A new hunting lodge can never hold a candle to an old house that has been walked through by generations of people who love it. A 103 year old hunting lodge holds laughter in the wood and stories in the air. When you go back to the same place over the course of a decade or a lifetime you begin to feel a part of the history, even though you are merely a fortunate tag-along.
I returned again to South Carolina last week. I hung the “gone hunting” sign on the door of my work-a-day existence and stepped back in time again. A slower pace. A place of giant trees and Spanish moss and gracious hospitality. People in South Carolina smile and greet you warmly. To be a Texan steeped in “y’all’s” and be charmed by the lovely cadence of a low country accent seems silly, yet I drink in the voices like wine.
It has been hot and it has been chilly. The birds have been scarce. And the wind has been strong. Quail can fly like feathered bullets. I have at one moment wondered if I’d get to shoot at all in an afternoon, and then wandered upon a strong covey haplessly, only to be utterly out-maneuvered by the little beasts throwing shot after shot feet behind the fugitives, being left with the lovely smell of gunpowder, a wide grin, barely withheld expletives, and respect for the enduring fact that my 20 gauge doesn’t even begin to level the playing field when the birds have the wind and a stunning setting sun on their side. I am not particularly great at this. But, God, I love it.
Mike Epps, one of the out-riders and a fellow food lover, can lead five surly horses through any terrain while we wander about after the dogs. He has been an out-rider here since I’ve been visiting. I am constantly begging my borrowed horse, Zoe, to stop eating grass and oak leaves and catch up with the group. I asked Mike, if it was superior horsemanship or a superior horse, and in his humble way he remarked that the primary difference is that the horses know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he isn’t scared of them so they generally do what he asks. Generally. I am reminded of the scene in Blazing Saddles when Mongo decks the horse, and I laugh to myself at what humor a horse must have towards those of us who mount up but once a year on a trail horse and think ourselves competent. I am grateful every time my horse runs me through a thick bunch of tree limbs to remind me that I’m utterly not in control. She could dispose of me handily if she chose to do so. So far she has remained content merely toying with me.
We ride the horses through everything the low country boasts, marshes, tall pine stands, broomstraw and briars, following incredible dogs and watching every twitch and pause to try to guess what they are sensing, whether or not there are birds hiding under the brush. I hunt, but I cannot call myself a hunter here. This is privileged hunting. My husband, my brother, they are true hunters in any context. You could drop them in any given place with a dog and a gun and they would get into something. But, here, the dog handlers and out-riders put us where we need to be. They handle us as much as they do the dogs and horses. I can ride around the countryside feeling a mix of Diana the Hunter and Lady Godiva, picking birds out of the sky here and there, but knowing deep down that if these men and dogs skedaddled and left me in the woods, I’d be eating tree bark sandwiches in no time. I’m not being too self-deprecating when I say that. I’ve just been hunting both ways, and this scenario is royal, indeed. There is no crack-of-dawn and precious little dark-thirty. I was well fed beyond my dreams and slept by roaring fires. All one needs to be here is to be a decent shot, and the rest is taken care of quite surreptitiously by these professionals whose job it is to make us feel like great hunters, while they do all the work. Not a bad plan, really. But in a world where anybody that walks into the Beretta Gallery and drops thousands on the “right” gun and the “right” clothes calls himself “hunter” I am wary of the word, having grown up with, loved and hunted with real hunters. And, I have an immense amount of respect for these gentlemen and ladies (and dogs) who do all of the work so that we can show up and chase the quail.
The style of cooking rested comfortably somewhere between Low Country and traditional hunting lodge fare. At least three of our evening feasts consisted of game that had been taken from the property. Simple, perfectly cooked roasts graced the table. A deep fried wild turkey. But my favorite meals have to be the casseroles and dishes Mary creates using the ingredients or leftovers from the previous evening. A fried shrimp hors d’oeuvres was followed the next day by shrimp creole and rice. Roast leg of lamb was followed the next day by a shepherd’s pie, topped with creamy whipped potatoes. The turkey was chopped into bits and reintroduced as turkey hash. Cornbread as sweet as cake, gingerbread with applesauce, brownies. It is hard to get up on a horse after feasts of this sort. Photos from the 1950′s and before show guests napping under trees after lunch before heading out and I understand why. Some very special dishes included a pheasant pot pie, puffy corn fritters with maple syrup, and Mary’s spectacular coconut cream pie. And, of all these things, the dish I will pine for until next year if I am lucky enough to return, is the Sunday night fried chicken dinner. Dear God.
If I am somewhat vague about where I have been, forgive me. It is a private place with private people. I get to hunt with some folks who I likely wouldn’t rub elbows with in any other context. Our friend Michael brought us a new friend this year. Les lives in Chicago but it took about 30 seconds for us to hammer out our common interest in food; we are both members of the Southern Foodways Alliance. He had just weeks ago attended a hunting and cooking camp put on by Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due in Austin. He and a handful of other men were coached on hunting, butchering and preparing meats, from tip to tail and start to finish. Admirably, Jesse gained another convert to the delight of properly chosen, butchered and prepared wild hog. So needless to say, I was happy to hear Les’ stories about SFA field trips and I tried to talk him into attending Beef 101 at Texas A&M and following it up with Foodways Texas’ Summer BBQ Camp. Quick friends.
The unofficial motto of the week was that it is a very small world. Pitts invited high school chums Kenneth and Elaine Lindh to join us for the week. It turns out that they know buckets of the same folks in New York as our long-time host, Jane. And, it turns out that I went to college with them. And, it turns out that they are close friends of my brother’s close college pal, Josh. And, my brother and his wife Amy were with us, too. So though not all of us knew each other going into it, we left feeling like we had been at a family wedding.
But how odd and wonderful to travel 1000 miles to meet a stranger who was a friend before we even met. Same goes for the Rev. Bob Ficks who joins us annually. Talk about a sport. Bob, an Episcopalian priest, puts up with all manner of inappropriate jokes and language from the Texas contingency, all with a smile. Sometimes I wonder if people try to behave so nicely around clerics that they miss out on all the good jokes and colorful stories. My husband, Pitts, makes sure he has a few for the long drive home.
The only big outing we made, not on horseback, was to Beaufort, South Carolina. The ladies took one day off for a little excursion into town. Of note, we stopped in several galleries and old bookstores. The Bay St. Gallery not only had an artist working in the gallery, but also carried a phenomenal collection of Sweet Grass baskets that were hand made by area artists. There is a fascinating cultural group in South Carolina known as Gullah. In short, they are the descendants of West Africans brought here as slaves who lived fairly isolated on the barrier islands of South Carolina. Because of the limited contact with the mainland before the bridges were built, their culture and ways were quite protected. They have a very unique dialect, traditional recipes, and art such as the baskets. Utterly strong and utilitarian, they are also stunningly beautiful. There are several master artists doing this work still, and many imitators. The baskets we found at Bay St. are in a category unto themselves. I wanted all of them. But I passed on the baskets and instead picked up three cookbooks distinctive to the area. I found two old cookbooks by traditional Gullah cooks and one Low Country cookbook. Really, the sensibilities are the same. They use a great deal of seafood and a great deal of grits. Preserves and sweets are prevalent and the name of the game is filling and delicious. The Gullah recipes strike a chord with me because of their simplicity, use of what was available, planning for times of want, and emphasis on warmth and comfort. I can’t wait to start cooking from these books.
Amy, my brother’s wife, is really on my list of best humans. She just makes me laugh and smile non-stop. She got caught up at a card and gift store called Lulu’s reading hilarious cards and stickers and just flat out giggling forever. There is also a gallery there with an impressive and seemingly well priced collection of Audubon prints, which I’m very fond of, called the Rhett Gallery. And, a decorator’s dream shop called “M” is right down the block. They have wonderful items with a low country feel like oyster shell votives and a giant table filled with coffee table books of all sorts. Amy scooped up two gorgeous pastels of South Carolina landscapes at the I. Pickney Simons Art Gallery. She has such a great eye.
Amy, Elaine and I grabbed lunch at a wonderful little spot called The Wren. I had a cheeseburger the size of my skull and a huge slice of house made coconut cake. It was lovely. I love homemade cake and this was homemade cake that just happened to be pretty and served in a restaurant, if you know what I mean.
And that was that. Good friends, hearths, hunting, eating, and one trip to town. I flew back home on Saturday in a quiet mood. I was ready for my life, but one must always relish those last few moments of being a parent with time away from the kids. I peered out the airplane window in to the brightness with my head pressed against the window. Traveling 300-some-odd miles per hour past rivers and cities and fields, I knew that I was flying through the updrafts of tens of thousands of lives below me. Some must have been arguing, some smiling, reading, sleeping, singing Happy Birthday, grieving a loss, playing, cooking, loving, and hating. I imagined seeing each scene like flipping through the channels on a television, as I made my way back to my particular path and life.
Breaks are good. Life is what we make it. And friends, old and new, make it all worthwhile.