(Pics in link)
Professional urban women eager to hunt, gut and eat their own wild game have found a champion in a former banker turned empowerment guru.
Georgia Pellegrini calls them “gun hickeys.” She gets them on her right shoulder when she pulls the trigger on her firearm — usually a 20-gauge Beretta Silver Pigeon V, adorned with a tiny engraving of flying birds — and the butt end kicks back and leaves the mark of a hard kiss on her skin.
Almost a decade ago, Pellegrini, 32, ditched her first career, as an investment banker, to become a chef, which led to her becoming a hunter, which led to a book deal, which led to her being on a dusty ranch in Montana on a blue-skied September morning teaching a group of women how to fire a shotgun.
“You have all your weight on your front foot,” she says. “Women have a tendency to arch their backs. You really want to avoid that. You’re going to look straight down the barrel.”
“When I pull the trigger, am I going to be scared doing it?” asks Marissa Reibstein, a fund-raiser for one of New York City’s temples of cultural liberalism, the 92nd Street Y, who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“It’s going to be intense,” Pellegrini replies, “but you’re going to like it.”
Reibstein, who is wearing the bone of a raccoon’s [censored] on a string around her neck — not for fertility, as is the custom, but for “mojo” — has just passed through the last stages of a divorce. “When I shoot, just know that I’m working out a little divorce aggression,” she says. Now single, she has made a commitment to try new things. When Pellegrini, a friend from Wellesley College who lives in Austin, Tex., mentioned that she’d be running one of her periodic Girl Hunter Adventure Getaways — a “Thelma and Louise”-ish weekend of fly-fishing, horseback riding, falconry, A.T.V. outings, pheasant hunts and s’mores, with a squadron of a dozen or so women in Big Sky country — Reibstein wanted in.
“Let’s do it,” Pellegrini says. “Try to load it. I’m taking your shotgun virginity right now.” When shells have been placed in the chamber and the clay pigeons are ready to be launched, she gives Reibstein two crucial words of instruction: “Lean in,” she says. She’s talking about shooting posture, but she might as well be making a nod to Sheryl Sandberg’s corporate/feminist manifesto. If Pellegrini shares Sandberg’s goal of empowerment, though, she gets there by a different route. In 2012’s “Girl Hunter,” a memoir (think “Shoot, Kill, Eat”) laced with recipes for dishes like elk jerky, squirrel dumplings and balsamic deer heart, she focuses largely on the transformative power of hunting, gutting and eating wild animals. “We are what we are — omnivores,” she writes. “We were meant to participate in nature rather than keep it at arm’s length.”
Or, as Henry David Thoreau once put it: “We need the tonic of wildness.” And if a few jiggers of Tito’s vodka can be stirred in with that tonic, all the better. (An open bar is part of the weekend package.) “In my mind the biggest decision I have to make now is if I have to switch to whiskey,” jokes Marla Meridith, a lifestyle blogger from Telluride, Colo.
It’s Thursday evening, and as dusk falls over the Montana Sporting Club, Pellegrini and her flock gather for drinks and conversation on a deck outside. The women have come from Colorado and Texas, California and Canada; they work in real estate and academia, high finance and fashion. Some have never held a weapon before; others can wax poetic about the glories of hunting javelina, or collared peccary, from a helicopter.
Seeing the bedazzled rodeo shirts and ponchos, overhearing the wisecracks about old boyfriends and Botox, a casual observer could be excused for wondering if the whole weekend has been staged as a pilot episode of “Real Housewives of the Wild West.”
“I’m scared to eat wild squirrel because in San Diego County a couple of squirrels tested positive for bubonic plague, which is really alarming,” says Holly Haeseler, a former Queens prosecutor and mother of three who is a partner in a San Diego software company.
“Does that still happen?” Reibstein replies. “I thought that that was from the Middle Ages.”
No scampering rodents appear on the menu in the days ahead, but there will be wild-boar roulade, elk-and-dried-cherry sausage, seared quail with quinoa and huckleberries, and chokecherry sorbet. As the sunset talk goes on, it becomes clear that attending the Girl Hunter weekend is only partly about getting back to nature; much of the appeal has to do with getting away from the grind. “I can’t believe how many people told me they’re not going to be contacting their significant others,” Pellegrini notes.
For years, the effort to re-establish contact with our primitive selves — the beasts within, who howl at the moon, beat deerskin drums and survive by sheer animal cunning — was largely a male obsession. Then came Ree Drummond, the “Pioneer Woman,” who became a star by blogging about cooking and cattle ranching, and Cheryl Strayed, the best-selling author of “Wild,” a memoir of her solo trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Pellegrini is mining similar territory — helping women seek clarity and peace of mind by casting aside the trappings of modern civilization (or some of them, anyway).
Pellegrini’s next book, “Modern Pioneering,” will offer a variety of tips — how to use a compass, how to turn Mason jars into lanterns, how to make lip gloss from beet juice. The book’s slogan: “Self-sufficiency is the ultimate girl power.”
cleans a downed pheasant; Pellegrini holds a pheasant gizzard; a plate of roasted bison with cinnamon demi-glace.
On the surface, Pellegrini seems like an unlikely emissary to what’s dirty and Dionysian. Before going to Wellesley, she studied at the Chapin School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side; after college came a stint at Lehman Brothers and then, when she grew disenchanted and became “determined to nourish my soul again,” as she puts it in “Girl Hunter,” she spent a while laboring in the kitchens at prestigious New York-area restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It was at Stone Barns that Dan Barber, the influential farm-to-table chef, invited her to slaughter a turkey. Doing so changed her life. “I thrust my hands deep into her cavity,” she writes in the book. “It was still warm. I slid my hands high up the inside of the breastbone and felt the windpipe and heart and gizzard and intestines and pulled them out in one handful.”
If there’s a woman in America who can disembowel an animal and avoid chipping a fingernail, it’s Pellegrini. She even manages to look manicured and unmussed riding an A.T.V. down a dusty hillside. Gun hickeys and blood stains aside, she’s a little like Annie Oakley as interpreted by Reese Witherspoon.
“Hunting can have a softer side to it,” Pellegrini says. “It can be stylish. It can be edgy. It can be alluring.” In Montana, afternoons of trudging through the high grass with dogs and firearms are followed by flutes of Champagne. Gift bags overflow with beef jerky, ball caps and baubles from SureShot jewelry (made with the spent casings of shotgun shells). And the cabins are equipped with fluffy beds and satellite TV. “There has to be that juxtaposition in order for it to work for them,” she says of her guests. “They want to feel feminine while they’re doing this.”
Still, when she talks about a visceral experience, she means it literally. On Saturday morning, in a field dense with bromegrass and alfalfa, half a dozen women hit the trail with two hunting guides, two English pointers and two shotguns. The dogs manage to flush several pheasants from the brush, but again and again the shooters miss, or balk because the angle isn’t right — nobody wants to “pull a Dick Cheney,” as one visitor puts it. Frustrations mount. Who wants to leave a Girl Hunter weekend without having bagged any game? Finally, Holly Haeseler, the tall and soft-spoken attendee from San Diego, blasts a bird as it leaps into the air. Then she poses for pictures with her first kill, cradling the pheasant’s body in the crook of her arm and stroking it.
“Mama’s bringing home dinner,” says Cara Wehkamp, a fellow hunter from Canada.
At the ranch, while a few hunters sip lunchtime bloody marys, Pellegrini, in sunglasses and camo pants, crouches down on a blanketed patch of lawn outside the lodge, brandishes a Laguiole knife and places the pheasant on the ground. “Anyone who wants to know how to do this, join in,” she says as the group circles around. She starts by showing Haeseler how to pluck the feathers, moving along from the thick, sturdy ones to the smaller, downy ones as if peeling an artichoke.
“They’re so skinny without their feathers,” Erin Dickes jokes. “Someone should pluck me.”
Pellegrini snips off the wings and the neck with scissors. Then it’s time to remove the organs. “You’re going to go all the way up to the top and you’re going to pull it all out,” she informs Haeseler. As the viscera slip out of the pheasant’s cavity, one member of the group, a real estate broker from Chicago named Molly Carroll, gasps and dashes off. She later confesses that the sight turned her into a vegetarian.
Most keep watching. “This is the heart right here,” Pellegrini says, holding it in her palm.
“Are you going to put the blood on Holly’s face now?” Reibstein asks.
Pellegrini dips her fingertips into the avian blood and rubs it in ritualistic streaks, like “Braveheart”-style war paint, across Haeseler’s cheekbones. “Oh, that was nice and juicy,” Haeseler says. “Thank you.”
The next day, in the Great Falls airport, Marissa Reibstein becomes momentarily gripped by emotion as she remembers killing a pheasant of her own that Sunday morning.
“Guess what?” she says. “First shot! I cried. I wasn’t sad or anything. It was just that I did it. I’m getting emotional thinking about it.”
Within a few hours she’ll arrive in Brooklyn. “I’m really curious to see how people react when I talk about this back home,” she says. “I totally respect people that are horrified by it. That’s O.K. People don’t agree on everything.” She smiles at the memory, recalling the fresh Montana air tinged with the sulfurous fragrance of gunpowder. “I really wanted to get that birdie,” she says.