Extreme Frugality: Me and My Ruffed Grouse

In this day and age of specialization, W. Hodding Carter is an unashamed generalist. The man is curious about everything, and his books have taken him around the world. He’s followed in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, retraced Leif Ericsson’s journey to the New World in an authentic replica of a Viking merchant ship, and has written about the ecology of the Everglades, the history of plumbing, his quest for Olympic gold, and even how to build your own mackerel smoker with the same single-minded determination. These days, he’s finding adventure of a different kind—living within his means.

Dad, what’s wrong? What are you doing?!” my daughter Anabel screamed as I flew out the door of the dusty mini-van. I’d slammed on the brakes so hard that my six-year-old son, Angus, had bonked his head on the seat in front of him. But you can’t control the timing of these things. “Shush. Shush,” I stage-whispered. A brown-and-white-speckled ruffed grouse had darted under an Austrian pine just a few feet ahead. I’d always thought a ruffed-grouse meal would come at the pinnacle of my life rather than the nadir of my financial existence, but no matter. Wild game is wild game, and this was the kind of price I can afford. Free!

I grabbed the nearest rock and hurled it. Fawoomp! Although it landed just inches from our winged dinner, the bird barely deigned to respond. Seconds passed before it casually glanced my way with just a quick flick of the neck. I grabbed a hefty stick and flung it with all my might. It was going to be a direct hit (I swear!), but at the last second, the creature took to the air, flying 100 feet to safety in a stand of piney woods.

Over the following weeks, this scenario repeated itself quite a few more times, and my thirst for feathered game grew stronger and stronger with every near miss. Each time there was a different child in the car with me, and each time they assumed I had gone raving mad. At first, the gorgeously speckled female was accompanied by her browner mate, who was harder to spot in the winter-darkened fallen leaves, but the last time I missed hitting her, with a clump of handy concrete from an old foundation, she was alone.

And then, nothing. Weeks went by without a single sighting. It was as if I’d conjured the whole thing. Or perhaps she had been eaten by the old red fox that patrols the houses in our area.

Finally, a few days before the season’s first snowstorm, I was out by our pine-sided 12- by 8-foot chicken house, scooping up chicken feed, when I heard some rustling in the leaves behind me. Startled, I whirled around as fast as I could, but instead of some man-eating monster, there was my grouse. I seized a nearby paddle (what was it doing by the chicken house in the middle of the winter?) and cocked my arm to take a full swing when suddenly she hopped a few inches toward me. Stunned, I didn’t move. Then she hopped even closer. Mesmerized, I gently set down the paddle and held out my hand. She came within two feet of me and did what I can only imagine was a dance of love. She hopped up and down, softly fluttering her wings, again and again. I reached out to let her smell and see her chosen one, and she pecked at my hand.

We’ve been buddies ever since.

And while I never got that grouse dinner, we did dine on a free-range chicken just two days ago. A friend of mine named Adam Scott couldn’t get up the nerve to eviscerate and prepare one of his chickens, which had apparently committed suicide by banging her head into a plastic crate. I arrived home to find his dead chicken hanging by its feet next to the front door. Having recently (thanks to Lisa) become enchanted with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his earthy cookbooks, I did the necessary dirty work. Inspired by a recipe found in The River Cottage Cookbook, I cut up the bird; smeared it with chopped garlic, olives, and anchovies; covered it with potatoes; bathed it in chicken stock; and baked it in the oven. Lisa and the kids, having watched the bird hang by the front door for a day while I procrastinated, were a bit hesitant to dig in, but the potatoes won them over and they all ate at least a little bit of the free free-range chicken.

Successes To Date:

It’s been 52 days and we haven’t eaten out or bought a single loaf of bread. And, we haven’t paid for any heating oil or firewood—in Maine!—although Lisa did barter some legal work for wood for our stove.

Failures To Date:

We spent $400 on birthday parties for Anabel, Eliza, and Angus, but now we’re in the clear. No more birthdays until August, and we’re only doing homemade presents to celebrate Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day.

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