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We've Lost Nearly All of Our Wild Foods -- What Happened? And What Are We Missing?

Fish are the last wild food that most of us will eat.

A few days from now, a single bluefin tuna will make international headlines when it sells for an ungodly amount of money -- perhaps more than $100,000 -- at Tokyo's Tsukiji market. And while the high price of the first bluefin of the year will be extraordinary, the rarity, and thus the prestige and high pricetag of bluefin in general, provides a clue to humans' dietary history. Once upon a time, wild foods were a regular and beloved part of the American diet. Today, the American epicure might dine on foraged mushrooms and ramps, but for many of us, fish are the last wild food we eat. What happened? And what are we missing?

Georgia Pellegrini, a chef who has worked in elite restaurants in New York and France, decided to answer this question for herself when she set out to hunt her own food. As her new book's title implies --  Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time -- she entered into a masculine realm in which she was often the only woman. Pellegrini traveled across the United States and even England, hunting everything from squirrel to elk. As much as she stands out as a woman, she also stands out among the local and sustainable food movement. (An anthropologist recently pointed out that the local food movement "has been reticent to embrace hunting as an integral part of sustainable eating.")

As a chef, Pellegrini focuses on her meal's flavor more than many other sustainable food writers. At one point, while contemplating pulling the trigger to shoot a javelina, Pellegrini says, "I wonder if I had to work hard enough for this. I wonder if I had to exert myself enough... Then I wonder how javelina taste."

Pellegrini points out that an animal's flavor reflects its diet. "There's a vast difference in flavor," between wild game and meat from the store or even from the farmers' market, she says. "Wild animals are athletes; they exercise their muscles and eat whatever they want. Cattle live in pens and eat exactly the same diet. With wild animals, you really have to think about how you cook them based on what they are eating. You aren't just thinking about what you are about to eat; you are thinking about what you're about to eat ate."

This is what draws Pellegrini to hunting: having to immerse herself in her environment and think from the point of view of the animal, both to successfully hunt it and to cook it. "You think about your environment while you're in it. You're in nature, you're part of the experience." For example, she notes, "if I'm hunting for ducks and I'm in New Orleans on the coast, I know the ducks are probably eating fish. Depending on the type of duck, I know what the diet is. But animals sometimes get desperate. If there's an overabundance of an animal, that's when the diets get strange." As a chef, she knows that animals hold their flavor in their fat. To decide how to cook wild game, she will often render some fat in a pan and taste it first.

Hunting and wild foods hold a specific place in American history, one that historian Ann Vileisis tracked through time in her book Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes from and Why We Need to Get It Back, and one that Andrew Beahrs traced through the life and favorite foods of Mark Twain in his book Twain's Feast: Searching for America's Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens.

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