Madison-based outdoor writer John Motoviloff is the author of Fly Fisher's Guide to Wisconsin, Driftless Stories and, most recently, Wisconsin Wildfoods: 100 Recipes for Badger State Bounties, published last year by Trails Books. He spends about 100 days per year out in the wild, and brings much of what he finds home to his kitchen.
A contributor to Gray's Sporting Journal, The Wisconsin Academy Review and The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Motoviloff appears on a panel at the Wisconsin Book Festival to discuss "Writing About Food: Our Love Affair with Anything Edible," at 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22, at Whole Foods.
The Daily Page: What did you eat yesterday at breakfast, lunch and dinner?
Motoviloff: Eggs from a farm near Paoli for breakfast, Memorial Union chicken tortilla soup for lunch, and squirrel stew for dinner. Fall gets the appetite going.
At the Wisconsin Book Festival, you'll appear on a panel to discuss "Writing About Food: Our Love Affair with Anything Edible." When and how did your own love affair with anything edible begin? Who or what accounts for your love affair with anything edible?
I've been fishing since I can remember and hunting since I came to Wisconsin in 1990. My grandparents came from Russia and Ukraine, and they instilled in me a love for good food -- from wild mushrooms to homemade borscht.
"Anything edible" covers a lot of ground. Is there anything edible that you refuse to eat? If so, why won't you eat it?
Walnuts. They are bitter and awful. They taste like dirt without any of dirt's redeeming qualities. That said, I've eaten a lot stuff most people would turn their noses up at -- pickled suckers, coot, crawfish, burdock root.
How, when and where did you conceive of Wisconsin Wildfoods? What was your inspiration for the book -- and for these 100 recipes?
It was my job to cook dinner when I was a teenager-and then I found I really liked to cook. So when Trails asked me a few years ago if I had any other books in the hopper, it was a no-brainer. I had more than a hundred hand-written recipes for fish and game and wild edibles. All I had to do was lock the office door for a month and type. I should point out that my wife, daughter, and friends are great sports about trying new stuff and telling me yeah or nay.
Which of these 100 recipes is your daughter's favorite? Which does your wife prefer, and which one do you most often cook for yourself?
My daughter loves venison stew, especially her Uncle Sam's recipe on page 44 of Wildfoods. My wife loves pheasant with dried fruit, page 33. I shoot a few every year, but, the best pheasant hunting is west of here, on the Prairies.
What criteria did you use in selecting these 100 recipes?
The tasting committee had to approve: Steve Miller, Michele Bahl, Matt Rogge, and Lyn Pilch, as well as my wife and daughter. Tasha the retriever doesn't get any.
How would you define the appeal of gathering your own wild foods and making meals out of them?
It grounds me. It feels like coming full circle. And it really makes me want to say grace. And I like to get my hands dirty. I should say, too, that biologically the act of hunting and gathering has been satisfying people a lot longer than going food shopping or to a restaurant. So it's no accident that this feels right.
Where is your favorite spot on the Wisconsin map to go seeking wild foods, and why is it your favorite?
Crawford County, without a doubt. It has the best of the best. Morel mushrooms and pink-flesh trout. Squirrels and wood ducks fatted on acorns and wild fruit. Tender deer. And then those Mississippi River ducks that have been living on wild rice and wild celery. I'm not sure too many places can compare.
In your own kitchen, what three ingredients do you most rely on, and why is each of these ingredients important to you?
Homegrown garlic -- it's so much sweeter than commercial stuff, which can be bitter. The other two secrets, if you will, are good stock and a variety of mushrooms, fresh or dried. These add a real depth of flavor.
Are there any two ingredients harvested from Wisconsin's wild bounty that have no business being prepared in the same dish?
Interesting question. You have to watch with pairing strong-flavored ducks (like bufflehead or goldeneye) with something too hard-edged like spinach or watercress.
Who introduced you to Wisconsin's wild bounty, and how did they introduce you to it?
My friend Steve Miller gets a lot of the blame for this. If he hadn't led me down this path, I'd be rich and famous.
What is the single most delicious item you have ever tasted?
That would be Roast Goose at Three Brothers Serbian Restaurant in Milwaukee. I'd like to think mine comes close, but it doesn't.
What is the single best meal you have ever prepared?
Goose again, this time wild, cooked in a morel-vermouth sauce and served over potato pancakes.
When was the last time you ate at McDonald's? And what did you order?
I work just off State Street at the Historical Society and have admit I get a craving for those 99-cent double cheeseburgers once a month.
Which local restaurant do you think comes closest to the spirit and ethic of your book?
An excellent question. On the one hand, none can compare, really, because you can't buy or sell Wisconsin wild fish and game. But -- since my background is frugal, from-scratch ethnic cooking -- I'd say Husnu's or the new Russian restaurant, Arbat.
What was the last cookbook you bought that you would recommend to your friends and neighbors, and why would you recommend it?
Frugal Gourmet's Immigrant Ancestors, if you are not a wildfoods person. The Remington Arms cookbook if you are. And you've just gotta have a copy of Joy of Cooking, complete with instructions for skinning possum.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to Wisconsin Book Festival audiences, and why would you recommend it?
No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy. It's a real page-turner.
What can readers look forward to in your next book, and when can they expect it to be published?
The second edition of my fly fisher's guide, which includes Northeast Iowa, will be out any day now. And I am shopping around my novel, Bohemia, about a lesbian boat-builder named Melissa Kandarek.
When, where and how do you prefer to write?
First thing in the morning, in my bathrobe, in my disastrous home office, with a cup of Just Coffee Arriba Blend. Once the insurance agents start calling, it's all shot to hell.
Which of the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival are you most looking forward to seeing and hearing?
I'm shopping for an agent, so I will probably attend some of those sessions. I'm a big fan of John Gurda as well, [and the] Ted Kooser and Jane Hamilton session.
Why do you live where you live?
We live on Winnebago Street on the Near East Side. It feels a little like a real city. And then we have our shack on the Kickapoo River.
Do you have any tattoos?
No. I was an altar boy for too many years.