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Take Me to the River

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Take Me to the River
Photos by Hunter McRae

A COMMUNITY FEAST ALONG THE PEE DEE RIVER

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Photo by Hunter McRae

About ten minutes to one p.m. those “in the know” begin to gather their bearings. With the blessing imminent, the lids come off and the foil is peeled away from hundreds of platters and covered dishes in preparation for the coming rush. Four tables, each nearly thirty feet from end to end, proudly display a vast array of Thanksgiving offerings. There’s every manner of casserole, salads that run the gamut from gluten-free to doused-in-Duke’s, and enough cakes, cookies, puddings, and pies to sweeten the nearby Pee Dee River from here to Winyah Bay.

It’s another year at The Hunt, a century-old tradition shared by the extended families of the members of the Damon Hunt Club set in a sprawling pine forest in the Pee Dee region around Darlington, South Carolina.

At dawn, several generations of fathers and sons don their waders and head out into the Big Pond in search of ducks. Two hours later, another group of about seventy men and women gather at the club’s rustic headquarters, lacing up their boots for the annual deer hunt, one of two mornings (along with New Year’s Day) when dogs are run through the woods to scare up the prize bucks. Referencing a giant satellite image on the wall and maps drawn with sticks in the loose soil of these piedmont sand hills, the groups stake out their spots and head to the woods.

For most folks at The Hunt, the real action starts at noon. When a nearby textile mill shut down, they sold off giant spools of camouflage fabric, which is rolled out across the long expanses of makeshift sawhorse-and-plywood tables. Each of the first three tables is unscientifically divided into sections presided over by taxidermied local animals (a fox guards platters of turkey while a quail eyes a bowl of corn and butterbeans).

The setup allows an empty plate to begin its journey with greens and fruits and proceed to vegetables of the baked and mashed variety before reaching the fillers: stuffing, mac-and-cheese, gumbo, hash. The meat comes last—after choosing from a dozen or so shaved and sliced turkeys, the truly ambitious steer toward the smoker for wild boar, venison, and plenty of pulled pork. Dessert, of course, warrants its own table (and plate).

Both the returning hunters and family arriving from a worship service held at a nearby chapel in the woods—dogs welcome—have worked up quite an appetite. Looking across the gathered crowd, there’s more camouflage and blaze orange than blazers and Sunday suits.

The word quietly passing through the younger set at the front of the line is that table two deserves the first strike, although a carefully coordinated plan of attack in pairs can assure that one particularly promising loaf of cornbread is not missed out on.

“It’s big-time strategy. You start by scoping out each side of each table to see what’s looking good,” explains Will Bowron, who hasn’t missed a Hunt in his twenty-two years.

He’s poised at the front of the line for table two, ready to make an immediate approach after the blessing. “I’m headed to the inside so when I come to the end of the table I can swerve around in a flanking movement to table one. The first plate is for meat and sides, and plate two is purely dessert, so we’ll just head down to that table and annihilate the whole thing.”

An amateur attending The Hunt might reasonably be done after two full plates, but to Bowron and his cousins, dessert is time to sit, discuss, and review the dinner before heading back for the “highlight reel” plate. “If you go for a fourth plate,” Bowron reveals, “you are a champion of Thanksgiving.”

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Photo by Hunter McRae

With that, Albert “Juny” James Jr. steps to the front of the lodge’s porch to offer grace. The several hundred attendees, most related by blood, marriage, or both, fall silent. At ninety-six, Juny is the club’s most veteran member. His father was a founder of the club, and Albert James III, Albert James IV, and Albert James V (just two years old) are all in attendance.

While serving in World War II, Juny wrote his wife from Europe imploring her to ensure that a deer stand be reserved for him at Damon when he returned home. Seventy years later, he’s still a keen shot. Friend and hunting partner Obie Stokes recounts that for the season-commencing dove hunt in August he drove himself to the field and took out four or five doves. “Four or five?!” exclaims Juny, questioning Obie’s recollection. “It was more than that!”

Although younger by more than a few decades, Obie may be equally revered at The Hunt. While the multitudes bring their favorite dishes to share, passed down by generations, Obie hauls out the smoker each year, dishing up enough wild game to feed every attendee from the bounty of the surrounding land. This year, a freshly slain boar, heavily seasoned with teriyaki, highlights the menu.

“When you serve the only hot food at Thanksgiving, it’s pretty easy to please people,” laughs the ever-humble Stokes, revealing his only secret to properly cooking wild game: “If you cook a brick slow enough, you can make it taste good.”

Fortunately, the rich, juicy texture of Obie’s carefully roasted venison, hog, and wild turkey provide solid fodder to work with, requiring nothing more than salt, garlic, and pepper (apart from the teriyaki for the boar) to flavor the tender meat. “I don’t measure anything,” he adds. “You put enough stuff that tastes good together, and it works.”

Obie’s ten-year-old son, Tanner, listens intently while his father explains his simple philosophy behind cooking. Tanner felled his first deer at age seven, and it’s clear that he admires his pop’s approach to food and the outdoors. Earlier that morning, Dad had called him off of an easy shot at a six-point buck that he deemed too young, but Obie consoles his son with the reminder that the deer currently on the grill was taken by the boy two weeks prior.

On this morning, Tanner is left to admire the year’s only Thanksgiving buck, a 185-pounder shot by a local woman, Pam Byrd, whose trophy sparks a buzz of conversation throughout the crowd. Watching that magnificent animal be hauled from the truck, I find myself taken back twenty years to this very spot.

Meat doesn’t grow on trees. Some folks may go through life never discerning between a carrot and a hot dog, but conscientious eaters likely had a pivotal moment sometime in their lives when steak, chicken, or pulled pork became flesh, as they realized that the texture in their mouth was once a living, breathing animal. A film, a magazine story, or even a conversation may contribute, but however it occurs, it’s one of life’s most fervent epiphanies.

For me, that moment came when I was twelve. My father took a job as the rector at Darlington’s St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. After the passing of Thomas Coxe, the family patriarch who offered the Thanksgiving blessing each year at The Hunt, Dad was invited to bring our family out and say grace for the gathered crowd at Damon Hunt Club.

I vividly recall two images from that first experience. The first is a whole pig roasting on a smoker. Until that moment, I’d never associated BBQ with something you could “pick” directly from an intact roasted carcass. The deer are equally poignant in my mind. Back behind the lodge, just fifty or so feet past the tables lined with food, a buck hung upside down from a hook, blood dripping from its jaw. Two doe lay off to the side, waiting their turn to be hoisted and weighed.

Meat would never again be the same. The disconnect between a Wendy’s hamburger and a cow seemed somehow bridged. My eating habits didn’t change (at least not at that age), but the groundwork was laid. Sometime later that year, my brother and I spent the day slaughtering chickens at another Darlington neighbor’s farm. The process was simple: snatch chicken, pull it head first through an upside-down sawed-off traffic cone, and slit its neck. They died within seconds. The process became methodic, but we remained reverent.

Two decades later, it’s a bloody childhood memory but one with immense personal value. In Darlington, The Hunt exists as it has for nearly a century. Because the same people kill, cook, and eat each year, very little changes. Even the mysterious package of Oreos that appears on the dessert table has grown into a tradition rather than an annoyance of creeping modernity.

For the families who make The Hunt their own holiday ritual, every aspect of the event, down to the peach leather and candied bacon, is now an expected, anticipated tradition. On Wednesday night before the feast, the Coxe family, who owns the Damon Hunt Club land, gathers for steaming plates of chicken and sausage gumbo, accompanied by recollections of holidays past. Someone exclaims that it’s been twenty years since they found themselves sitting down at an indoor table for Thanksgiving, and nearly every family member around the campfire nods in agreement. Even those who marry into the Coxes seem to end up prioritizing The Hunt over the traditions from whence they came.

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to sit around a nicely decorated table and eat a drawn out Thanksgiving dinner,” says Suiter Coxe, a recent Wofford graduate. “But every year when I put photos on Facebook, my friends ask, ‘Can I come to your Thanksgiving?’ I think it’s something about being outdoors that makes it special.”

Suiter’s great-grandfather, the aforementioned Thomas Coxe, reorganized the Damon Hunt Club and deeded the surrounding 19,000 acres down to his children and grandchildren. “He wanted to pass something down, to create a place where we could celebrate life together,” explains Rags Coxe, Suiter’s father and Thomas’s grandson. “Sometimes I want to accelerate the feeling of how special this is for my children. It’s indelible. If I were to get hit by a bus, I want to know that they really ‘get it.’ And I think that they do.”

When Rags was just a child, he shot his first deer. It limped away and had to be tracked down by the trail of blood it left behind. Ashamed to discover that he’d shot a doe—“the wrong deer,” in his eyes—Rags nearly resolved not to hunt again until his family stepped in and reset his priorities. It wasn’t about the sport of bagging a prize buck. The doe’s meat was as fine as any deer and would feed the family. And that’s the reason why they still hunt today.

Rags’s uncle Ricky goes back even further. As a teenager, in the days when each of the hundreds of attendees would drink a mug of coffee upon arrival, he took on the responsibility of brewing the coffee in a giant kettle over open flames in a brick oven, boiling water before adding the coffee in cheesecloth bags. “This tradition started sometime in the late 1800s,” Ricky explains. “Thanksgiving was one of the few days when the men didn’t work, so they’d come out early in the morning to go deer hunting and the women would bring lunch.”

When Ricky’s father, Thomas, bought the land in the 1930s, he reorganized the club membership but kept its traditions alive. Inside the lodge, the décor blends old with new. While a television blares a Thanksgiving cooking show that pits families against celebrity chefs, the heads of giant bucks and boars look on stoically from the wall and a fire roars in the hearth.

Around the central room, kitchen, and bunks, photographs and artifacts are tacked to the wooden interior. Rows of found arrowheads and pottery shards line a bench under a document declaring that annual dues of forty-eight dollars are now required for the 1956 hunting season. A photograph from the 1940s shows a hunting group with a black retriever named Ace lying at their feet. Panting at my knees, a real-life Ace begs for another toss of his stick.

Some traditions, however, have begun to fade. Not long ago, any hunter who missed a clear shot at a deer was subjected to the “clipping of their shirttail” prior to the blessing on Thanksgiving. I waited eagerly for that ritual, but it’s now either overlooked or modern-day rifle scopes make misses rare.

Where old traditions peter out, new ones arise. After the crowd dissipates, heading back to nap on their own couches across the Pee Dee in Darlington, Hartsville, and Society Hill, the Coxe family gathers at the family home for a quick annual soccer game before loading their shotguns and heading out to a broad field of sunflowers.

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Photo by Hunter McRae

Children as young as six set out into the setting sun with guns in hand, bringing down the doves that fly from the ground as they move stealthily through the brown flower stalks. I arrive in time to watch four generations of hunters return, each adding their birds to a collective pile, destined for some stewed or bacon-wrapped future.

The young hunters are perhaps more devoted to their craft than one famous visitor to the Damon Hunt Club, Confederate General Wade Hampton, who allegedly fell asleep in the bough of a giant live oak after being offered that perch—the prime deer stand on the property. After a pre-hunt meal, Damon-style, one can understand his weariness.

After falling just short of the “champion round” fourth plate, I wander off into the woods in search of what is now called the Hampton Oak. Surrounded by creeping vines of resurrection fern and ancient limbs draped in moss, far from football on TV and any notion of commencing Christmas shopping, a Thanksgiving nap feels more attuned to the holiday’s first celebration centuries ago than even my own family’s cherished traditions. High above the ground, I find myself overwhelmed with thankfulness that this community persists, nestled deep in the Pee Dee, where Thanksgiving is still a time when the visible connections between feast and fowl are very much alive.

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Hunter McRae