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Friends hunt and gather for unforgettable meal

Friends hunt and gather for unforgettable meal

Posted: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 5:57 pm

By MARY CONSTANTINE
The Knoxville News Sentinel
KNOXVILLE (AP) — Brilliant thoughts occur while sitting on “the throne.” So do harebrained ideas.
Call it what you want, but on a warm day in June while Matt Mowrer sat perusing the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” an idea stirred in his head.
“I was flipping through the book and saw on the back where he (author Michael Pollan) wanted to make the perfect meal, one that was hunted and gathered locally. I thought that sounded like fun.”
He shared the idea with wife Jen and friends Tommy and Megan Smith.
“Matt and Megan were totally gung ho on it. I was interested and Tommy was amused,” Jen Mowrer said.
Thus began their 2 1/2-month adventure of hunting and gathering food.
Their criteria to acquire foods was stricter than the author had proposed.
“His concept was to represent foods derived from four categories: mineral, fungus, vegetable and meat, (but) he could use dry goods from his pantry.
“We said none of that. We decided to gather from friends and families, but absolutely nothing could be bought,” Matt Mowrer said.
All agreed that modern appliances could be used to prepare the meal.
The first culinary conquest occurred in early July at Ocean Isle, N.C., where Megan and Tommy Smith and Jen Mowrer vacationed. Matt Mowrer was unable to join because of work.
“It rained one afternoon so I thought it was a perfect time to boil down seawater to get salt,” Megan Smith said.
They filled a mop bucket and a gallon milk jug full of saltwater and took it to the kitchen of the rented beach house.
“We poured it into three of the biggest pots the house had and started boiling it. As each pot boiled down I put the remaining water into the biggest pot,” she said.
After straining the last bit of liquid through a cloth and letting the salt dry, they acquired 1/3 cup.
A minor casualty occurred during the process.
“Every 10 minutes or so I would wipe off the microwave (located above the stove) because of all the condensation. It got so wet it shorted out. It dried up and worked fine the next day,” she said.
Another adventure had them sloshing through a muddy swamp to gather cattails
“We needed a starch so I asked myself, ‘How can you do starches other than the obvious?”’ Matt Mowrer said.
He searched the Internet and found directions for making cattail flour.
The process involved pulling the stalk apart to find a single root that contained a grainy paste.
“That’s what we put in water to wash out. Then we let it settle and strained it a lot. I had fun showing everyone our swamp water that was going to render cattail flour,” Megan Smith said.
After it was strained, the flour was left to dry.
“That was a four-hour process and we got one-half cup of flour. There’s a reason cattail flour isn’t in the grocery store,” Matt Mowrer said.
They considered incorporating cattail cob into the menu, but after sampling it they jettisoned the idea.
“It was like eating a bunch of hair,” Megan Smith said.
White potatoes were dried, ground into flour and used to make spaetzle and potato crisps. Sweet potatoes were dried, ground into flour and blended with the cattail flour to make crust for the dessert tart.
A fishing trip garnered the group enough bluegill to use in the appetizer.
The green peppers and grapes came from Megan and Tommy Smith’s garden, and the blueberries from Matt Mowrer’s grandmother. Other fruits and vegetables, including white and sweet potatoes, squash, pears and nuts, were donated by Jo and Paul Watson of Sweetwater and Dr. Dulcie Peccolo of Knoxville.
“I raided Dr. Peccolo’s garden while she wasn’t there, but I left her a sweet potato pie. My momma raised me right,” Megan Smith said.
Matt Mowrer got “Farragut apples” from a friend, pressed them for apple cider, and let it ferment, using the vinegar to pickle okra and peppers.
“My goal was not just to make a meal, but to make a complex, restaurant-quality meal with a bias toward making it complicated and ridiculous,” he said.
Megan Smith’s father, Knoxville News Sentinel columnist Sam Venable, donated venison and helped her acquire eggs, bacon and fresh milk. Her mother, Mary Ann, let her raid her herb garden.
No attribution was given to the liquid refreshment (commonly made in the hills of Appalachia) that was served as an after-dinner drink.
They churned butter the evening before the planned dinner and by 1 a.m. were satisfied with the amount procured.
“We got more than a cup,” Megan Smith said.
Up by 8 a.m. the following morning the group continued prep work and made the final decision on the ever-fluctuating menu.
Oddly enough, while prepping for a meal absent of industrialized foods, their breakfast and lunch was purchased at McDonald’s.
Jen Mowrer, who had been instructed by husband Matt to only “make the invitations,” wound up in the kitchen preparing soup and sorbet.
Matt Mowrer was in charge of making the appetizer and main course.
Megan Smith prepared an entree, dessert and nuts.
Tommy Smith, who described himself as “the hired muscle” designed the menu and pitched in whenever needed.
Guest Carrie Conyngham brought wine. That was the group’s only compromise to the hunting and gathering meal.
Before eating, they toasted their success.
“To nature’s bounty,” Matt Mowrer said.
“To hard work,” Tommy Smith added.
Everything was edible and the group enjoyed the meal. The stars of the show were Jen Mowrer’s soup and Megan Smith’s stuffed peppers.
Matt Mowrer, who was concerned about the spaetzle, was pleased with the final product.
“It’s good. I guess it’s because I used a lot of butter and bacon,” he said.
Only one dish — the Loudon County cattail, pear and blueberry tart — received less-than-rave reviews. The filling was good, but the crust, made with cattail flour, was unpleasant to the palate.
“It tastes like a dog biscuit,” Tommy Smith said.
Perhaps he forgot that his wife made the dessert.
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Information from: The Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com
Published in The Messenger 9.17.08

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