Kendra Wecker, chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife division, swears she’s not trying to put any food trucks out of business.
“Absolutely not,” she insists. The ODNR’s Wild Ohio Harvest mobile kitchen, she explains, has a higher purpose as it serves delicious and nutritious food samples from the 18-foot, fully outfitted trailer: “Our goal is to meet new people who aren’t current anglers or hunters, and we want to hook them through their stomachs and taste buds.”
The kitchen and its chefs cook and serve up free food created with wild-harvested Ohio game, including fish, fowl, and other critters. And Ken Fry, ODNR outdoor skills specialist, says it all began when he was cooking up such treats from the bed of a pickup truck with a pop-up tent at a Jefferson County farmers market a while back.
“It was so well-received that I presented the trailer idea to my supervisor and he liked it and said, ‘Let’s go with it,’” Fry says.
Since the ODNR already had the trailer, all it needed was some cool graphics on the outside and a full kitchen installed on the inside. About $10,000 later, it was done. The trailer includes a kitchen with deep fryers and cooking surfaces, a sink, and plenty of prep and serving space. It can be operated either with propane or electricity, which means its dedicated foodies can crank out yummies at both indoor and outdoor events.
Construction was completed in 2019, but it was sidelined soon thereafter because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, ever since the all-clear, it’s been on the road visiting fairs, boat shows, libraries, and other sites where ODNR chefs tempt Ohioans to get out and harvest their own proteins.
“There’s been a movement in the last 10 to 15 years where people really appreciate knowing where their food, such as produce, comes from,” Fry says. “So hunting and fishing in Ohio is a perfect means to know where your proteins come from and how they’ve been handled from the point of harvest to the table.”
A recent public library event featured a cooler full of iced-up bluegill. Folks could fillet the fish, watch them being prepared, then eat them. Fry says partakers included kids and some adults who had never fished before.
Ohio First Lady Fran DeWine was such a fan of the operation after she sampled its fare that she penned a column for the Xenia Daily Gazette sharing one of the ODNR’s super-secret recipes. Of course, the ODNR was happy for the helping hand in getting the word out that wild game can be fun to acquire as well as tasty and healthy. And, full disclosure: Their recipes aren’t really so secret; the ODNR’s online resources include a cookbook and a YouTube channel.
According to Fry, you never know where the kitchen may pop up.
“We’re trying to get away from preaching to the choir, and so we’ve accepted some events we may not have in the past,” Fry says, citing another recent library appearance. “It was a Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse program, and we talked about how you could use wild game to put meat in the freezer if you had to — if things got real nasty out there with the zombies.”
So what exactly do they cook up? A little bit of everything. Obviously, panfish like bluegill and yellow perch are top ingredients, though walleye tends to be the star of the show when it comes to fish.
“I’d have to say our crowd favorite is blackened walleye with cheddar grits and a Creole sauce,” Fry says. “And for non-fish dishes, that’s a tough one, but probably the black-and-blue venison sliders.”
Ingredients for other trendy dishes have included wild turkey, squirrel, waterfowl, and upland game birds — all prepared in front of diners and potential hunters and anglers. Some of the food prepared in the kitchen is donated by hunters or members of the ODNR staff, and some are garnered from scientific research or evidence seized by wildlife officers.
According to Fry, if the crowd is especially large and hungry and there’s a sense they may run low on food, staff members adjust the portion sizes, which is fine.
“The goal isn’t to feed everyone; it’s to provide a taste,” he says, “and there are times where people love our dishes so much we have to remind them that we’re only here to provide samples.”
Even Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is not immune from the rules. At a recent event celebrating Lake Erie and its walleye fishing, DeWine told the gathered audience that he himself has pushed the limits on the wild game samples and been cut off.
“Well, actually, yes, that has occurred,” he admitted, smiling. “And they actually cut my son off one time, too.”