skirts disaster. In the good years, the rain blesses the land in late summer. It is my hallelujah season, when I arise at 4 a.m. and make my way up the treacherous canyons in the dark, to arrive at a trailhead at daybreak, ready to chase mushrooms. Most days, I’m happy to wander the mushroom trail alone. I watch my fellow mushroom hunters. Some bounce up the trail with bulging sacks in hand, asking every person they cross if they’ve seen any mushrooms. Others quietly weave in and out of the edge of the forest, averting their eyes when they sense oncoming hikers.

Occasionally, I confront the trailwalkers whose eyes scan the ground. I play ignorant, and ask what they are doing. Most of the time, they are generous in letting me peer into their bag. I exclaim with genuine wonderment, “They’re so beautiful! Can you eat those?” One old-timer joked, “Every mushroom is edible … once!”

Wild mushroom hunters old-world charm and smarts

One day this last mushroom season, eating my snack while sitting cross-legged on a big rock, Mik Hrabovsky and his father, also Mik, both sporting newsboy hats, emerged from behind a stand of Engelmann spruce trees and raised their gnarled walking sticks in greeting. Feeling relaxed and friendly, I asked, “Did you find any mushrooms?” He lifted his basket, the same one that was lovingly carried over from Ukraine when his family immigrated to the United States, for me to see.

“Oh, yes! The forest has been a generous lady.” In the younger Hrabovsky, I heard that touch of Europe. I peered into his basket, which contained far more species than the singular porcini I was collecting.

Both Hrabovkys leaned in close to the rock where I sat, though the elder only twisted his mustache as he stared out at the distant peaks.

I inquired of Mik Jr., how he knew about mushrooms. He explained that the mushroom knowledge was passed down from the women in his family, his grandmother being the most knowledgeable, “She was our living encyclopedia, our wise woman. During the wars, knowing how to feed our family without outside help made her a kind of superhero.” Hrabovsky went on to explain that while his grandmother’s ability to find mushrooms seemed nearly magical, she always taught her grandchildren that mushroom hunting was a very practical way to celebrate the bounty that the forest can provide.

Now that the entire Hrabovsky clan is situated in America, the mushroom hunting tradition continues, with knowledge of mushrooms in the new land gathered from mushroom clubs and guidebooks. “I do it because it’s fun! The way some families watch their football team play every year, my family hunts mushrooms,” explained the younger Hrabovsky as he proudly held up a large Boletus edulis, also known as porcini. “I do it to connect to the old country and this land, too. There is something essential to who we are that we can only know by putting our fingers into the dirt where we live, and picking food from the land and taking it into ourselves.”

Curious about whether the newest generation of Hrabovsky children also enjoy finding mushrooms, I asked whether they ever join the hunt. “It’s hard to convince them to look away from their iPhones,” Mik Jr. said. “But once they get out here, they’re just kids, no different from kids in Ukraine, and they enjoy the treasure hunt.” Hrabovsky placed a hand on his father’s back, “I want them to know that our food is our history, and that they can reach back through time by cooking the same food as their grandparents and great-grandparents.”

Hrabovsky Family Mushroom-Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Ingredients

1 head of cabbage, leaves separated

4 tablespoons lard

2 pounds of edible wild mushrooms, finely chopped

1 large onion, diced

1 teaspoon dill seeds, crushed

½ teaspoon caraway seeds, crushed

½ teaspoon celery seeds, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons flour

1 quart crushed tomatoes and their juice

Water

Directions

1. Blanch the leaves of cabbage in a large pot of boiling water for 1 minute each. Pat each dry, then stack the cabbage leaves so that they are ready to roll.

2. In a large sauté pan, melt the lard over medium heat. Once the melted lard has started to ripple in the pan, add the mushrooms, onions, caraway seeds, celery seeds and salt. Stir the contents of the pan continuously just until the water starts to emerge from the mushrooms.

3. Sprinkle the flour over the mushrooms and onion, and continue to stir them while they cook for another minute. Remove the pan from the heat and let it cool for 10 minutes.

4. Stuff each cabbage leaf with a few tablespoons of the mushroom mixture. Spoon the mushroom stuffing onto the stem-end of the cabbage leaf, then carefully roll it, folding in the sides of the cabbage leaf halfway, so that you end up with cylindrical-shaped packages of mushroom-stuffed cabbage.

5. Nestle the cabbage packages into a large Dutch oven. Pour the crushed tomatoes over the mushroom-cabbage rolls. If needed, add water so that the liquid in the pot comes within a half-inch of covering the rolls. Cover the pot.

6. Braise the mushroom-cabbage rolls in a 350 F oven for 2 hours. Serve over buttered egg noodles or mashed potatoes.

Top photo: Colorado porcini mushroom. Credit: Wendy Petty

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Class On Animal Processing Taps Deep Human Emotion Image

There aren’t many occasions in life today when the veil is lifted, when everything that is raw and real is on the forefront. It’s the reason we love weddings and sporting events, because they are often the best/only opportunity to witness human emotion laid bare. I had an opportunity to witness deep human emotion last week when I took the animal processing class hosted by the Laughing Coyote Project in Boulder, Colo. I signed up for the class hoping to improve my butchering skills. I walked away deeply moved at having watched a group of people do something brave and real.

Nervous tension hung in the air as we gathered on that early summer morning, a mixed group of men and women, a handful of teenagers, and two young boys around 10 years old. As we chatted, two 6-month-old lambs, the ones we were to kill and process that weekend, quietly munched grass under the shade of a cottonwood.

As class began, we sat in a circle in the pen with the sheep. Our instructor, Myron Cretney, clad in buckskin shorts and shirt, led the discussion as to how the day would proceed. Barefooted and with his knife around his neck, Cretney explained that he wasn’t a butcher. Rather he’s a person with years of experience processing his own meat, particularly roadkill. Like most who signed up for the class, Cretney said he harvested his own meat out of desire to take full responsibility for his food.

With kind eyes shining out from above his long white beard, Cretney spent nearly two hours explaining how the class would capture, hold down and cut the throats of each of the sheep. He emphasized how to make the creatures feel most comfortable, saying that their greatest stress seemed to be in separation from the herd. To balance out the fear and sadness that was thick in the air, he instructed us to focus on appreciation and intent. We looked at the lambs, and thought about how thankful we’d be, not only for the meat they’d provide, but also the hides, bones and sinews, all of which would be used by members of the class. He told us that our actions during the slaughter must be deliberate and loving, like the firm hug you’d give a child during an inconsolable fit.

Animal processing with gratitude and respect

The moment finally arrived, and the two people who were to perform the knife plunge were self-selected. One was the mother to the youngest boy in attendance; the other, a 15-year-old. Each student knew his/her role so that the moment of the kill would proceed speedily and calmly. Some would capture the animals, others would hold down the flanks, another would hold down the head and place an ear across the animal’s eye to minimize its fear, one would cut through the jugulars and windpipe, and another would whisk the blood as it drained to prevent clotting.

Each of the people designated to cut the throats had trouble passing through the windpipe. However, no panic seeped into the situation. Cretney swiftly stepped in and helped finalize the cuts. It took several minutes for the blood to drain from the lambs, and their muscles occasionally twitched throughout that time. The students continued to hold them down firmly and with great love. A heavy silence reigned, and fat tears rolled down our cheeks.

Of the whole workshop, the single moment that stood out most in my mind was watching Alexis Neely hold down the shoulder of one of the lambs, quietly crying, but also watching her 11-year-old son, Noah, to make certain he was OK. Afterward, I asked Neely why she felt it was important to bring her young son to the class.

“Noah was born with a love of hunting, fishing and all sorts of primitive skills,” she said. “So while I was a Jewish American Princess from Miami with almost no connection to the outdoors and a deep desire not to harm any living thing, I found my inner nature goddess to support my son. And it turned out that I love it as well. So I look for any and all experiences I can share with Noah that get us in close communion with all aspects of natural living and find as I do that a ‘remembering’ happens for both of us. I experienced the animal processing weekend to support a great respect and appreciation for all life.”

Making use of every part of the animal

The class spent the remainder of the weekend learning to use every part of the animals. Cretney demonstrated techniques — whether stripping the hide from the flesh, or threading a wooden “needle” through the intestines to help turn them inside out for cleaning — on one animal, and let the students complete every part of the work with our own hands.

Despite the lighter mood, Cretney still emphasized respect. At one point, one of the young children threw mock punches at one of the hung animals. Our instructor reminded us that throughout the whole process, we were to recall the same thoughts of gratitude summoned just before slaughter.

(Editor’s note: Some of the photos in the gallery below are a stark depiction of the process.)

Picture 1 of 5

Students at an animal processing class at Laughing Coyote Project in Boulder, Colo. Credit: Wendy Petty

At the end of the class, all of the animals’ gifts were laid out on a table, and students took turns choosing which they desired to take home. I went home with some meat, a piece of hide to try my hand at leather tanning, and a lung and blood to make blood pudding.

The skills I learned at the animal processing class will serve me well when handling meat in the future. Ultimately, though, I will remember watching people at their best and the sense of community that the experience created. It usually takes me several meetings to connect names and faces. After the weekend-long animal processing class, I was able to bid farewell to each of my classmates by name.

Blood Pudding in a Lung

Ingredients

1 quart fresh sheep blood, run through a sieve to remove clots

1 teaspoon powdered garlic

1 teaspoon powdered onion

1 teaspoon ground wild oregano

1 sheep lung

cracker crumbs for breading (optional)

sage butter for frying (optional)

Directions

1. Whisk the garlic, onion and wild oregano into the blood.

2. Getting the blood into the lung is a two-person job. Have the first person hold the lung steady with a funnel inserted into the trachea. The second person pours the blood into the lung very slowly, until it seems to have reached capacity.

3. Tie off the trachea tightly using twine or a strong rubber band.

4. Using string, tie the blood-filled lung to the center of a stick or long-handled spoon, so that it will be secure when placed into the pot to boil.

5. Fill a pot large enough to contain the lung with water and bring it to a boil. When the water has reached a boil, reduce the heat so that the water is only simmering.

6. Carefully lower the blood-filled lung into the pot of water, allowing the stick to rest on the edges of the pot.

7. Allow the blood pudding to boil gently for 2 hours, turning occasionally.

8. Once it has been cooked and cooled completely, the blood pudding (as instructed by Cretney) can be sliced like bread. I went a step further and breaded my slices with cracker crumbs and quickly fried them in sage butter.

Top photo: A lamb stands nearby, before it is slaughtered as part of an animal processing class at Laughing Coyote Project in Boulder, Colo. Credit: Wendy Petty

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