BRIDGTON, Maine — Daniel Vitalis, who was once a big influencer in the raw-food vegan movement and is angling to become an even bigger one in the modern hunter-gatherer movement, was crunching through the Maine woods on a recent morning, rifle in hand, looking for a squirrel to kill for lunch.
He followed tracks zigzagging through the snow to the base of an oak tree and stopped to let the forest go quiet as he studied the treetops for any signs of the Eastern gray he was planning to pan fry.
“They taste like the best chicken wing you’ve ever eaten,” he whispered to a reporter.
This is a very Daniel Vitalis thing to say, for it is both the celebration of a wild food and an enthusiastic enticement to try it. It is the sort of thing he has been doing for years, first on the popular podcast “ReWild Yourself,” which ran for nearly 200 episodes before ending two years ago, and now with his new venture, a full-scale multimedia brand he has just launched called Wild Fed, which includes a podcast and an Internet television series.
While “ReWild Yourself” dipped into all sorts of topics under the umbrella of what he calls “the degenerative effects of human domestication,” his new project zeroes in on the hunting and gathering of wild food, with practical lessons on how to procure and prepare it, from hunting bear to gathering wild mushrooms.
Food, he believes, is the most direct way to get people reconnected to their wild selves, something he believes people desperately need and want. And by zeroing in on food, Vitalis has an opportunity to continue thinking about a topic he has been in an ethical wrestling match with for most of his life.
Vitalis, who is 42, was born in New Hampshire into what he describes as a chaotic life. He said his father, a paleontologist, left when he was young, and his mother suffered from mental health issues. “To stem the chaos, I turned to food because it was a way to alter yourself, so I saw it as a way to alter my destiny.”
As a teenager, he became a vegetarian, and a few years later moved to raw-food veganism, a diet he says he stuck to for 10 years. “I discovered veganism in the early days of the Internet, and I was emotionally overwhelmed by the ethics of it,” he said.
He eventually became so involved in the movement and so convincing in his zealotry that by the time his 30th birthday rolled around he was a minor star in the vegan world, regularly booked as a speaker at conferences and gatherings.
Then everything changed. After reading a book by a dentist that convinced him animal foods were necessary for a healthy human diet, he abandoned veganism, which was a minor problem for it came at a time when he was already scheduled to speak at several upcoming vegan events. “So I would get up on stage and unravel the problems with the vegan diet,” he said. “And pretty soon I got kicked out of the nest.”
But he was not done with his questions about food, and as he reevaluated his next steps in life, he said, he kept coming back to a specific term: rewilding. “It’s something we talk about with landscapes,” he said. “I was interested in if it could be done with humans.”
He had dabbled with foraging before, but now he took it to another level, much of it thanks to finding a mentor in Arthur Haines, a botanist who runs the primitive-living-focused Delta Institute of Natural History in Canton, Maine. Vitalis eventually launched his “ReWild Yourself” podcast (Haines was the first guest), along with a companion online magazine, and began interviewing experts as he explored what was essentially a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Eventually, he realized that if he was going to do that credibly, he had better learn to hunt.
Now his home in Bridgton, in the lakes region of southern Maine, looks like a vegan’s nightmare. Everywhere you look, there are skulls and pelts and guns and rods, and the basement is filled with all sorts of tools for the modern predator, along with three deep freezers full of his kills, one each for deer, bear, and fish.
It looks like the cabin of someone who was born into a family of hunters, but Vitalis started only five years ago. And in so doing, he realized that getting started in such pursuits is difficult unless you are from a family of hunters.
And so the inspiration for Wild Fed is just that, a practical guide to help people who are curious about hunting and gathering but see many barriers to entry. In a world where more and more people are interested in where their food comes from, Vitalis thinks there are many people in this category.
Season one of the video series will premiere in January — it will be available via subscription through his website, wild-fed.com, for $49 — and he has just finished filming season two. Each episode follows him hunting or fishing for some source of protein, as well as doing some foraging, and then the preparation of the food, either by him or a chef. For an additional $200, people can sign up for an interactive nine-week program that includes extended cuts of the show and live access to Vitalis through Q&As and forums.
And it is here that things begin to feel very unwild. The carefully calibrated brand, and the “influencer” Instagram account, and the HNTGTHR license plate on the Toyota FJ Cruiser that is emblazoned with bumper stickers featuring the Wild Fed logo, all feel like the opposite of what he’s advocating. They feel packaged.
“I get that,” he said. “But there needs to be somebody who gathers this into the modern world, and I care more about getting this message to soccer moms than I do about living in a teepee.”
Out in the woods on a recent morning, he came up empty on the squirrel hunt — it’s been a bad year for squirrels following an acorn shortage last year, Vitalis said — and so he headed back to his large, modern cabin to eat something already dead. His wife, Avani, a French-Canadian teacher, was at the stove making up a pot of wild rice they’d gathered over the summer (yes, there is wild rice in Maine). Vitalis opened the fridge and pulled out a vacuum-sealed bag containing the meat from a squirrel he shot a few weeks back and plopped it down on their kitchen counter, next to a laptop.
“If you had told me five years ago I’d be eating squirrel for lunch,” Avani said, her voice trailing off into a smile.
“What people miss about all this is that I’m not into eating bad-tasting food,” Vitalis said. “People assume that the reason we stopped eating wild food is because it doesn’t taste as good, but that’s simply not true. It tastes better and it’s more nutritious.”
He cut open the package of squirrel meat and slid it onto a plate, and Avani came over to look at it.
“I have to admit the legs are really tasty,” she said, having clearly picked up that very Daniel Vitalis ability to celebrate a wild food and maybe even get you to try it.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.