McFadyen's Musings October Special Issue 2016
10/04/2016 01:48PM ● Published by Jennifer Gonzalez
The transition to autumn inspires a change in culinary fare for North Carolinians. For example, the state fish is the red drum. These fish, known for their reddish-bronze color and the fact that during spawning time males produce a drum-like noise by vibrating a muscle in their swim bladder, make their way down the coast chasing bait that is looking for a warmer place to winter. Wrestled from the fall surf, their fillets are the key ingredients in a fish stew that is a generational staple in the Outer Banks. This recipe has migrated inland to at least one particular kitchen in Eastover, NC. We ladle it over rice and dare cold weather to try to negate the effect of the hot stew.
In the same establishment, the venison chops prepared year round come from exploits afield during these same autumn months. Lightly floured and slowly fried picatta-style with its tangy gravy and caper-topping, they are butter-knife tender.
Being a regular consumer of wild game, I still do not stubbornly purport that venison is better than beef. There is a very good reason that Man domesticated the cow. Well, two reasons. Cows are easier to fence. Still, it has less to do with the athleticism of the beast than it does with the end product. I suppose the down side to beef is the marbled fat, but the significantly outweighing upside to beef is the marbled fat.
When I was a kid, where Cross Creek Mall now stands, I was let out of Granddaddy’s Oldsmobile with an Ithaca 28 gauge and told to walk alongside the combine harvesting soy beans. When br’er rabbit jumped out of the way of the thresher, I was to see if I could swing the gun faster than the rabbit could run. That day, there was indeed one slow one. I watched as Granddaddy showed me how to “shuck” it in preparation for the stew pot. We ate it at his dining room table the next weekend.
Where now we have high-end apartments and profitable strip malls on Reilly Road, I used to shoot doves on the Hubbard Farm. Jack Hubbard was one of those legendary Ben Cartwright figures from my childhood. His sons Johnny and Bill were like Hoss and Little Joe. Somewhere before my time, my uncle Reg Barton and Jack Hubbard had become friends. They spent countless daybreaks and late afternoons together with dogs named Crow and Beulah and Buck hunting deer around Bone Creek and on the wooded areas between Morganton and Fillyaw Roads. At the age of 12, I was invited on my first deer drive with a cast of a half-dozen patriarchal men that took me into their fold as a child, but who never for a moment treated me like one.
I shall never forget the roaring laughter of those men as they imposed the penalty of cutting off the shirt tail of anyone who missed a deer. There was a phone pole by the skinning tree in the Hubbard’s yard adorned with those faded remnants. Nor will I forget the same roar of those men when I shot a catbird unconscious, but not dead, with a slingshot while they were dressing a deer. The height of revelry was after every deer had been butchered. Jack refereed the meat being sorted into equivalent piles matching the number of hunters. A half of loin was mixed with a side of ribs. A third of ham was coupled with neck meat. The piles were numbered and each drew a corresponding number from a hat to determine their winnings. Before my time, small boy Bill Hubbard once sidled up to Jack during the numbering and said, “Daddy, let’s us just take that hip right there.”
Several years back, I was sitting in a tree in Eastover one fall afternoon admiring the unique buck I had just felled with my bow. My phone buzzed with a text message from Stuart Williams. Jack Hubbard had died a couple hours earlier. I wept in my tree. Bill called the next day and asked me to deliver a eulogy for their fallen giant. In front of Jack’s family and friends and in the pulpit of a traditional Presbyterian Church, I hollered out Jack’s deer dog call to the best of my ability, the one I had heard so many times during my childhood on frosty mornings signaling that the hunt had begun. Only, my call echoing away in the church sanctuary was for a hunt ended.
A year later, I took my Uncle Reg on his final dove hunt. He sat with his back against a pole on the edge of a corn field at the Hubbard’s River Farm. I watched from across the way in fascination as the near-90-year-old man dropped a half-dozen birds with his side-by-side 20 gauge. When I came to fetch him, he was grumbling about how many he missed and how he had lost his touch as a marksman.
I once heard a Duck Dynasty brother say that dove was the filet mignon of the sky. I don’t know about all that. I further concede that there is a reason Man domesticated the chicken instead of the dove. Well, two reasons maybe. Chickens are far less apt to explore the wild blue yonder. More importantly, a chicken breast is more tender and way more sustaining than that of the dove.
What, though, is the glory in harvesting a chicken from the Piggly Wiggly? Sometimes, the palatability of the food is directly proportionate to the method by which it was obtained and the company you kept while obtaining.
Our favorite way to eat dove is to fillet the two halves of meat off the breast, dab it with cream cheese and a slice of raw jalapeño pepper and toothpick a half a slice of bacon around it. When the bacon is char-grilled, almost crispy, the whole thing (except the toothpick) can be popped into your mouth for a flavorful explosion. Thus, we call them dove poppers.
This year, on the opening day of dove season, I called the Hubbard brothers asking if, for old times sake, I might intrude upon their field of cut corn along with my Remington 28 gauge. They, for old times sake, consented. I sat with my back to that same telephone pole where Uncle Reg had sat a few years before. I shot more birds than he did, but I missed more than he did too. As Bill and Johnny left for the day, they pulled their trucks up to Uncle Reg’s pole and got out for a goodbye, a goodbye comprised of old-time stories of what we had shared and of the lives now past. They left me alone on that vast expanse of river bottom and told me to lock the gate on my way out.
I never fired another shot, choosing only to gaze across the acreage at a sky full of lessening light, pondering all the good fortune I have had in this world as a result of the people I have known. And, I wondered if my wife’s garden still produced enough jalapeño peppers to make those dove poppers one more time.