It was 1973. Secretariat had won the first Triple Crown in 25 years, bar codes and jet skis had just been invented and the Sears Tower had overtaken the World Trade Center as the tallest building in the world. In Columbia, 12 young couples had gotten together for the first meeting of the Fin, Feather and Fur Club, a supper club where only fish or wild game were served as the main course.
Tom Milliken and Yancy McLeod
Fast forward 38 years. We’re scanning our own bar codes at the grocery store, the last Triple Crown winner was in 1978 and the world’s tallest building rises over the landscape in Dubai. Jet skis outnumber bass at Lake Murray. And the Fin, Feather and Fur Club? Still going strong.
Anne Milliken, who, with her husband Tom, was one of the club’s founding members, recalls the group’s early years. “We started out meeting once a month, but that got to be too much, so we changed it to quarterly,” she says. “We wanted the men to relax, so we told them that they had to put a dollar in the kitty (which was a lot of money back then) if they brought up work during the party. Turned out no one ever had to pay because all they wanted to talk about was sports, hunting and fishing.”
Although the wives are given credit for starting the club, it didn’t take long for the men, all of whom are avid hunters and/or fishermen, to get on board. “A number of the wives – we won’t say who – won’t cook game,” says one member with a smile. “The club gave their husbands a chance to cook what they killed.”
Johnny and Weezie Caskey
For most of the wives, though, the club forced them to learn to cook game – a good skill to have, given that some form of wild beast was going to show up nearly every weekend and eventually fill the freezer. “We were all young with very limited kitchen skills,” says Anne Milliken. “And here we were with these freshly killed wild things. We had no choice but to figure out how to make them taste good.”
Over the years, the variety of food at the dinners has been astounding, ranging from South Carolina’s usual game suspects – venison, quail, wild hog, dove, duck, shrimp and all kinds of fish – to the truly exotic. “We’ve had bear, alligator, ostrich, squirrel, shad roe, elk and pheasant,” says Ann Juk, another member, along with her husband Stan. Amazingly, no one recalls ever having anything that wasn’t delicious. “Of course some things are better than others,” says another member, “but everyone works hard to serve something that their friends will enjoy. It’s part of the fun. There are always great sauces and new preparations, too, so it’s a good way to learn a new way to cook duck or venison.” Members generally bring their dishes hot from the oven but sometimes grill on site.
From the beginning the club has had rules, some of which are quite detailed. And while members agree that it’s sometimes a challenge to impose regulations on friends, they’ve also found that sticking to them is part of the reason why the club has been able to withstand the test of time. “We didn’t want to leave room for hurt feelings,” says Kay Morris. “This way, it’s always fair.”
Rules like host pairings (randomly assigned), host duties (they provide all food beyond the main course, wine for dinner and drink setups), serving method (Fin, Feather and Fur serves buffet style; guests eat where they can find a seat), number of servings per dish (enough for four to six “ravenous adults, no bird-sized servings, please” reads a 1986 list of rules) and the number of guests allowed (hosts can invite two couples each) are fairly common supper club guidelines. Others, such as the requirement that cooks label their dishes, evolved out of necessity. “It was the mystery meat,” smiles Anne Milliken. “We just couldn’t deal with it, so we decided that everyone had to label what they’d brought.” The group also decided that to have some order in the serving process, they allowed guests to serve themselves first, followed by the previous quarter’s hosts, then everyone else. Cleanup is a group affair with everyone pitching in. Dessert, which tends toward cakes, brownies and other easily-eaten treats, is passed as guests move from room to room.
The club broke its guest rule just once, with great success. “We decided that we’d all bring our children,” recalls Anne Milliken. “It was wild, but they had so much fun that some of them started their own wild game supper club. They’re sort of the second generation Fin, Feather and Fur.”
As to the original club, it has grown to 19 couples. Three spouses, still greatly missed, have died, but not a single couple has divorced. There are no plans to disband or change anything – except, perhaps, the venue. “I can’t imagine a time when we don’t have game supper club,” says Anne Milliken. “Even when we’re all in ‘The Home.’ We’ll just have it there.”
Stan and Ann Juk, Yancy and Robin McLeod, Tom and Anne Milliken