Ken Chapman

I was raised in a rural agricultural town in Arizona that has long since been swallowed up by the expansion of the Phoenix-metro area and turned into suburbs.  Most of my youth was spent doing farm chores on my grandparent’s small subsistence farm and trout fishing in the White Mountains during the summer.  But like my hometown, that lifestyle changed dramatically as I grew older.  First it was the grocery stores that replaced the family garden and livestock.  Then it was the fast food joints that became the primary source of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  No more fishing either.

My physical and emotional health became the product of a lifestyle based on high stress jobs, junk food, and too much booze.  Over the decades, what began as a weight problem and drinking a little too much on the weekends became something different entirely.  In 2014, I weighed over 600 pounds, needed to drink every night just to get to sleep, and was dealing with a blood pressure problem that would stroke out a small horse.  But it was the depression that was killing me faster than anything else.  

That’s when a friend saved my life and rescued me at my lowest.  Among a number of wisdoms they gave me was one that will always stay with me.  “You never know how many chances you have left to save your own life – to choose a different path for yourself.”

The turnaround in my mental and physical health wasn’t remarkable or full of quantum leaps of progress.  The first step: Don’t eat food at any place with a drive through window.  I would still over eat and drink too much but skipping MIckey D’s and the other fast foods chains was a line in the sand.  A line that I haven’t crossed in 10 years.  Next was cutting back on the booze followed by walking (a little at a time cause I was the size of a vending machine.) I dropped over 100 pounds just with lost changes alone.  The following year, I had gastric bypass surgery and dropped another 100 pounds.  Then I hit the gym, two workouts a day plus hiking any chance I could get and that got me under 300 pounds.

During this transformation, my relationship with food changed as well.  It wasn’t just about eating less.  It became about eating better – in every sense of the word.  I wanted to have better tasting food with better nutrition from better sources.  I saw the industrial food system spewing out food that is literally killing people – and it had come real close to taking me out as well.  I also saw what the industrial food system was doing to farmers, ranchers, and food workers.  

I began to see access to healthy, culturally appropriate food as a fundamental right and understood the need to defend the folks who grow, raise, harvest, and get our food to the table with renewed importance.  I also knew that I needed to be more active in doing that work myself.  Memories of my childhood started creeping in. Grow your own food. Know where your food comes from.  Find fresh, nutritious food alternatives that are independent of the industrialized food system. 

So I talked my then girlfriend – now wife – into turning the backyard of our quarter acre single family home into a garden. Then I built a chicken coop so we would have our own eggs. Then a beehive. And planted some fruit trees.  Started growing mushrooms.  What we couldn’t grow, we would buy directly from farmers that we met at farmer’s markets. Eventually we became friends with them and started lending a helping hand around their farms, helping them solve business problems, and even volunteering to help get rid of a rabbit problem that was destroying crops (we ate a lot of rabbit that year.)

Within 3 years, we were growing about 70% of our vegetables in the backyard and knew who grew the nearly all the rest.  My wife’s avocado addiction and my off-season watermelon craving were the two exceptions.  Eggs and poultry were also sourced from the backyard.  We would only go to the grocery store for staple items and meat.

So I started fishing again as a way to offset buying meat.  Arizona has some great little trout streams for a fly rod and those mountain lakes of my childhood were right where I left them all those years ago.  At the time, hunting seemed unapproachable. I didn’t grow up around hunters. Never butchered anything other than poultry.  And had know idea how to cook wild game.

Being an adult on-set hunter is a choice.  One that comes with responsibility and a steep learning curve.  Luckily, I like to learn,  I find magic in the outdoors, and I love good eats.  I took shooting classes, watched a lifetime’s worth of YouTube videos, and have attended a couple of Harvesting Nature’s hunting camps.  Over the last couple years, I have had the opportunity to go hunting for wild pigs, deer, elk, and most recently snow goose.  I also started saltwater fishing for halibut, salmon, rockfish, and crabs.  Now, we only buy beef fat (for burgers) and pork fat (for sausage/bacon) from a family-owned meat shop to supplement our wildgame.

After putting in a lot of effort to know where our food comes from and how it’s harvested, I felt obligated – for lack of a better word – to level up my cooking skills. I’m constantly on the lookout for new ways to use every part of the animal harvested, new recipes, and different preservation techniques including canning, smoking, and dry curing as a way to unlock more potential.  I also added baking bread and making cheese to the culinary repertoire. (That’s French for how to sweet talk my wife into letting me go hunting and fishing more.)

I choose this path. 

Don’t get me wrong, I still work a high stress job, probably drink more often than I should, and still overweight.  But my relationship with food has changed.  For me, food is about how I follow my values, enjoy a life that can’t be taken for granted, and share the stories and meals with those that mean the most to me.

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