WASHINGTON’S BIRTHPLACE, Va. — It was cold crouching down in this homemade goose blind on the edge of a frozen cornfield near the Potomac River.
The early-morning January sun gave off considerably less heat than a light bulb. All we had to eat was a communal bag of venison jerky, a satsuma and, eventually, the hunk of dark chocolate I had kept hidden in my pocket until I felt too guilty.
I had a million questions, but you’re not supposed to talk much when you’re waiting for geese. I had a shotgun, but I had never killed an animal.
It really didn’t matter because there were no geese, anyway.
After about five hours, a small flock started to land in front of us. Someone yelled. “Take them!” Everyone except me stood and fired. Two Canada geese fell.
A dog named Tug brought them to us, and we packed up and headed to the kitchen to cook what Wade Truong, the chef who invited me here to hunt, calls the rib-eye of the sky.
Truong, 33, grew up working in his parents’ Vietnamese restaurant in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He never thought about hunting until he dropped out of the University of Mary Washington and started cooking professionally.
Like many young chefs, Truong decided that he wanted to get as close to his food as possible. So nine years ago, he picked up his first hunting rifle. He took a hunter’s safety class, studied an old Army sniper’s manual and headed into the woods, he said, “overgeared and underprepared.”
After several tries, he managed to shoot his first deer. He was determined to field dress it himself. He studied images he pulled from Google, and pried a few tips out of some hunters. None of it prepared him for what the process was really like, especially how shockingly hot the inside of a deer can be.
“It was a lot for a kid who grew up on meat that was on sale,” he said.
His girlfriend, Rachel Owen, 29, didn’t grow up hunting, either. But like him, she loved fishing. The two, who got together when they worked at the same restaurant, talked about hunting on their first date.
Now, eight years later, they have 30 guns between them. They keep an empty caviar jar in a drawer near their dining room table to collect any stray shot left in a duck breast. They blog.
It’s the kind of modern love story you don’t hear about much. “I can’t imagine us as a couple without hunting,” she said. “It’s foundational.”
They spend as much free time as they can fishing and hunting, with the express goal of trying to eat only protein that they kill. They haven’t bought meat in more than a year, except pork fat and chicken wings. Sausage needs pork fat, Truong said, and “there really isn’t a substitute for chicken wings.”
They are the face — or at least two faces — of a new generation of hunters.
“If the hunting world wants to grow in America, it’s going to be up to the millennials,” Truong said. “It’s not just the blue blood upland hunters or rednecks with mudders and dogs. It’s us.”
The number of hunters in the United States has been in a slow fall since 1982, when 16.7 million people had paid hunting licenses. By 2010, that had dropped to 14.4 million, according to United States Fish & Wildlife Service records.
In the past few years, the figure has begun to climb, to 15.6 million in 2018. Still, only about 5 percent of Americans 16 or older hunt, half of the number who did 50 years ago. Supporters of the sport worry about what might happen if their beloved culture fades away.
Hope, they say, might lie with a health-conscious, outdoors-loving slice of the millennial generation who were raised on grass-fed beef and nose-to-tail eating, but didn’t grow up in hunting families, where taking game is about both tradition and filling the freezer.
“Hipsters want to hunt. But they don’t want to hunt the way a rural farm boy from Illinois wants to hunt,” said Matt Dunfee, director of special programs at the Wildlife Management Institute, in an article last year about hunting’s decline in Outdoor Life.
“They don’t want to dress the same way, they don’t like focusing on antlers, they don’t like taking pictures of their animals,” he told the magazine. “But they want local, sustainable, ecologically conscious meat. And within our efforts, there are few places to realize those values.”
Steven Rinella, the outdoor writer and star of the Netflix series “MeatEater,” said interest in wild game is rising among people in their 20s and 30s.
The show, his popular podcast and his books, including his newest — “The MeatEater Fish and Game Cookbook” — are aimed in part at young hunters who want to field dress their own game and move beyond dishes like venison chili and duck-breast poppers stuffed with jalapeño and cream cheese.
“For a long time, there just hasn’t been an intermediate between what a chef knows and what a deer hunter in Wisconsin knows,” he said.
Rinella’s books, along with titles like “Duck, Duck Goose” and “Buck, Buck Moose” from Hank Shaw, the former restaurant cook and writer who champions wild food in modern cooking, are prominent on the bookshelves in the home that Truong and Owen rent.
“One of the big drives for me is trying to make everything we pursue exceptional,” Truong said. “It shouldn’t be, ‘I ground this up to make a burger with Cajun seasoning all over it.’ ”
Becoming a hunter had never been on Truong’s radar. His parents grew up in the city then called Saigon. They met in a refugee camp in Indonesia. With the help of a Mennonite family who sponsored them, they settled in Virginia and opened the Saigon Café in Harrisonburg. It was the only Vietnamese restaurant in town.
“I basically grew up there,” Truong said. “You go to an Asian restaurant, and there’s a kid in the back doing his homework. That was me.” (His parents, who have since divorced, sold the restaurant about six years ago.)
As a teenager more interested in partying than school, he didn’t always get along with his father. But their fishing trips together were a bright spot, and cemented Truong’s love of the outdoors. Unlike many fathers in this part of Virginia, Truong’s never taught him to hunt. He had fought alongside Green Berets during the Vietnam War and had no interest in picking up another gun.
But to the son, hunting seemed like the next logical step — especially as his cooking career took off.
Truong started with deer. Waterfowl came a few years later, after Truong became the executive chef at Kybecca, in Fredericksburg, a city of about 28,000 that serves both as a tourist town for history buffs and a commuter town for people working in Quantico or Arlington.
It was a French-fries-and-bison-sliders kind of place, but Truong slowly started to change the menu, adding Chesapeake Bay oysters and sophisticated entrees that used vegetables from local farms. One of his suppliers was Blenheim Organic Gardens, run by Rebecca and Lawrence Latané, who is a descendant of George Washington’s family. They live on about 200 acres of farmland that has been in the Washington family for centuries.
Geese migrating to and from the Ungava Peninsula in far northern Quebec like to winter over in the Latanés’ grain fields. That makes for good hunting. One day, the couple’s son, Cameron Latané, invited Truong and Owen to join him and his father on a goose hunt. They have been close friends and hunting partners ever since.
Although Truong says he prefers cooking duck, he has come to see Canada geese as the workhorse of his kitchen. Some goose hunters contend that other, more tender game birds, like the specklebelly goose or the sandhill crane, are the true rib-eyes of the sky. But the dark, rich meat from a migrating Canada goose is reliable and delicious, Truong said. He can thaw frozen breasts as fast as chicken and sauté them for an easy weeknight supper.
Truong braises goose legs barbacoa-style for tacos, and simmers carcasses into stock for pho styled after his mother’s, though he tops his with lightly charred goose breast, venison braised in hoisin sauce or thin slices of goose heart.
He has botched some dishes, too. He roasted the ribs from his first deer, and they were terrible. Now he braises venison ribs for hours to get rid of the chalky, sticky taste.
Then there was the time he tried to prepare mergansers. These ducks eat fish, and their flesh can take on a funky, marine flavor. He tried to make a wild-game version of the Vietnamese dish ca kho in which the breasts were braised in a caramelized sauce.
“It tasted like I burned a can of anchovies and added fish sauce,” Truong said.
He has since become a much better game cook. He is close to perfecting beaver-tail lardo, which he set out in thin slices on a charcuterie board alongside venison pastrami and a few types of sausages when we got to the Latanés’ farmhouse kitchen after our hunt.
A Peking goose was roasting in the oven. Three days earlier, Truong had inflated the skin with an air compressor, stuffed it with paste made from five-spice powder, ginger, garlic and chiles bound with some hoisin sauce, and then glazed it before leaving it to dry in the refrigerator.
On the stove, a pair of goosenecks stuffed with maple-scented venison breakfast sausage fried softly in a cast-iron pan, the heads still attached. “That’s pretty metal,” he said.
As we sat down to eat, Owen talked about the negative response they sometimes get from other millennials who either don’t like hunting or won’t eat game.
“Why is it weird that we eat wild meat?” said Owen, who doesn’t have hunters on either side of her family. “It’s the most human thing to do. I feel like if you’re going to eat meat at all, you have to be comfortable with hunting.”
They also have to deal with reactions from hunters who are older or more conservative than they are. “People make a lot of assumptions about our politics and our value system,” she said.
They drew more than a few odd looks when they went elk hunting in Kentucky last year. Owen had the permit, and Truong went along as a guide.
“We’re an unmarried, interracial couple where the woman had the tag,” she said. “They didn’t know what to make of us.”
As we made our way through the meal, Truong turned philosophical. “Taking an animal you intend to eat has so much more meaning than buying a steak on a plastic tray,” he said. “It should never be a small thing.”
He pointed to his plate. Everything, from the slices of goose to the wild oyster mushrooms — even the cornbread made from a Native American variety called bloody butcher that the Latanés grow — spoke of wildness and a rhythm of life that the couple is only beginning to understand.
“You make a conscious decision to end a life with the intention of eating it,” Truong said. “That’s actually participating in the food chain. It’s emotional. It’s about as far from Uber Eats as you can get.”