By JAY REED
As a youngster, we often travelled to visit Pappy and Granny, my maternal grandparents who lived in Belmont, Miss.
On just about every trip, I could predict with some confidence that at least one of two traditions would be carried on: fishing with Pappy or eating Granny’s fried fish. Sometimes — if we were especially lucky — it would be both. If there was no platter of fish and hush puppies to be had on a particular visit, it was probably because Pappy had been bird hunting, in which case the big meal of the weekend would be dove with biscuit and gravy, or maybe quail. I guess you could say that hunting and fishing are in my blood, though it might be more accurate to say that the products of hunting and fishing became regular components of my bloodstream.
Truth be told, I loved to fish in those days, and since then I have had at least one opportunity to teach my kids a few basics of fishing, including worming their hooks. But I rarely take the time to do it as a grown-up. And hunting never really took at all. I support hunting, and begin salivating when I hear of Wild Beast Feasts or the like. I have processed deer meat and cooked farmed quail. But the hunting bug skipped a couple of generations. Yet somehow, it bit my son.
The quandary came when Son was eager to hit the woods and I had zero experience from which to draw. Lucky for us, we’ve got friends who do. A few of those friends have taken him to the forest and introduced him to the solitude of a deer stand on more than one chilly, early morning. Thanks to them, I had the opportunity to process the first deer he brought home, on Christmas night last year. (Thanks also to them for field-dressing it before it got to me). Thanks to others who happen to work with the state wildlife department, he has had a chance to experience two kinds of bird hunting. Last year he and I went together to Prairie Wildlife for a quail hunt, and this year Son went to Gumbo Flats for Camp Duck.
Camp Duck is officially known as the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Youth Waterfowl Hunting and Education Camp. (It’s only known as Camp Duck to me — it’s so much easier to say). At Camp Duck he learned to call ducks, to identify ducks, and to follow all the laws about hunting ducks. And that’s just the tip of the information iceberg. On the final day, after spending hours in waders waiting for ducks to fly by, he had success. He got a duck.
It was on that final day that I showed up. This was not a parent camp, though I would have loved to have come. But they did invite parents to come early on the last day, learn a little about what the youngsters had been up to all weekend, and share breakfast and lunch. When I saw that lunch would be featuring wild game, I volunteered to pick him up.
As I later learned from speaking with one of the owners of Gumbo Flats, Scott Spradling, the campers had already experienced some wild game earlier in the weekend. They had venison spaghetti one night, from a deer taken on the property, though Son confessed to being oblivious to that announcement. Another night they had something of a side-by-side comparison of pork barbecue and some wild boar that had also been taken on club land. Son was pretty excited about this one. He described it as similar to pork with a gamier flavor, but in a good way. He claims to have been able to tell that the boar was “not domesticated.” His palate is becoming more and more discerning, it seems.
I hate I missed the wild boar, but at lunch the last day there was plenty of variety to enjoy. At one end of the line we had a big tray of fried catfish filets — maybe that’s not too exotic, but I certainly ate my fill. Next in line was a sampling of fried crappie that Scott and his wife Nina had fished from the lake outside the back door of the lodge. At the other end of the line were hush puppies cooked as close to Granny’s recipe as any other hush puppies I have ever had, and a big bowl of cole slaw, generously seasoned with black pepper. This was the perfect storm when it comes to fish dinners, and I would have been content to fill up on that. But there was more.
A big pan of duck dressing was at the center of the bounty. The recipe was from Scott’s grandmother, and the ducks were local. (At least they were local when they flew through). I’m not the biggest dressing aficionado, but this was good stuff — just moist enough, and plenty of duck throughout. The subtle flavor of the dressing was a great counterpoint to the spicy blackened duck breast slices that were prepared by MDWFP biologists Justin and Lauren Thayer. These were Son’s favorites of the day, and I just might agree with him.
Thanks to the Spradlings for sharing Gumbo Flats with Son and his new friends, and a big thanks to MDWFP and its partners for making Camp Duck possible. First it was Quail Day, then it was Duck Weekend — maybe next year we’ll send him to Amphibian Week and get all the Gator-on-a-Stick we can eat.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .