Hunting for Dove
For centuries, Southern boys have enjoyed glorious dove shoots when these small, migratory gray birds fly in. Springtime brings them to the Lowcountry on their way northward and fall brings them back south; they stop off here for a rest before proceeding on to Mexico for the winter. Dove is prized for its tastiness on the supper table. However, many come home empty-handed because the dove dart out at 200 miles an hour, turning sideways flips just as the trusty shotgun is raised skyward! If you listen closely, you’ll hear the whistling in their wings as they fly.
The Duck Hunt
There must be something magical about getting up at three o’clock in the morning, climbing into a fourteen-foot bateau, a faithful black lab in the bow, turning on the engine and traveling down to one of the islands for a shoot at the break of dawn. In all the hunting tales I’ve heard, it’s always been said that the finest hunting occurs as the winter storms blow through and the waters are their roughest. The rougher the weather, the more successful the hunt would be. I’ll never forget being on Eddings Island one very cold December morning and hearing the wing-beat of ducks circling overhead just as the sun began to rise. To a duck hunter, there is no sound in the world quite so exciting!
It is incredible what tasty dishes can be prepared out of rice, onions, bacon and any one of a variety of wild meats. These dishes are known as pilau, with the name of the meat ingredient preceding the word pilau, as in marsh hen pilau, duck pilau, or oyster pilau. In the old days, many dishes were created out of necessity – one being duck over rice. The Gullah people on Lady’s Island would take two large wild ducks, pick and clean them thoroughly, cut them into small pieces, season them well with salt and pepper, roll them in flour and brown them in a cast-iron skillet. After all, pieces were browned on all sides, the excess cooking oil would be discarded from the skillet. Then the duck pieces would be returned to the skillet. One large white onion, chopped up, would then be added. Next, two cups of water and a teaspoon of Tabasco were added. The flour that the duck pieces were rolled in sufficed to thicken the liquid into a wonderful gravy. The meat would then cook with a lid on very low heat for a couple of hours until tender. Always, this was served over white rice so that delicious gravy could be absorbed.
St. Phillip’s Island Oyster Omelet
This recipe is that of Pierre McGowan, a sportsman and native of the Lowcountry, who learned it from a friend while on a camping trip to St. Phillip’s Island. This dish was created purely by accident. One morning, as the men were preparing breakfast, one of them reached into his ice chest and produced a pint of raw oysters, asking, “How about adding these to the scrambled eggs?” Into a large hot skillet, with plenty of melted pure butter, he poured the raw oysters and allowed them to cook for two minutes until their edges began to curl. On top of the oysters, he poured eight well-beaten eggs mixed with half and half, salt and pepper, and six drops of Tabasco. When eaten with grits, toast, and coffee, this breakfast dish would satisfy even the most finicky eater. Other versions of this dish could include shredded sharp cheddar cheese and a few tablespoonfuls of chopped onion.
Pitchforking for Flounder
As the tide ebbs and exposes the oyster beds, the flounder seek refuge in the pluff mud. They feed on finger-length mullet, then bury themselves in the mud and silt at the bottom of these creeks to await the returning tide. As the tide ebbs, the water is muddy and the unwary flounder becomes unaware of their predators. This is when fishermen fish with pitchforks, a custom believed to have started during slavery, that was then passed down through the generations. It’s a method where the fisherman walks through the muddy water sticking the pitchfork into the bottom in front of him, blind gigging. When the fisherman feels a quiver coming from the end of the pitchfork, he knows he has caught either a flounder or a stingray! Since the pitchfork has no barbs, when the fish is lifted out of the water, its wiggling can cause it to slip off and escape. Therefore the fisherman must carefully ease several fingers into the gills and, while holding it securely, raise the fish and the pitchfork out of the water at the same time. Next, the fish is placed on a stringer, one end of which is secured to his belt.
Gigging for fish at night using a light and a spear is a form of gathering fish which predates the British coming to our coast. Records show that Native Americans used this method often and made spears out of wood; their light came from burning light-wood knots made from pine trees. Gasoline burning torches began being used in the early part of the twentieth century, and these were phased out about 1940 with the advent of Coleman lanterns. It’s a sport still participated in today by natives and newcomers alike.
The English brought with them their taste for cream sauces, but the cooks in most English homes were African. They added their own exotic seasonings and culinary skills, creating dishes we still serve today, such as oyster pilau and okra and tomatoes.
It was these three forces combined – this meeting of native ingredients, English taste buds, and African culinary skill – that created the magic that exemplifies Lowcountry cooking today.
Bluffton oysters grow in the May River, which has 8 to 10-foot tides moving vast amounts of clean ocean water over its banks. This dramatic water exchange prevents heavy rains from diminishing the river’s salinity as happens in the Chesapeake and Apalachicola bays, and more importantly, it prevents pollutants from accumulating near the delicate filter feeders.
Thus, our May River oysters have a distinctive wild and briny flavor that locals claim is unparalleled in the world.
Today, Larry and Tina Toomer operate the Bluffton Oyster Company. Larry is a third-generation oysterman from a tenacious family. Oyster pickers such as the one in this painting must face biting winds each winter and stay bent over for hours at a time swinging heavy culling hammers to break single selects, doubles or compact clusters from the dead shells that support them.