The night before Minneapolis chef Lachelle Cunningham went turkey hunting for the first time, her friend Mark Norquist asked her how she was feeling.
She fought to hold back tears.
Cunningham was afraid. Not only about being in the woods with guns. But she also had fears about what would happen when she squeezed the trigger. The potential taking of a life, so that she may eat.
Norquist, a veteran hunter, assured her that her feelings were valid.
"He said, 'If you don't feel good about taking a shot, don't take it,' " said Cunningham, who recalls feeling touched by his compassion. "I was like, 'This is going to be a friend forever.' "
Emotional as it was, her first hunting excursion deepened her friendship with Norquist and eased her sense of belonging in a space that many regard as white, male and rural. Since that trip in May, Cunningham has become determined to recruit more Black women and other people of color into hunting, a pastime she compares to her current obsession of foraging.
"You're still killing something that was alive for your benefit, whether that's medicinally, nutritionally or for your satisfaction of flavors," she said. "How do we honor that and have gratitude, while also knowing we're contributing to the ecosystem of life?"
The culinary instructor will reflect on her experiences at a hunting and cooking workshop Sept. 9 organized by Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. The workshop is aimed at attracting a BIPOC audience that may not have had prior experience with hunting. A survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2016 found that Black and Asian Americans together made up less than 1% of the nation's hunters.
The event's Minneapolis location is a powerful symbol. Part of the workshop will be held at Cunningham's commercial kitchen, less than a block from where George Floyd was murdered by police. You can look out her storefront window and see Cup Foods, now called Unity Foods.
By convening people at George Floyd Square, Cunningham hopes to give African Americans in urban settings a chance to have a relationship with firearms outside the context of police brutality or community violence. It's also about expanding opportunities so everyone has the chance to get into the outdoors and connect with nature and wild food.
"Let's get more people who look like me to hunt alongside me," she said.
Cunningham, 42, has been called a "dynamo at the center of the Twin Cities' African-American food scene" by Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. She owns a catering business, Chelles' Kitchen, and trains and supports chefs and food entrepreneurs through another of her creations, Healthy Roots Institute. She co-founded Breaking Bread Café and is interim executive director of Frogtown Farm, an organic urban demonstration garden in St. Paul.
Her globally inspired dishes build on skills she honed as a kid, when she was taught to follow neatly handwritten recipe cards by her mom, Theresa Cunningham; or kick up the flavor as modeled by her dad/"spice king" Gary Cunningham (a former Twin Cities community development leader who is married to ex-Mayor Betsy Hodges).
Yet it wasn't until Cunningham was in her early 20s that she fell in love with the idea of cooking professionally. She says becoming pregnant with her first child is what got her started on that path.
"That's when I got my superpower — my bionic smell," she said. "I could smell everything. It opened a whole world for me."
It was no coincidence that her newfound power emerged during motherhood. Now that she was responsible for carrying and sustaining another life, she could smell danger and opportunities for food. "That's the way we were designed," she said.
Today her boys are 19 and 17, and Cunningham is still on a breakneck pace to reinforce her connection with local and sustainable food. Though the idea of hunting intimidated her, it also intrigued her. She envisioned her enslaved ancestors hunting, trapping and foraging to nourish themselves.
She received firearms training a few years ago and still was nervous heading into her first hunting trip this past spring.
It came together at the invitation of Norquist, who founded the group Modern Carnivore to increase diversity in hunting and fishing. At first, he didn't know if Cunningham would take him up on the offer, given her passion for plant-based diets. But Cunningham was eager to connect the responsible harvesting of an animal with her dedication to creating memorable meals, Norquist said.
"Boundaries don't exist for Lachelle," Norquist said. "She doesn't see limitations. She sees opportunity."
He welcomed both Cunningham and butcher Cecka Parks, founder of the Minneapolis Meat Collective, to a two-day turkey hunt on private land in the ridiculously beautiful resort town of McCall, Idaho. A pristine landscape — a ravine, pine trees and mountains in the distance — looked like a real-life Bob Ross painting.
Cunningham discovered that turkeys are smart. She and Parks safely loaded and unloaded their 20-gauge shotguns and crept through the forest in their camouflage. At one point, Cunningham remembers making eye contact with a turkey and forgetting what to do next. She took two shots, but the bird got away.
The moment both excited and humbled her. She remembers crying after that first day of hunting, swept by emotions, adrenaline and the satisfaction of finding community and confronting her fears.
"It was so overwhelming, a fish-out-of-water experience in a place I've never been, don't know nobody, don't look like nobody, don't relate necessarily to anybody," she said, tearing up again. "I just had this overwhelming gratitude to even be able to have that experience."
And she learned what any seasoned outdoorswoman knows: Sometimes the reward of the hunt has nothing to do with the animal you bring home.
"I didn't get a turkey," she said, "and I'm OK with that."
If you go
A free "Backcountry in Your Backyard" workshop about hunting, wild food and the conservation community will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 9 at Third Place Gallery, 3730 Chicago Av. S. in Minneapolis. The event continues next door at CityFoodStudio, where chef Lachelle Cunningham and butcher Cecka Parks will teach how to process and cook wild game birds. Register at www.backcountryhunters.org/backyardmn.