For me, it was all about ethical meat.
For years I'd been searching for meat I could feel OK about — in terms of the environment, health and animal welfare.
But I never imagined my quest for the most politically correct meat could end with what some see as the nation's least politically correct sport.
Still, for someone who eats meat and cares about sustainable food, hunting makes perfect sense.
•Hunting doesn't demand billions in corn and soy subsidies to make animal feed artificially cheap.
•Hunting doesn't force thousands of animals to live in one crowded room eating chemicals and unnatural diets designed to make them fat quickly.
•Hunting doesn't create giant toxic manure lagoons that pollute American waterways.
•Hunting doesn't require millions of animals to be fed daily doses of non-therapeutic antibiotics, reducing, scientists say, the drugs' effectiveness on humans.
And hunting doesn't treat animals like widgets.
Raising animals on pasture can also avoid these ills and I support farmers who do it. But I felt hunting would make me confront meat in ways that neat packages from my favorite farmers did not.
I wasn't alone in this conclusion. A small but committed group of foodies, inspired by Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" have also decided to take up arms in the name of sustainable food sourcing.
They've flocked to locavore hunting classes in Virginia, Texas and other states that cater to concerned carnivores in search of a connection to local food and environmentally responsible meat.
But Barbara Brotman (my fellow writer on the hunting journey) and I weren't entering this world through a locavore class. Instead, we were entering the Illinois hunting world through the front door. And, frankly, I was afraid it wouldn't be very open to an urban, gun-averse, non-outdoorsy Chinese-Puerto Rican chick like me.
As it turned out, though, the hunters we met could not have been more welcoming. Most were avid cooks who, like me, loved to gab about food, recipes and even organic gardening.
And far from the liberal stereotype of reckless, bloodthirsty gun nuts, those we met were generous, thoughtful, cautious nature lovers — who did like guns.
But they treated gun safety with near-fanatic gravity. One hunter told me his father kept many guns in the house but forbade toy guns and any play that did not convey the deepest respect for what firearms can do.
Ethical hunters, our mentors told us, respect the environment, leave hunting grounds better than they find them, eat what they shoot, learn about wildlife and consider animal welfare paramount. We were to take a shot, they told us, only if we were certain we could kill the animal cleanly and swiftly.
As our hunting mentors led us through orientation and training, I'd found a surprising peace with the ethics of this pursuit. But I still had no idea if I could pull the trigger.
I'd have plenty of time to think about it, though. Our first three days of hunting were filled with long, silent, bone-chilling hours of seeing exactly zero deer. And when they finally appeared, the only animal that got injured was a human (see accompanying story).
Our bosses were understandably concerned and even considered pulling the plug. But instead they granted us one last day of hunting. And only I would be allowed to shoot. I'd still never fired at an animal, much less killed one. But, now, if I failed to kill in one day, the story would be over.
The pressure was intense as I shivered under a little tent in Winnebago County supervised by veteran hunter and grandmother Marcia Polhamus.
The property was overpopulated with more than 100 deer, but they'd kept a wide berth from our blind all day. And as the last rays of sunlight were fading with my last chances of harvesting a deer, I felt like the whole project was building to a flop.
Just then, a heavy fog rolled over the field and a dozen deer filed out of the woods. They arrived, I felt, just in time for the dramatic finale of my hunting story. But instead of trotting toward our blind, the animals filtered into a small cornfield about 70 yards away. And they didn't come out.
Desperate, I pursued them on foot, catching up to the herd in back of the field, busily munching cornstalks. I raised my gun. But, almost immediately, one watchful doe wheezed an alarm and took off into a misty meadow. The others disappeared in her wake, along with my dreams of harvesting my own meat.
Disappointment consumed me on the dark, foggy drive home. But I also recalled the words of a hunter friend who warned that I might break down and cry after my first kill, and that it was OK. But was I ready for that? Just because I'd done the ethical calculations, gone through the training and obtained the tools and circumstances, did that mean I was emotionally prepared to kill something bigger than me and eat it?
I still don't know.
But the season starts up again in November. I intend to be out in the woods, trying to find out.
Monica Eng is a Tribune reporter.