Virginia Duck Hunting Is A Southern Chef Tradition
Walking in the forest outside Richmond
In 2012, Chris Hastings won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South for his work at the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama. We have asked him write in from time to time to tell us what is on his mind, and on his stove.
Food Republic contributing editor Matt Rodbard and I first met last year in New York when we got together at a Korean restaurant on 32nd Street to discuss all things Southern food — the scene in Alabama and what was most exciting me in the kitchen at The Hot and Hot Fish Club. As is usually the case with folks not from the South (and even sometimes within the South), Matt had no idea there were so many cool and amazing things going on in Birmingham, and Alabama in general.
That conversation led to more questions than answers for Matt, and over the next few days and weeks we began discussing how unknown and one-dimensional the perception of the real South is relative to the compelling diversity that is daily life here. The exchanges that took place during the subsequent months culminated with the idea of taking Food Republic readers to the South I know.
The first thing y’all must know is the South is experiencing an amazing renaissance right now, particularly among the creative class. Never in my lifetime have I seen music, food, art, design, literature, farming, husbandry and craftsmanship all being reinvented at the hands of dynamic Southern thinkers. This, along with a commitment to the preservation of land, foodways and our traditions, provides a true north (really south!) on life's compass that makes for a profound moment in our history. My hope is that I am able to bring my love for and understanding of this amazing place, the South I know, to you in a compelling way. So here we go.
Southern folks have a gift for living in the moment, for knowing what season it is, what’s not to be overlooked and what to celebrate in a meaningful way. Being in tune with the seasons and micro-seasons allows you to first realize, and then celebrate, those opportunities. It also reinforced, in a very real way, the value and importance of sourcing of a place and in a moment. This concept has been the cornerstone of our thinking from day one at the Hot and Hot Fish Club and my commitment to not missing those moments has provided me the escape, rest and clarity of mind you must have to be at your best in our world.
So what is this moment?
About the time when college football is winding down and all that is left are a few bowl games, a great migration takes place around the Mississippi River, from Arkansas to Louisiana. It is then when a great legion of men can be found descending upon the toniest of hunting camps to a cluster of single-wides on the edge of a swamp. They travel from far and near to hunt ducks and geese.
In an effort to share my last duck hunting trip with a coupe chef friends along the eastern shore of the James River, I will go light on the hunting details and focus more on the food — after all, this is a food publication.
We arrive at noon on a Thursday into Richmond, Virginia and are met by our host and chef, Walter Bundy. Our murderous crew consisted of Sean Brock, Sam McGann, a local oysterman (and clammer) from Shooting Point Oysters named Tom Gallivan and myself. We arrived in-town a day early to shoot ducks and geese before cooking for a James Beard Dinner at Lemaire, Walter’s restaurant in the Jefferson Hotel. We ride about 45 minutes south and east to Walter’s family farm. On the way in, we swing by Bill's Hotdog Stand, grab a few dogs, hatch a plan for hunting that afternoon and move onto gas and shells at the local “country store,” Haupt’s.
Some of the things I could have bought there include a Daisy air gun, local produce, meat, a hairdryer, hunting license, bobbers, upland game vest, nails, WD-40, you name it. Charlie, the owner, has put together a super cool place.
We arrive at a farm on the James River in Virginia just in time to gear up, ride out to a field near the river, put out decoys and get about two hours of goose hunting in. On the approach to the hunting field, we noticed some geese were already out there and had to make the decision to move or hunt that spot. We choose to hunt that field and as we approached we busted 500+ geese out of the field. It might be a slow afternoon of shooting as we are not sure if those geese will return to this field before they roost elsewhere that evening. Thanks to Sean, we harvest one goose, it’s his first. The forecast calls for three-to-five inches of snow that night and it’s starting to get cold and dark. We pack up the decoys, share a slug off of Sean's flask (always present) full of Buffalo Trace Bourbon and move onto the evening’s festivities.
When we arrive at the skinning shed to cook and eat, Tom has already started shucking the oysters and clams he harvested that afternoon off two different spots from his farm, one off the Chesapeake Bay side and one on the Eastern Shore. Both are amazing. The bay oyster had slightly less salinity and was meaty and sweet. The Eastern Shore oyster and clam were delightfully briny and amazingly succulent. I like Tom; he loves his work and college football. We have decided he needs to come to Tuscaloosa next fall. Cool.
Sean immediately grabs a handful of clams and throws some in a cast iron skillet and into the coals of the wood stove before turning around to make each of us an Old Fashioned. Nice start so far. He finished the clams with a knob of butter and lemon. Simple. Perfect.
Walter has brined and smoked a goose breast that he shot the previous weekend. It was the best goose I have ever eaten, served on toast with local cheddar and apple butter. Unreal.
Amidst all the kitchen action, Sam brought in some local puffer fish (a.k.a. sugar toad) that had been cleaned and skinned, their beautiful pearly white flesh exposed on the bone. He breaded and fried them to be sweet and delicious, and served with lemony spicy aioli.
Dinner progresses and Walter has now gotten a bacon-wrapped venison loin he shot on the farm earlier this season that is also in the wood stove; belly laying over the coals to sear and cook it to a perfect mid-rare. I have eaten venison all of my life all over the world, and this was the best I have ever eaten. Walter served a blue cheese sauce alongside it, but the venison was so good, I passed.
Thought it was about time I got in on the action. Walter had six beautiful mallard breasts from last weekend’s hunt that he marinated and brought a more-than-healthy looking lobe of grade A foie gras.
He had also made a killer satsuma orange and chili jam that was hot and sweet. Just a ridiculous combination of flavors. I seared and roasted half the lobe and duck breasts over the coals, sliced them and put them on toasts with jam...crazy delicious.
By this time in the night, it was snowing, the bourbon was flowing and we were deep in endless conversations about every topic you can imagine. As good a time as you can have anywhere.
The next morning we hunted for more ducks and geese, watched wild turkeys pitch off their roost over the James , enjoyed a glorious sunrise, laughed out loud reading Iron Sheik tweets, we all were grateful and content.
Glad I did not miss my first Eastern Shore Hunt with friends. My work will be better for it.
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