Allow me to fall from grace a bit and tell you about an unusual project from last summer. Until now I’ve kept mum on the subject, as my take on it ranges from awesome to repulsed, and I played an integral part.
It all started last spring, when, while gimping about in the confinement of our home with my newly repaired ACL, I received a call from the UK—an assistant producer, Richard Grisman, then from Fresh One TV, asking about wild food foraging in Colorado. Where could they bring 16 chefs to survive— hunting, fishing, and foraging—in early June? Were there any concerns that would need to be addressed?
There was only to be one episode (Episode 3: Kill It, Cook It, Eat It) in Chef Race: UK vs. US for BBC America—a reality TV show that would pit a team of eight British chefs against eight American chefs in a series of 10 quasi-cooking-related challenges to take place on a road trip across the US from Southern California to New York.
Aside from this recent spell of global warming we’ve been having, foraging in early June is a tough call in the cold, arid lands of Colorado. “Maybe you should do the foraging challenge in California,” I ventured. But it was a no-go.
“Maybe you should do it later in spring?” I tried. Nope—the start date was set; the challenges were set; there was simply the small matter of arranging for everything to work. Time was very much on my side in those days and I was tickled to have someone to talk to so I chatted with Richard at length about regulations and the project’s overall feasibility, though the whole thing seemed rather far-fetched to me. Funny character, that Richard. At one point he opined that avocados were tasteless things that were as odd to eat as wild plants. You don’t say?
Later, I got a call back. The producers wanted to hire me as a “fixer” to set the thing up. For BBC America, no less. Um sure, yeah, I can do that.
“Maybe you should just fish and not hunt,” I told Richard the next time we spoke, having discovered that turkey season would end a week before their arrival and nothing else was in season after that except for European starlings, sparrows, Eurasian-collared doves, prairie dogs (on private land), Richardson’s ground squirrels—which are pretty close to prairie dogs—and coyotes.
“No they really want there to be hunting,” he said.
Of all the options, eating invasives sounded like a great idea to me, a recent convert thanks to Joe Roman and his Eat the Invaders project, so I phoned the only person I could think of who might have, in fact, already eaten a Eurasian collared dove.
Sure enough, Denver-area forager, road-kill scavenger, and small game hunter Butterpoweredbike had killed and eaten her share (recipe 1, recipe 2). “Each side of the breast is about the size of a chicken ‘tender’—you know, those side bits that they pull off of chicken breasts and sell separately,” she said.
This is not going to feed 16 contestants, I thought.
Next, I emailed a hundred or so members of the Colorado Outfitters Association, explaining the situation—that we required an outfitter to guide a group of inexperienced reality TV stars on a hunt when nothing was in season except the aforementioned animals plus, perhaps, crawdads and crickets—ideally on private land where we could get permission to forage non-threatened plant species for consumption. They must have thought I was crazy. I was.
Still, one man heeded the call—the multi-talented Joe Keys, a ski patroller and guide and outfitter from Mesa, Colorado. The tiny town of Mesa, located between Grand Junction and Rifle, sits in the dry desert lowlands but abuts a lush foothills zone by Powderhorn ski area as well as the high-elevation Grand Mesa, known for fishing (and mosquitos). There would be foraging, fishing, and animals to hunt, he promised—including a field of prairie dogs that the landowner would be happy to see controlled.
Prairie dogs are as cute as can be. They live in complex familial structures. To kill and eat them would seem cruel—but that doesn’t keep people from gassing them, especially when the rodents go homesteading on golf course grounds. In farm fields, a horse can break a leg in a prairie dog hole. There are many ways to reduce prairie dog populations, not one of which involves consumption. Some rednecks I know use them for target practice. So by way of justification, I ask this: Would not eating prairie dogs be the more humane solution?
“So—the prairie dogs? Can we really eat them?” I asked Joe.
“Oh yeah, we can eat them,” he said (I paraphrase).
“Have you ever eaten one?”
“No I have not.”
For those reading this post from a practical perspective—Like when the apocalypse hits, can we eat prairie dogs?—keep in mind that prairie dogs are known carriers of Bubonic plague. Not in the dogs themselves, but in the fleas with whom they cohabitate. Thus, would-be eaters should skin and prepare a dog immediately upon extermination, with gloves, and I don’t know—a hazmat suit? This is not my area of expertise. I offer it by way of a disclaimer: Don’t read this and then go kill a prairie dog for dinner and get Bubonic plague is all I’m saying.
If you’re skeezed out now, imagine the contestants—the ones they starved and forced to hike miles in the desert sun so they would be prone to argumentation, making for good TV. A few were pretty disgusted by the scenario—especially after they found out that the locals don’t even eat prairie dog.
In the end, however, the chefs didn’t eat any prairie dog. The locals did. And I did too.
The final challenge of Episode 3 was a cook-off. The teams had an hour to create a buffet meal of their wild-foraged, fished and hunted ingredients (at some point I’ll tell you about the awesome spread of wild dishes that these creative chefs concocted.) For the hunted protein, the American team’s Ronaldo Linares made prairie dog stew, cooked whole in a red sauce, while the Brits came up with what Johnnie Mountain called “Dog n’ Frog,” a play on Surf n’ Turf, featuring small bits of prairie dog and bullfrog meat over a bed of greens.
They fed the wild meal to a group of Mesa-area locals, including ski industry folks, old-timers, and other friends of outfitter Joe Keys. After the locals made their plates from the buffet table, I joined the chefs at the window, pressing my face against the glass to watch the final filming as the guests sampled the various plates. But I had ants in my pants at the same time for that abandoned buffet table of wild dishes, so after some silent jumping around and gesturing, the behind-the-scenes crew gave me the go-ahead to start tasting. I was joined soon by the outfitters and other staff on the premises. In fact, everybody but the chefs themselves, pretty much, got to sample the food.
Joe and I sat in the corner of the Hilltop House tasting, and of course we were particularly interested in trading culinary notes on the prairie dog. “Oh this is really good,” Joe said on the white meat from the Brits’ plate—but alas, it was the frog, not the dog. The dog meat was rather dark and oily and I didn’t much care for it, try as I might, despite the palatable presentation in the stew. Nor did Richard Corrigan, the bombastic chef who judged the series.
Some of the locals, though—they thought Corrigan judged the stew too harshly. I even overheard a few singing its praises.
I’m curious what you think. Would you eat prairie dog? Have you eaten prairie dog? If so, please share!
And people of Mesa—consider this an open invitation to share your thoughts on the culinary potential of those pesky but cute colonizers of the prairie that we were forced to eat for reality TV.