Before she could walk, Susan Ebert had a place of honor, seated at the saddle in front of her grandfather, Papaw Dorsey, “bringing in cattle.” The Plantation Walkers Dorsey rode (flat-shod Tennessee Walking horses) carried his budding cowgirl safely and smoothly—perfect mounts for long days in the saddle. Before Susan had arrived, Papaw Dorsey had been eagerly awaiting the birth of his first grandson, anticipating the arrival of a boy he could teach to hunt and fish, to ride and herd cattle. He hoped the boy would take to nature, would come to love the wild as he himself did. He would school the boy about our earth: her ways, her seasons and bounties. When a tiny granddaughter presented herself in lieu of the boy he was expecting, there was nothing to be done but grin proudly and move ahead with his plans.
Much of Ebert’s youth was spent in the wild country, whether on horseback, casting a line into a stream, foraging in the woods, or hunting squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. In Ebert’s words, “Women originally hunted for stewpots. Larger game was left for the men.” When not shadowing Papaw, Ebert could often be found with her grandmother, Mamaw Grace, who taught her to garden, “to plant, to tend, to harvest.” She learned where the wild grapes and blackberries grew, how to make sassafrass iced tea, and just how delicious fresh black walnuts could be in a homemade cake.
College, graduate work at UT Austin, and then a six-year stint at Texas Monthly would take Ebert away from hunting, and from the close relationship with nature she enjoyed as a child. Life unfolded. A marriage faltered. With an impending divorce and two small children she returned to gardening for “the spiritual sustenance that sustained me in my youth.” When an editorial position at Organic Gardening magazine was offered to her, Ebert jumped at the chance. (She had long been a fan of the periodical.) She packed up her “babies” and headed for Pennsylvania. Ebert worked two years under the mentorship of the founder’s son, Bob Rodale, until his untimely death. She would stay on another six years before heading back to the warmth of her beloved Texas, and a post as publisher and editor of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine—the first woman to hold the position in its 73-year history. Her new workplace landed her squarely back in the thick of the wild. Fishing, paddling and big game hunting took her to the Rio Grande Valley and the Red River, as well as other Texas destinations, and she ambled from one memorable adventure to the next.
But her years at Organic Gardening, and the influence of the impeccable sensibilities of Bob Rodale had been an education in their own right—and a life-changing one at that. Her travels throughout Texas brought her face to face with the reality of the routine use of antibiotics and chemicals with regard to cattle and other livestock in captive feedlots. Several quotes of Rodale’s had a permanent home in her heart, and they rose to haunt her.
“It is so pure, so simple. You CAN live a longer, happier, healthy life; you CAN take better care of our earth; you CAN leave a better world for our children,” she heard him say in her heart. Then, “For people to love the earth, they must first touch it.” Bob Rodale, along with Papaw Dorsey and Mamaw Grace, had aptly prepared her for the task at hand. Ebert set out to create both a cookbook and a field manual of sorts. It needed to be a book that would be “women friendly”, one that would have a “seasonal format”, one that would fulfill the reader’s longing to reconnect with the earth and the simple joys of canning, making jelly, picking berries. Ebert also set out to offer tips on what to hunt and when, how to field dress quarry, and how best to preserve wild game, fruits, and vegetables for year round enjoyment. Her foraging items and when and where to find them are “mostly universal” and her wisdom and practicality are applicable wherever one might live.
Ebert admits to shedding tears upon the killing of an animal, both from the relief of getting the shot and the sobering realization of taking a life that will in turn nourish you. She reminds us of the gift of having the blessed food we eat, of knowing just where it has come from, and of the privilege of caring for what has died to grace our tables.
Ebert’s Field To Table Cookbook, Gardening, Foraging, Fishing, & Hunting is equally whimsical and profound. How can you not smile at the thought of dandelion fritters, made from an apron full of dandelion flowers gathered from the backyard? Or dewberry ice cream in pavlovas, or specklebelly goose breast with pomegranate gastrique? Ebert urges us not to taint with pesticides the ground that serves our families, to treat with respect whatever space over which we have dominion. Ebert has, in fact, written a field bible for our times, encouraging us to honor both ourselves and all of nature that sustains us.
Anticuchos de Pato con Salasa Amarillo (Spicy Duck Skewers with Yellow Sauce)
If you find yourself with skinless duck breasts, try a South American twist: sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors delighted in Peru’s delicious anticuchos—spicy skewers of grilled beef heart. I’ve discovered that these are even more delicious made of wild duck. The popularity of anticuchos has spread from the Andean states, where they’re found on street food carts and in street food stalls, and into Texas and the Southwest, where we’ve fallen in love with the dish’s sunny, aromatic dipping sauce, spiked with cumin and turmeric.
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer
4 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs skinless duck breast, trimmed and cut into ¾-inch chunks
4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 yellow bell peppers
1/3 cup chopped green onions (chopped from the bottom third of the onions)
2 ½ tablespoons distilled white vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
2 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Blend the smoked paprika, cumin, turmeric, salt, and pepper thoroughly in a small bowl. In a separate large bowl, combine the duck cubes, red wine vinegar, and half of the spice mixture and toss with your fingers to coat the meat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to a day. Meanwhile, soak eight wooden skewers in water until
you are ready to cook.
Make the salsa Amarillo: If you have a gas range, blister the yellow bell peppers over a flame, turning them with tongs until they are scorched on all sides. If not, cut the peppers in half, remove the ribs and seeds, and arrange on a baking sheet, skin side up. Broil them for 8 to 10 minutes, until the skins blister and begin to blacken. Using tongs, place the still-hot peppers in a small bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and “sweat” them for 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove the blackened skin and any remaining seeds under a stream of cool water, and coarsely chop.
Combine the peppers and half of the remaining spice mixture (a quarter of the original mixture) with the green onions, distilled white vinegar, oil, lemon juice, garlic, and 1 tablespoon water in a blender. Process until smooth, then pour into a small serving bowl. Cover and hold at room temperature until ready to serve.
Thread the duck chunks onto the wooden skewers, blend together the parsley and the remaining spice mixture, and press the rub evenly into the meat. Grill on a 350° to 375° F charcoal or gas grill for about 2 minutes per side to medium-rare doneness, turning only once. Serve with the salsa Amarillo.