Many Southern families enjoy the long-storied pastime of hunting, a tradition that has passed from generation to generation of fathers taking sons and daughters out into the fields to share a bonding moment like none other.
In the South, Thanksgiving Day has always been more than just a celebration of thankfulness; it also marks the opening of hunting season for a variety of wild game. While South Carolina deer hunters have been out since mid-August, hunters of quail, rabbit, ducks, dove, and other small game gleefully head out early Thanksgiving morning.
Wild game featured in regular meals continues in popularity. Hunters stock freezers for the coming year, churches have been hosting wild game dinners for years, and many social organizations host the dinners as fundraising events.
Many hunters just enjoy sharing their bounty with friends and family. Michael Boozer and Ben Myers have been friends ever since meeting each other as fraternity brothers at Clemson University. Hunting is one of their favorite pastimes so from time to time they host wild game dinners for their friends. “Hunting is so social,” says Michael, “and it lends itself to invite people over to help eat what we have hunted.”
Deciding what they serve depends on the season. “If you want to serve deer for a dinner in April, you’re going to be taking it out of the freezer rather than serving something fresh,” he says. “That’s why I love the fall. It’s dove season, deer season, and football season!”
Ben, who typically cooks some type of wild game at least every other week, says that when coordinating a pot luck, it’s best to ask guests to bring a dish that is their specialty. “Ask someone what they’re good at preparing, something unique to their family. Focus on two or three wild game preparations, and pair each with a good wine,” he recommends.
All guests should be aware of the menu. “If someone is attending who doesn’t care for wild game,” Michael advises, “you should have something else available for them.”
What do you do if you like wild game but aren’t a hunter? Michael suggests considering becoming one by looking into classes held by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and going out with a friend who is a hunter. “Beyond that, I suggest making friends with someone who’s willing to share,” he says.
Scott Whitaker is preparing to host his 10th annual F.A.T. (Friday After Thanksgiving) Oyster Roast and Wild Game Dinner this month. “It really started as something that I wanted to do for my two boys, something they could potentially continue,” he says. “But more importantly, it’s a lesson by example on the importance of family, friends, traditions, and counting our blessings.”
The event has grown tremendously over 10 years from maybe a dozen family members and friends the first year to a high of 78. Scott has even featured live entertainment at a couple of events. At one point when he thought of calling it quits, the response was a resounding “no!” “I was quickly told by family and friends, particularly my sons, that cancelling would be impossible,” he says with a laugh.
With anywhere from 50 to 80 people attending, an all-hands-on-deck approach is required to pull off such a large undertaking. “Everybody is tired of turkey and dressing and the leftovers to come,” says Scott, “so this is something different. It’s a great way to get family and friends together who you may not see over the holidays.”
The menu is complete with appetizers, main courses, and desserts. Guests start off with venison sausage and dove breast poppers in jalapenos wrapped with bacon and cooked on the grill, then settle in with Scott’s famous fish stew, made with red drum that he catches in state. “It’s a thick white fish that holds up well in a stew made with tomatoes, peppers, and onions.” He also makes a quail perlo along with roasted and steamed oysters. “Oysters are easy,” says Scott, “and you can harvest those yourself this time of year as well.”
Phil Pickard and his two sons, Nelson and Turner, spend a lot of time out in the fields hunting. He and Keren, his wife, provide wild game dinners as auction items for church fundraisers as well as host holiday dinners that feature wild game. “Christmas goose is a tradition in my family,” says Keren. “Phil is constantly fiddling with that recipe, and he’s just about got it right.” Her brother-in-law is an avid hunter so her sister frequently sends them goose and duck. Suggested sides for these fowl dinners include wild rice, oyster stuffing, red cabbage, and grit cakes.
Wild game can be the main course for any special occasion. The Pickard’s elder son, Nelson, chose to have a wild boar pickin’ for his college graduation party. “People will be surprised at how different wild game tastes,” Phil says. “Wild boar has a much better flavor than a farm-raised pig because of the difference in the amount of fat.”
For their church wild game fundraiser, the Pickards, along with a few friends, served up quail pate, smoked duck breast, wild boar, and rabbit casserole in a white wine sauce. “I stole that recipe off the wall of a restaurant in New York and wrote it down on a napkin,” Phil recalls.
One of his favorite wild game dishes to prepare is bear. He says that it tastes best when cut into small bites, lightly floured and seasoned, then flash fried. “The biggest mistake people make when cooking wild game is to overcook it. That’s the most important thing to remember — don’t overcook it.”
While it is illegal in South Carolina to sell venison, friends are usually willing to give of their abundance, especially when they run out of freezer room. For small game, consider purchasing farm-raised rabbit or quail from Four Oaks Farm in Lexington; Manchester Farms, the nation’s oldest quail farm, located on Garner’s Ferry Road in Columbia; or, Hannah Hands Farm in Ridgeway.A trip out west for big game may be in order for the likes of elk and bison, and more exotic meats such as alligator and ostrich are available by ordering online.
As with any dinner, serving depends on the number of people attending. Scott’s party requires many tables on which to drop the oysters and plenty of cocktail sauce and crackers. “We usually have it outside if weather allows, but we may put some tables in the garage,” he says.
He serves the game on boards made from tupelo that came from Hemingway, South Carolina. “It’s the type of boards and bowls that you would have found in South Carolina many years ago,” he says. “It lends some authenticity to the event, and they can be handed down through families.”
Decorating for a wild game dinner can range from the simple to the more elaborate. Scott likes to use burlap as tablecloths for his F.A.T. dinner, while Keren always uses her silver pheasants for holiday settings. Other decorating ideas include table toppers of wood rounds cut from cedar tree trunks, with votive candles, pine cones, and greenery placed on them. Pumpkins, gourds, and natural elements such as wheat and ornamental grasses create a pleasant table setting. Duck decoys, duck calls, antler sheds, and pheasant feathers will complement the decor as well.
Scott, who is the executive director for Coastal Conservation Association South Carolina, describes his dinner as a celebration of all things game, fish, and fowl available in the state. “People put a lot of time, talent, and treasure into taking care of what we have in this state for our natural resources,” he says.
Yet, the opportunity to spend time with friends and family in the gathering of wild game has even more meaning. Everyone lives by the rule: “If you shoot it, you have to eat it.”
“We’re teaching our kids about sustainability, about being outdoors,” says Michael. “My little girl is 5, and this will be her third year going on dove hunts with me.”
Scott adds, “A gathering of people who enjoy each other’s company, who share common ground and history, and who respect friendships and traditions can lift one’s heart, mind, and spirits. And that is why I rejoice that my boys refuse to let this end.”
Phil’s Quail Pate
1 cup quail meat
1/2 cup butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon brandy
Pinch of thyme, allspice, and nutmeg
1/4 cup clarified butter
Salt and pepper to taste
In a medium-size saucepan, melt half the butter over low heat. Add onion and garlic; cook until soft. Add quail meat; increase heat to medium and saute briskly for 2 to 3 minutes until firm to the touch. Cool meat and chop finely, then work through sieve; cream the remaining butter and beat into the mixture. Season with salt and pepper, and then add brandy, thyme, allspice, and nutmeg. Spoon into ramekin dishes and cover with clarified butter. Makes two ramekin dishes.
Boozer’s Reverse Seared
1 whole venison loin
Coarse ground sea salt, to taste
Coarse ground black pepper, to taste
Garlic powder, to taste
3 tablespoons onion, diced
3 tablespoons garlic, minced
2/3 cup red wine
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1 ounce bourbon
Before seasoning the meat, make sure to cut or peel away the “silver skin” membrane. If not removed, the membrane can give the loin a tough quality. Place loin on a baker’s pan with a rack at room temperature at least 2 hours before cooking. Apply salt, pepper, and garlic powder liberally to the entire loin. Preheat oven to 240 degrees F. Cook loin 45 minutes to 1 hour or 115 to 120 degrees F internal temperature. Prepare sauce while meat cooks. In a saucepan over medium low heat, simmer onion and garlic until soft. Stir in the mustard, wine, and bourbon, and reduce down by 2/3. Slowly whisk in the butter. After butter is melted, remove from heat, and add parsley and salt/pepper to taste.
When the meat has about 15 minutes remaining, heat a cast iron skillet on high temperature to 600-plus degrees F. It is best to do this outside to avoid smoke inside a kitchen. Remove loin from oven, and immediately sear all four sides for no more than 30 to 35 seconds per side to avoid overcooking and to reach an internal temp of 130 degrees F. Place loin on a platter, pour sauce over loin, and wait 10 minutes before slicing into medallions. Serves 6.
The Myers Dove Recipe
10 to 12 breasted doves
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
3 to 4 slices of bacon, uncooked
1/2 cup olive oil or 1/2 stick butter, sliced into pats
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place onion, green pepper, and mushrooms into bottom of a baking dish. Place the doves in rows on top of the onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Pour olive oil over or place butter pats randomly throughout the baking dish. Salt and pepper the doves to your liking. Place slices of bacon on each row to cover the doves. Cover the baking dish and cook at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes. Serves 4. Serve with stone ground grits. Pairs well with a bold red blend wine or a cabernet sauvignon.