Sometimes I have to shake my head at how much work it can take to track down a handful of food. Perfect example: I spent a whole day in the Amazon rainforest, in Ecuador, scouring the trunks of dead palm trees for grubs. Trekking through an anaconda-infested swamp was pretty harrowing, but we finally collected enough grubs for a meal. They ended up pan-fried in pork fat until crispy. Definitely worth the work... but then again, not something I'd look forward to doing every day.
My friend Matthias Theofullus of the Ovambo tribe is one of the handful of truly legendary trackers in a part of the world known for them. He guided me in my quest for this blue wildebeest. I finally felled it with a single shot. The animal weighed 600 pounds, and I had to break it down myself in the middle of the Dordabis Conservation Area, with lookouts watching for predatory big cats moving in the tall grass all around us. We cooked some of the meat and organs over hot coals, then donated the rest of the wildebeest to an AIDS orphanage, feeding children who hadn't seen meat for months. I had the hide salted and sent to me in Minnesota. It's currently being tanned at a taxidermy shop.
There's fresh fish, and then there's fresh fish. Samoa is ranked as one of the best places for game fishing in all the world, and runs thick in the waters off the island chain. In fact, it's used as an edible currency in local markets. The day I fished there, we caught loads of yellowfin. We ate some right there on the boat, raw, with a simple squeeze of lime. Pure indulgence.
One of the scariest days in the history of our TV show was on the island of Nu'utele in Samoa. Not only did our tiny aluminum boat almost capsize, but we went bat hunting with the Samoan Shooting Federation. They turned out to be a great group of guys, but their leader was drunk all day and kept getting drunker. Guns and booze aren't an ideal pairing. Luckily our amazing guide, Afele Faiilagi, was there to help calm the chaos. We were on the uninhabited island from dawn to late at night. It's one of the most stunning places I've ever seen, and it's home to an enormous colony of giant fruit bats. They weigh from five to 10 pounds. We shot a few, then charred them over a coconut-husk fire, split them whole and basted them with fresh ginger juice collected from wild plants. The bat was earthy, moist and not gamey in the least.
I love the folks at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Seattle. I lean on these guys whenever I need oysters and clams for a cooking demo. Or geoduck. What's weirder-looking than a geoduck? The farm raises these giant clams, planting and harvesting them by hand. Full-grown geoducks weigh a pound-and-a-half; they live under the sand, using their long snouts to stick above the surface and get air. Harvesters use hoses to push sand out of the way to pull up the geoducks without damaging them. Experienced harvesters can pull up 1,000 pounds of geoduck in four hours. I was a little slower, but it was still fun. On that same Seattle trip, I taught a group of students in the Fare Start program how to prepare geoduck. Fare Start helps recovering addicts, ex-cons and the homeless by teaching them culinary skills to start working in the food world. It's a fantastic organization.
For most people, carp isn't just garbage fish, it's an invasive species. I'm an advocate for alternative proteins, and I believe we can eat many. I spent an evening hunting on the water with the Land of Lakes Bowfishing Association. We set out on a perfect Minnesota summer night, loaded with bows and arrows. Not exactly like shooting fish in a barrel; it's a helluva tricky skill to master. Typically, carp is oily, fatty and all-around horrific to chow down on. But I got turned on to a new way of preparing this fish: brining the fillets for 12 hours, then smoking them over oak, skin up, while the oil and fat sweat out of the meat. The end result tastes and looks a lot like ham. It's awesome.
Lungfish may be the most horrific-looking animal on earth, and they get worse from there. These things live in the muddy waters of Ugandan rice paddies. The lungfish burrow in the mud (they hardly need any oxygen), so hunters must dig around in the shallow water, searching for the tunnels where the lungfish live. This kind of fishing isn't for those with slow reflexes — a lungfish's bite can take off fingers. Once caught, the fish is dried and smoked. Ugandan women will not eat or prepare lungfish, because they consider it a "sister animal."