Interview by Shannon Oelrich
Photography by Jody Horton
Jesse Griffiths started Dai Due Supper Club with his wife, Tamara Mayfield, in 2006 as a way to, according to their mission statement, “serve foods that are fresher, buy food that is produced in a fair and equitable way, pay homage to the local culinary traditions and support farmers and ranchers who are striving to improve the quality of our food.”
Since then, they’ve expanded their operation to include the Dai Due Butcher Shop at the SFC Farmers’ Market Downtown, cooking and butchering classes, and hunting camps as well.
Along the way, Griffiths has forged a solid reputation in the sustainability movement as a tip-to-tail guru of almost heroic proportion, and in his new book Afield: A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish, he offers us a more personal, stunningly photographed peek into his world, his passion and the offal truth.
Shannon Oelrich: In the forward to your book, chef, food writer, teacher and television star Andrew Zimmern opens with a societal observation: “One’s status used to be tied to one’s own usefulness, but is now tied to one’s wealth.” He then offers your way of doing things—hunting, dressing, butchering, preparing your own meats with respect and resourcefulness—as an antidote to that. Do you believe that to be true? Was that part of what you hoped to achieve with this book?
Jesse Griffiths: I really just wanted to emphasize to people who are interested in being involved in obtaining their own food that it is possible…that they can do it, and do it well, with respect, with thrift and with delicious results. That’s the point in the end. It’s our food, and not any more complicated than that. If more people connected with their food and other resources more intimately, we would have fewer problems in general.
SO: How important was it to include step-by-step photos of field dressing, and why?
JG: This book was written for two people: an experienced hunter who wants to improve their cooking and butchering skills and take control of their food from a negligent processor, and the new hunter who is unsure and intimidated by the tasks at hand when an animal is actually down. Editing the field dressing would be a disservice to the people who really need to know what they’re doing. This isn’t a coffee-table book. It’s meant to get a little blood and some scales on it. The graphic nature is unsettling, of course, because it really is happening. It isn’t for everybody, but that’s how it’s done. What’s step one when field dressing a hog? If it’s a male pig, then…well, step one can only be one thing. We have to normalize hunting and the killing of animals for food, take a stark and honest look at how that happens and analyze how to make it better. We’ve fetishized it or looked the other way for a long time. Hunters are seen as cruel and malicious because they choose to handle this part of the system themselves, [but] I think that shows some honesty on their part; they are taking all of the responsibility for their food. The killing of an animal used to represent nourishment for a lot of people, and had a corresponding celebration—like people might celebrate a good grain harvest. I think that people are now very in tune with their food sources, so witnessing or understanding the whole process isn’t so risqué anymore..
SO: You allude to Texans’ hatred for feral hogs. Why do you think they’re so maligned? What do you think about mass hunts to control population?
JG: [Feral] pigs do $500 million in damage every year to agricultural crops, so they’re hated by people who are financially impacted by them, and I can’t judge that. They’re also hated by people who need an excuse to hate something. It’s like in the movies: you can kill as many Nazis and zombies as you want because the violence toward them is acceptable and encouraged. I respect hogs for their tenacity, intelligence and their ability to survive. That said, I will kill and eat every one I see. I am saddened by the waste of the population-control hunts because I see that we have a market for the meat, not to mention people who are hungry. If you’re charging $250 a day to hunt hogs on your land, or $500 an hour to shoot hogs from a helicopter, you don’t have a hog problem anymore; you have a financial opportunity.
SO: Preparing quarry with respect is a mainstay in your book, and you write that you’ve received “eye-rolling” from other hunters for plucking, as opposed to skinning or breasting, doves—a personal rule if someone’s hunting with you. Is there any other kind of flack you’ve received from fellow hunters? Does everyone come around to your way of thinking, or have some simply refused?
JD: Plucking birds in general, and our whole-carcass approach to large game, are met with apprehension. The story does not end at the shot; it’s at the exact middle. There’s a lot more work to be done, like plucking little birds and salvaging every little bit of muscle and bone from a deer. What we try to intimate in these situations is not a condescending sustainability lecture, but a thrift-based ideal that uses more of the animal and, in turn, yields more product. Add to this the culinary advantages of leaving the skin on or whole-animal butchery and we have a strong case. It’s the your-grandparents-did-it-this-way argument, and that resonates well with a lot of people. Of course, not everybody is going to take five times as long to pluck their doves, but they’ve heard a decent argument in its favor and know it’s an option.
SO: When describing fishing for catfish using venison liver, you write, “I see the pale flash of his mouth opening and I think for a moment about how we both like venison liver.” You’re able to empathize with your game without being sentimental.
JG: I know that animals don’t want to die and will do everything in their power to avoid it. A catfish will kill a crawfish without remorse and a quail might likewise eat a grasshopper. You can overthink the whole process pretty easily. I bet that if my cat weighed two tons, it might kill and eat me.
SO: It’s obvious that you know meat intimately. Is there anything that would push you to become a vegetarian?
JG: Sometimes I feel sad after killing an animal, but I’m cool with that, and don’t want that to pass, ever. It’s a good thing to feel. I could never be a vegetarian because I feel like eating meat is intrinsically human and the right thing to do, though there are a lot of things wrong with the current system, which in turn leads lucid and intelligent people to become vegetarians. I respect anybody who thinks about their food, even if they’ve come to another conclusion than I have. If you’re going to eat meat, though, you must be able to look at the whole process and be comfortable with that, because you’re a part of it now and you must assume responsibility for that decision.
DUCK & GOOSE
EXCERPT AND RECIPES FROM
AFIELD: A CHEF'S GUIDE TO PREPARING
AND COOKING WILD GAME AND FISH
BY JESSE GRIFFITHS
Welcome Books. Text © 2012 Jesse Griffiths.
Photographs © 2012 Jody Horton.
Foreword © 2012 Andrew Zimmern, welcomebooks.com/afield
We drive to the same pond where we hunted duck last year, and this time I’m not surprised when hundreds of Canada geese and ducks rise off the water as we approach with our shining flashlights and clanking decoys. This pond is a well-kept secret and hasn’t been hunted all season. It’s a gold mine.
About three dozen decoys are soon set, mostly pintails, in two clusters to the left and right of our grassy bank, in expectation of the birds landing into the wind between the two groups. I’m on the left, Eliot’s in the middle, and Jack takes the right. The birds are back immediately, with big flocks of teal circling above. It’s impressive. The air is literally thick with birds, and when Eliot nonchalantly announces it’s shooting time, it sounds like warfare. Before I know it, I’ve got two shovelers (“spoonies”) and a green-winged teal down, all graciously fetched by Zorro. I’ll never get over how nice it is to have a good dog along on a hunt. They seem to enjoy it even more than I do, and that’s saying a lot.
Eliot is now vocally steering me away from the shovelers—whose aquatic diet can make them the least desirable of the puddle ducks for the table. (Though as I write this, a pot of spoony-and-oyster gumbo is bubbling on the stove. It is indeed assertive, but also delicious, and served over rice from the very same prairie.) I start to pass on some shots in the increasing daylight for better chances at the tasty gadwalls that are now showing up in force.
Twenty minutes into legal shooting time, the action slows to a standstill and the high-flying geese take center stage. Last year, with a dense fog forcing low flights, Jack and I each scored a big specklebelly goose from low-flying flocks cruising over the pond. Remembering the way my big goose had thudded to the ground ten feet from my head then, I waste a lot of shots in a vain attempt to down another one—the geese are flying too far up.
Groups of pintails and gadwalls are now working our spread of decoys, but aren’t committing and are staying out of range. Maybe it’s the bright sunlight reflecting off our gun barrels, maybe it’s our unpainted faces or even Zorro’s big black presence. Anyway, the shooting slows down and we pick off a couple of more birds here and there, including a suicidal green-winged hen that refuses to fly after landing in the decoys a mere ten yards in front of me. Eliot’s goading and name-calling (“Hey, dumb bird!”) finally annoys or frightens the bird enough to take flight, at which point I promptly harvest it. I do love to eat teal.
Finally, as the birds make it apparent that they are done for the morning and our hunger is setting in, we pack it up. Twelve birds among the three of us—plenty for the dinner we have planned for this evening, and some extra to take home to the family. With straps loaded with a mix of shoveler, teal, and gadwall, and the auspicious addition of a delicious canvasback and a pretty drake redhead, we head into town to take the birds to the pickers (this tiny town has two businesses that pluck waterfowl) and grab some breakfast.
Hot coffee and some very spicy food are comforting, and we get a little rest before the evening’s festivities. I busy myself making a mincemeat pie, onion and sage dressing, and glazed carrots while the others nap and a couple more guests arrive, including Jack’s lovely wife, Anne, and Eliot’s friend Sam, who we’ve been told can tell an exquisitely elaborate dirty joke.
The ducks are roasted rare with tangerines, just picked and supersweet. The snipe from the previous afternoon are wrapped in bacon and a sage leaf, then skewered shut with their own long beaks and roasted in a hot oven.
Toasts are made to the ducks, and Eliot insists that we face north to do it—it’s a tradition, see. Sometimes it makes sense to have some ritual and formality; Eliot and Sam are dressed in black tie, and the ladies look great. There is a lot of bloody bird flesh on the table, and plenty of really nice French wine. Everyone is eating the birds with their fingers, which is pretty much the only way to eat a roasted duck after the first couple of knife-and-fork cuts.
The sticky, salty and sweet sauce glazes and browns the duck, creating a nice exterior texture before the interior becomes overcooked. Try yakitori also with pieces of turkey breast or whole doves.
(see recipe below)
4 boneless duck breasts,
about 1 to 1½ pounds
1 c. mirin (Japanese rice
½ c. soy sauce
2 T. sugar
2 T. honey
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 T. oil
8 green onions, green part thinly sliced, white part cut into ½-in. pieces
8 bamboo skewers, soaked in water
Make the Pickled Radish 1 day prior to making the duck.
If the duck has skin, remove it with sharp knife and cut the duck into 1-inch cubes. In a saucepan over high heat, boil the mirin, soy sauce, sugar, honey and garlic until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside half of the sauce for serving.
Start a medium fire or preheat a grill. Toss the cubed breast meat in the oil. Thread the duck breast cubes, alternating with the white parts of the onions, onto 8 skewers. Grill on one side for about 5 minutes, then turn, basting with the sauce. Continue grilling and basting until browned and the meat is firm but still a little pink inside, about 12 minutes total. Discard any leftover basting sauce. Serve the duck with rice, green onions, pickled radishes and the reserved sauce on the side.
Makes 1 pint
Pickled radish goes well with grilled meats, especially those with a sweet glaze or sauce. Substitute cherry belle, watermelon or French breakfast radishes.
1 medium daikon, peeled and thinly sliced
1 c. rice wine vinegar
1 c. sugar
1 T. salt
Place the daikon in a ceramic or glass bowl or jar. In a pot over high heat, bring 1 cup water and the vinegar, sugar and salt to a boil. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the daikon. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 day. Serve cold. Pickled radish will keep well in the refrigerator for several months.
Special event Afield with Jesse Griffiths and Jody Horton
Friday, December 14 at BookPeople, 7 p.m.
Presented by Edible Austin with tastings from the book and a slide show with narrated tales from the fields and streams.