Growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, Max Watman was a bookish kid, partial to aimless walks through the woods and occasional fishing. While he spent most of his formative years reading poetry, he wasn't oblivious to the rugged world around him. He knew hunters, he worked on farms and his family ate venison that other people shot.
"I had friends who hunted for morel [mushrooms] and that wasn't exotic to me — that was the commonplace stuff," says Watman, who was more inclined to tote around such literature as the poetry of Percy Shelley. "Me, with my big book of Shelley, that was exotic. My high school was closed on the first day of deer season. That was the normal."
A grounding in the yet-to-be identified locavore movement happened by default because Watman grew up in an area rich with unusually good, local food sources. Like most kids, he ate sloppy Joes at school, but he also tasted such things as grass-fed, well-farmed lamb — an experience that set up expectations of flavor that went unmet when he left home.
He considers his parents — who owned a purveying business that supplied some of the world's best chefs — to be his first education and the best cooks he knows. "I was 12 years old," he recalls, "learning to cook at the French ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C., and eating chocolate torte with Jean Louis Palladin at his Watergate restaurant."
A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, Watman explores his passion for food in a personal new book, "Harvest: Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food." He says the book grew out of one simple experience: eating a "pink slime burger" so disgusting that he resolved never to eat another chain restaurant hamburger. That realization changed the way he lived, spurring him to try his hand at hunting, fishing, gardening, baking, making cheese, raising livestock, butchering, preserving and pickling — not that he always succeeded.
"The first thing I wrote was about my chickens after they'd all been killed by a raccoon and that was really just me working through the trauma of the events," he says. "I went pretty nuts trying to protect them and avenge them."
This is Watman's third book, but the first one he considers to have begun by itself, more personal and organic than its predecessors. His wife, Rachel, and son, West, were willing accomplices as he set off on an old-school journey doing things by hand.
"If you're going to eat a pork chop, you might as well hunt and you might as well butcher. The only position that I find utterly bewildering is the whole, for lack of a better word, 'chicken breast' position," he says. "Wherein you're OK eating it, but you don't want to see it on the bone or you don't want to see the whole fish or whatever. What's that?"
Watman shares the story of a family beach trip when he was looking around, trying to imagine how they could eat an oceanic meal. He recalls with pride one of his most satisfying experiments, using seawater to make risotto. "It just brought the essence of the ocean right into the pot," he recalls. "You know how you always want seafood at the beach? I thought, what if we just went ahead and ate the sea?"
The core of the book is Watman's realization that it's possible to change how you live, but only as an active participant. "You've got to actively engage with anything that matters to you," he says. "Looking for the answer is more important than coming to a conclusion."
One answer he didn't look far for is what he'd want for his last meal.
"Plenty of oysters, plenty of bourbon, good bread, aged steak. Or maybe some kim chi hot dogs and champagne. Wait, what about barbecue? Can I have some barbecue, too? And an avocado salad with chèvre and black pepper? And a really good tomato from my garden." S
Max Watman will talk about his book "Harvest: Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food," noon Monday, March 24, at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St. For more information call 692-3600 or visit lva.virginia.gov.