Getting Wild With Food
Sep 26, 2019 05:06PM
By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
Fall is the perfect season for Jenny Nguyen and her husband, Rick Wheatley. They stand or sit quietly in their camouflage outfits, weapons at the ready. At the end of the day, they might come home with a pheasant, a deer, or even a turtle. The pheasant won’t necessarily have the most brilliant feathers, the deer won’t have the biggest rack, and the turtle…well, it’s a turtle. And for Nguyen and Wheatley, that’s OK.
The couple are the authors of the book Hunting for Food: Guide to Harvesting, Field Dressing and Cooking Wild Game. They are also former Californians…and Nebraska sure isn’t Anaheim.
The couple met at a horse stable in Anaheim in 2009. They had a passion for the outdoors, and fell in love through their shared love of horses. Wheatley knew a place where there was more land than people.
“I was always talking about Nebraska,” says Wheatley, whose grandparents lived in Nebraska when he was a child. “I told Jenny about hunting and fishing. She mentioned one time that she didn’t know people did that.”
Two years later, Wheatley gave Nguyen the gift every girls wants—a shotgun. They returned to Nebraska that year for Wheatley’s annual tradition of camping and hunting with his cousins during opening weekend of rifle season. Unbeknownst to Nguyen, it would be a life-changing trip.
Wheatley and his cousins invited their wives to join the pre-hunting campout—a first for the family. While the rest of the ladies left for the comfort of their own beds, Nguyen stayed with the guys and joined the hunt the next day.
She killed a deer that day and learned how her nightly meal comes to be.
“People today don’t realize where their food comes from,” Wheatley says. “That was a big thing for her.”
Nguyen, whose outdoor adventures include climbing to the top of Mount Whitney at age 16 and kayaking 62 miles in the Kenai Fjords, also has a passion for cooking, writing, and photography. She cooked venison steaks with balsamic-boysenberry sauce, then created a blog and posted the recipe, including wine suggestions, along with appealing photography.
The blog acquired some followers, and she began posting more wild food recipes: mushrooms stuffed with venison and onions caramelized in wine; deer, mushroom, and barley soup; and others. They returned to California, and continued writing about sandwiches made with California wild snow geese and white bass steamed in grape leaves. They gained 100 hits on the blog, and over time, 1,000 hits.
“It slowly grew, and grew, and grew,” Nguyen says. “It’s been exciting to see how it grows, and how multimedia can affect you so much.”
The couple continued to hunt, and cook, creating recipes such as Cast Iron Bison-Leek Pie with orange zest, cinnamon, and cauliflower; or Malaysian Spiced Fish Grilled in Banana Leaves.
“It was the food aspect,” Nguyen says of her foray into hunting for her own dinner. “I don’t get a kick out of killing something. The whole process of learning how food gets to your table intrigues me.”
Nguyen graduated with a degree in American literature and culture from UCLA in 2012, a time when Nebraska Game and Parks happened to have an opening for a Northeast Regional Public Information Officer, whose duties included writing and photographing for Nebraskaland Magazine. She applied, but didn’t think she would be considered.
“I was familiar with the magazine, because Rick had been a subscriber for so long,” Nguyen says. “I remember before I even applied for the job thinking ‘it would be awesome to work for this magazine.’”
Not only was she considered, she got the job, and the couple moved to the Midwest in January 2013.
Nguyen said goodbye to everything she knew to begin a life in an area of the country she had fallen in love with. Her new interest as a sportsman was quickly becoming a passion. On the blog, she wrote of their first day on the road: “We entered the Kaibab National Forest, where Rick saw a dead cow elk on the side of the road. What a terrible waste of good meat.”
Not as much of a passion was the weather and the lack of city services.
“It was cold,” Nguyen remembers. “The transition was difficult, it [Norfolk] was a tiny city.”
Wheatley was pleased to be in his family’s home state, where he could spend days on end in open spaces if he wanted. They continued hunting and fishing year round.
“No species has gone extinct because of hunting here in North America,” Wheatley says. “A lot of people don’t realize that hunting is conservation. All the fees for hunters go back to conservation funds.”
They continued to hunt, blog, and write, with articles appearing in Cooking Wild Magazine and on the website Wide Open Spaces, among others. The blog surpassed 50,000 hits and gained sponsorships. And Nguyen continued to learn about the outdoors as she worked for Game and Parks for the next two years.
Then, the couple received an email from Living Ready publishing, a part of F+W Media, Inc.
“It was kind of a shock,” Nguyen says. “We both secretly thought about writing a book, but we thought it would be years down the line.”
The publisher had been following the couple’s blog and thought a book of their recipes would be a great addition to the company’s other books, which include The Mountain Man Cookbook and The Sporting Chef’s Better Venison Cookbook.
The offer took the couple from hunting for their dinner to hunting for literature.
“It was quite a process,” Nguyen says. “We’d never hunted for a deadline before.”
The animals didn’t always stick to the deadline.
“All of a sudden, when we went out to find it, it didn’t come around anymore,” Nguyen continues.
The book also offered the couple chances to hunt for new game, such as snapping turtles. Hunting for Food does offer recipes such as Thai-Style Turtle and Potato Curry, but more importantly, it offers information on the snapping turtle itself—its biology, habitat, impact on fish and waterfowl populations, and other advice.
“We enjoyed doing it,” Wheatley says. “This gave us a chance to hunt some other animals we hadn’t gotten before.”
The book has given the couple new opportunities. They also forage, and they have expanded their knowledge of wild edibles. They look for wild morels and berries and have grown to like unique plants such as nettles.
“You wouldn’t think that something as slimy or spiky as nettles would taste good,” Nguyen says.
As the book was published, the blog grew in popularity, and the couple now boast nearly a million and a half hits on their humble site. They have been doing commissioned work for World Fishing Network and Game & Fish Magazine.
These days, they live in Omaha. Wheatley works at Menards. Nguyen works for Nebraskaland Magazine as their associate editor and regularly contributes to magazines for Outdoor Sportsman Group. In her spare time, she rides horses with North Hills Hunt Club.