Fried Fish, Hushpuppies and Grits

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Almost 100 years ago my great grandfather taught my grandfather and great uncle how to haul spot tail bass from the salt water of Beaufort County.

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Fried with hushpuppies and served with grits, a century ago the tradition was already old. The Sea Island camps under ancient oaks were already worn; the fish and men experienced already for generations in a timeless dance.

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By the scale of tradition stretching back hundreds of years, the friendship with BVH is still new; we met around 1969 and then lived next to each other for half of our lives until age 12. Almost 50 years after we first met he and his beautiful wife extended an invitation to take communion with them at one of the oldest and most famous fish camps on the stretch of beach between Savannah and Charleston.

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As a young boy my father had accepted a similar invitation and to my delight we had visited this same beach with a group of young men whose names were legends in my child’s mind. I remember the fragrant breeze and a marker showing the previous level of the ground – the marker at that time was suspended way up in the air – the dynamic force of Earth and ocean was taking the island; the solid ground was not so solid with the ocean currents and ever changing winds eroding and moving the dry land.

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The young men we visited that day were there in large part to catch bass in the surf. Two generations before this visit with my dad, my great grandfather had visited the same beach to catch bass in the surf as a young man; as a child this meant nothing to me but even with a total lack of awareness the dance was continuing. Those young men my father took me to visit cooked fried fish with hushpuppies and grits, just as my great grandfather had done for decades before he passed; he had passed nearly a half century before the visit with my dad. Now, nearly another half century later those young men we visited are old men. Pulling beautiful fish up through the surf and onto the beach , we who were so recently children were now grey haired not-so-young men; kids, a whole new generation, were there also engaging in the dance, reeling in fish to be fried with hushpuppies and served with grits.

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The beach is in a dynamic state with many cycles each playing an instrument in the symphony of change. Each wave pounds the mud and dead trees that had recently been creek and forest. Twice each day the ocean rises six to eight feet revealing and then stealing back miles of sandy beach. A stiff northeast wind creates a chaos in the surf. The surface of the ocean, the erosion of the beach and the steady pump of the tides all were active; viewed in one way chaos reigned – the place I’d stood dry with friends no longer existed. The waves pushed me down as I tried to retrieve a rig caught on a stump driving a fish hook into the flesh of my hand; other waves threw my foot against shells which created a shallow cut. Ancient oak trees lay scattered and dead in the relentless path of the ocean and of time.

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All this seemed a metaphor for the change and loss pounding my life. Viewed close and narrowly the beach was a froth of destructive change but taken in larger context a perfect steadiness could be acknowledged and accepted. The waves had tossed me around driving that hook into my flesh but not past the barb and it came out easily. The waves and my carelessness had pushed my foot against shell and sliced it  – now a week later that cut is barely a hard place on my foot. (on the same stretch of beach when just about my daughter’s age, my foot was cut badly, to the bone, on oyster while with my grandparents; there is still a scar but even deep wounds can heal).

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A little bit of observation reveals a never ending levelness beneath the chaotic surface of the ocean. Spilled blood from a cut soon proves we can heal. A fish hook driven into flesh by waves hurts but not forever. Even deep wounds that leave a scar need not define us or keep us out of the water.

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At the beach there are sand dunes, oak trees and an ocean. The ocean lasts forever, oak trees for a long time and dunes pass quickly. Dunes were never meant to last; let the wind gently take those away which do not wish to stay. Even with the loss of a favorite sand dune, our beach will still have the oak trees and forever until the end of time there will be the ocean.

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Selfishly, I hope there will also always be fried fish, hushpuppies and grits.

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Hmmmmm?

sunrise 10-31-15, at Gale

On the hood of a Honda, in bold Sharpie marker, was written, ‘Do Not Open.’ ‘Hmmmm?’ Of course it only makes one want to open it. What’s in there? Is it as delicious as the sweet lumps of meat under the hood of a crab – a crab certainly communicates the same message with dozens of sharp points and angry claws. (Ever notice how bad an attitude crabs keep? Maybe it’s their diet that leaves them with such a disposition?)

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What is it about ‘do not’ anything that makes us want to do it? Is it because deep in our biological make up we’ve been programmed to think, ‘It says do not, therefore something delicious is inside?’

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Real and meaningful experience frequently comes signed with the message, ‘Do Not Open’ also. It’s safer and more comfortable to sit on the couch with a remote control than to risk sunburn and sandburn and chills and undryable dampness. It’s safer for our hearts too. It’s easier to leave the hood closed and to order off the menu.

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S and I went camping on the front beach to finish up the full moon recently. It was a time of change – the Hunter’s Moon. Huge tides were predicted and even larger ones had arrived. Had we gone a couple days earlier there would have been no beach left dry to camp upon. The large dunes of seasons past were washed flat yet already they had begun to build again as grains of windblown sand crashed and stalled to rest into stubborn vegetation, the cycle continuing.

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The menu always has food – the creek can be fickle. It’s safe and warm and dry to drive to the restaurant and order; S and I got wet and had out trip waylaid all night in bad weather. We were cold and hot and wet and hungry. ‘Do Not Open. Stay home and order off the menu.’ Even though we ate stone crab, blue crab, shrimp, sheepshead, oysters and clams we also ate meals of solely cabbage and grits.

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Before leaving the dock crab traps provided three stone crabs; each crab offered a claw in exchange for life – a bargain both we and the crabs accepted. We also grabbed a sheepshead, currently my favorite fish.

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Sheepshead and stone crabs are both marked with bold ‘Do Not Open,’ signs. While a blue crab relishes each opportunity to pinch, and its pinch hurts like hell, a stone crab has the ability to easily remove digits. Luckily they are slow and I was less slow; the stone crabs that day lost their digits and I kept mine. Even with victory that day, I was reminded that one disregards the ‘do not open’ sign of a stone crab at one’s own peril. A sheepshead presents greater opportunity for pain if less for a catastrophic loss of body part. To start, each fin is lined with needle sharp, iron strong spines and beyond this layer are stone hard scales, the hardest scales of any of our regular fishes.

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The creek is a fickle place, always changing. At high tide the motor can run anywhere – travel is easy while harvesting food is difficult. At low tide (a swing of water height between six and eight feet or more occasionally), the way is limited, oyster banks and sand bars plentiful. We trudged the shallow waters and deep mud of Warsaw Flats then under the Cowan Creek Bridge to the exposed sand flats just beyond. Like a mule, a well tempered one, S pulled the overloaded boat through the skinny water while I tried to dip crabs – the nicest one escaped, another was too soft to eat and too hard to fry. The sand flat yielded nothing this day – fickle, fickle.

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As we emerged into deeper water near dead low tide the water began to boil with life, a sold writhing carpet of panic erupted encouraging us to harvest bait – finger mullet and several dozen live shrimp. The temptation was to stay and cast, to keep catching shrimp but we pressed on, still optimistic of gaining our objective – the camp site on the front beach.
Weather did not cooperate; we ended up camping on an unplanned beach and we ate the bait. A large plate of hour old live shrimp – it could have been worse.

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For breakfast two beautiful filets were harvested from the sheepshead and seasoned with salt and pepper then covered with cornmeal and fried to a crunchy crust. From my grandmother was gleaned this way of frying fish – fry them a little hotter, and a good bit longer; the sheepshead filets were thick and juicy and firm with a crunchy, crispy outside. My grandmother has gone on but each time I cook fish the way she taught me it is like taking a small communion with her. The fish and grits, with eggs, was so good that our appetite overruled art and photos were forgotten.

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The weather relented and we made it to our planned destination. The castnet brought up shrimp. Our fingers sifted through oyster shell covered sand deep under water for clams. Handlines in just a few minutes filled up half of a five gallon bucket with crabs and we picked about a quarter bushel of oysters – the creek was generous and we feasted. We fried and boiled and shucked. Even if one meal we could only eat cabbage and grits, the other meals were a buffet of shellfish bounty. A little luck, a little knowledge, a little persistence and the creek yielded treasure, each treasure bearing a sign saying, ‘Do Not Open.’ Rock hard clams, razor sharp oysters – do not open. Angry blue crabs and concrete strong stone crab claws and punishingly sharp spines – do not open.

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Is there a message? Who knows, but still the thought of what was under the hood of that Honda makes the juices of my brain, like a mouth watering in anticipation, continue to ask the question, ‘Hmmmm?’

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Yard Bird Curry

And Then There Were Five
Or
The Banality of Death
Or
Thank You Larry

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Several surprises rained down, maybe, just maybe washing away some excess and grime and spent life. Old friends and blood and death and memories very much alive all blended together and now, on the porch, in a chill early morning light so crisp it makes mortality seem impossible, is a dead hen. She needed to go; and she has. There were six hens at daybreak and then there were five.

In the breaking early spring of 1995, I washed up in Asheville. My body was depleted and not yet fully recovered from being wracked with a combination of Hep contracted in Pakistan and the other sordid experiences of living hard while going around the world. The miles as well as a mildly broken heart had left my mind as ragged and wooly my body. There is not enough paper on the internet to express adequate gratitude for the generosity, kindness and healing hands that were extended in those months; this post, aside from memorializing the white hen dripping bright red blood on the porch, is to express the sincere appreciation I’ve felt for 20 years for LW, Larry.

It will also reflect on the earthly banality of life and death.

Soaking in the kitchen now, after a break to skin and clean, is the hen that was alive and clucking happily for food a few hours ago. For some as yet unknown reason many of her feathers were gone.

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My mother gifted an online class in curries which has been most enjoyable and the hen will soon participate in the experiments born (hatched) from that sharing. Just like that – alive, dead, gone. A spicy curry, if it’s done right.

Are we any different, we humans? We are here a short time, we do our clucking; we scratch around and peck the insects that catch our attention and then our bodies perish. Barring some monstrous chemical assault, our bodies are absorbed back into the nitrogen cycle unique to Earth. Life, and the nitrogen cycle, are synonymous ; while composing most of Earth’s air, it is life which makes nitrogen available; and this available nitrogen is in turn what makes life possible. That dead chicken and you and I and every other living organism known is a part of, is dependent on, the dance and sharing in the nitrogen cycle. From a physical standpoint, that’s it. And there is no escape.

Simple grim talk of blood and death and an element that plays little in daily thoughts? No, that would be boring and dull – the two unforgivable sins – boring and dull, NO! No, this is a call to cluck. How many more days do we have before some cosmic knife cuts us down and reduces us to food for something. Today we better cluck; today we better chase the insects that stimulate our heart and make us feel love. Life will go on – that couple pounds of meat in the kitchen will support life in my stomach (our stomachs?, are you busy, are you hungry, can we share time?) and life will go on. Not for the hen but for us, at least right here this moment. Can we cluck and scratch and peck together, in peace? Can we enjoy these days, and each other, with hearts full of love?

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In addition to evangelizing the cluck and insect-peck, it is also this post’s intention to sow banality; it was such ‘not a big deal’ to grab that girl gently and to hold her gently and to release the blood from her neck. LW grabbed me in front of a line at least one hundred feet long full of the remains of dead animals. In all there were thousands of feet, row after row of dead things. All wrapped nicely in plastic, shrink wrapped and chilled and shipped thousands of miles for us, for Larry and me. And for the two of us, and for you also, a mighty price was attached to those items so that we can purchase banality and so that we can skip the death – so that we can hide from the blood that is spilled to make that high dollar food available.

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It’s our choice. God has given us sunlight and soil and air and water; life has given us nitrogen and from there we have the choice make food in the yard or to buy shrink wrapped hard salami flown from Italy and shelved by poorly paid hairy men at an expensive store. We could choose the gruesome and radical path of walking to the backyard and holding our chicken as it bleeds to death on the way to our stomachs. It’s a very simple matter to transform a hen into meat – in less time than one can go to the store to buy a hermetically sealed, saline injected, factory killed creature, the bird in my yard was reduced to food. We’ve been told what a big deal it is; this lone voice from Bad Rooster, the blog, quietly advertises that it is not a big deal; a big deal for the hen, for a few moments, but no bigger deal than all of us must face as part of the bargain to be alive.

LW was the first photography teacher who shared with me. He took an interest; I don’t think a particularly special interest over his other enthusiastic students because he is a man who cares and without prejudice takes interest naturally in people. He helped me get my feet headed towards the ground at a time when they were not close at all. His darkroom was my home – I worked there all hours and washed dishes for a few a few bucks at night for Hector. When I slept it was in the car between marathon sessions trying to make black be black and whites be clean and greys be interesting. He was critical – some of his sharp words echo in my mind to this moment – and for this I am especially thankful. Words like, ‘what’s the point?’

And today again Larry inspired and encouraged. He is clucking and chasing fabulous insects. He is making pictures and friends and I am certain he is inspiring.

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Larry, with love and deep appreciation, I say, ‘Thank you.’ And for inspiring and stimulating with your example of clucking loudly in the present, I thank you also. Go get ‘em – enjoy and please continue to make the timid barnacles jealous!

The point? Metaphorically, is to cluck. And to chase our metaphorical insects. Now is the time – simple as that. Yesterday was the last day that hen will ever cluck; today I metaphorically chase insects by transforming her into a curry, a curry that I’d love to share with you to see if it makes you cluck too. Life won’t stop; it’s the swimming pool we share this moment and it is only us that will stop swimming. Our bodies were unknown and then they formed and they will pass – that is the banality. We are here, now. This is our time to cluck and chase insects which right now in my tiny brain means to laugh and to love and to share chicken curry.

A Gentle, Peaceful Slaughter

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Bad Rooster, the blog, dropped into Woodfin, NC for harvest day of a fine flock of 26 birds. Bad Rooster, the blog, has an agenda – it’s not just about sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, violence and hardcore carnivores, even if it seems that way; Bad Rooster is about eating out the yard.

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Sounds great, like, on a menu. Bad Rooster doesn’t give a flying frown about ‘local, GMO-free, no gluten, never sprayed, organic, heirloom certified’. If you’re selling a bunch of produce, then all that stuff on the label is great – sock it to the dumbasses that pay $42 for stinking chicken killed in a factory only difference being an ‘organic’ label stuck to its ass. Me? I’d rather pay exactly ‘zero’ and go to my friends’ house and eat one of theirs with them.

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It is a question that Bad Rooster, the blog, constantly asks – how is the gulf crossed to get back to a place where families made most of their own food? It’s nothing new – nothing that has not been normal for maybe 50,000 years, maybe 500,000 years. An intimate relationship with our food. A security in having food.

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Bad Rooster believes. Bad Rooster knows making food is good exercise for the body, spirit and mind. If one gives a flip about really good food, they know restaurants are like having expensive prostitutes while having a lifelong garden is like growing together with a deeply loved spouse.

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It all sounds so wonderful. Roll the violins and fade back into a beautiful sunset… except for the w**k. That’s the hangup. It’s w**k. And it’s w**k we’ve been told is gross or nasty or unpleasant. And maybe it is for some but for me and many, many others it’s not bad at all. Fresh blood is warm and clean. Fresh guts do not smell rancid. We killed 26 chickens Sunday. I took only a handful of photos; the majority of the snaps, including ‘J with a Dying Bird,’ (second photo from top) which is my favorite picture of the year so far, were taken by Edward Maglott.

Beautiful birds, beautiful day, beautiful people.

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Note: This post above was originally a Facebook post. After editing the photos further, I must again tip my hat to Edward on his work with the camera.

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WARNING and NOTE: If you prefer to think chicken comes from sterilized plastic containers, the photos will forever disturb that belief. The photos show the slaughter and butcher of 26 chickens. There is blood, and feathers and meat, Don’t look if it will gnarl you out. I chose Edward’s photos and a few of mine for the imagery; I find them stunning and beautiful. If it’s not your bag, head over to the Piggly Wiggly and load up on the $.60 leg quarters and don’t look at the pictures. I wish we had a hen in the oven now, in fair disclosure.

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See Full Slideshow Here:

https://picasaweb.google.com/108404291536169096747/ChickenKilling71415#

Heavy on images, Light on words

When you start your food blog, please consider this one small bit of advice. Don’t call it Bad Rooster. Call it Nice Rooster, or Well Rested Rooster, or Stay At Home Rooster. Bad Rooster is one hell of a moniker to strap on a blog; it has not lead to sleep, comfort or tranquility. Like those huge waves that explode the naked, nose-fed bathers in Zipolite, the blog has taken on a life of it’s own, a life that seems steeped in certain success in regards to food but uncertain in the steps as to how each next meal will die and be cooked.

I want to fill this space with clever words that flow and collide and create in tone and rhythm and rhyme a sense of hunger for that which is alive and tasty in the yard. My desires must be damned tonight; the words, the aspiration towards prose-like constructions and repetitions must incubate and fester longer because the call of creating more material is stronger than the need to record material already created.

Please click on the slideshow that follows. It is a Picasa deal; in the upper left there is a slide show button. Please press it and adjust the slide time to one second – there are 89 images and it will take about a minute and a half to watch it at one second intervals. OK, maybe its not cool at all to say this but I am going to spill it anyway. I like this set of photos. There, I said it.

The photos were exposed over the course of about ten days. They start with friends who are bad rooster to the max – Joan, Anders and May. They kill and eat and grow and cook and love.  The friends gathered this day were food artists; my mind is still blown, my balance spun, from the most special pot luck one could want. From there the snaps move to Beaufort, SC where about sixty family members provide the opportunity to share food. Said another way, panic and terror followed as food for sixty had to be gathered and cooked. Wild SC shrimp are always the center piece; they came from Robert Gay and there is a story I will not waste through half-telling now. Cousin Julia Sender, who featured in a previous post with the meaningful farm she works, brought a cornucopia of colorful and delicious veg from the middle of NC. All contributed and it was pure joy to be with family making healthy food and hopefully setting an example for all of us to eat well. The final ‘scene’ is a product of the wasteland that the cooler had become, still heavy with shrimp. This path lead first to Madison County and then back to Buncombe to a most colorful sofa on an even more colorful porch and then, unbelievably to the sewing room of a totally inspiring and talented person, who also ROCKS the heavy tunes. As if that were not enough, the night cap finished in a room of liquor stills and a buffet of offensive odors. I know where the whiskey is made and you may have a quart anytime. I will keep a little quiet about the stills and the men who drive them; I will remain quiet about the place and the liquor; the photos, for now, must speak for themselves.

Please enjoy or at least pretend to me that you enjoyed; I like this slide show and being so sensitive, it will hurt my feelings if you say they suck. And when you have a few seconds to spare, maybe we could sip on a jar together?

https://picasaweb.google.com/108404291536169096747/June2015BadRoosterSlides

Sliced, Fried Heart

(note on photos – all photos in this article were pulled from personal archives. no animals were harmed, nor decent food eaten, in the making of this post)

As my stomach roils from another fast food biscuit and Coke for breakfast, two things come to mind – first, it was very nice to be called ‘Sugar’ by the leaf thin, foul teethed person who took my money and, second, that my diet needs improvement. Some of my own medicine is needed – something healthy that came from dirt and not something that was pooped out of a factory from ingredients that have never seen light.

I’ve not had a chance to cook for anyone and as much as I fantasize about looking after myself, it is just not so inspiring to cook alone. Let me come cook for you – and we can both eat better. Cook for me and I will try to be mildly entertaining without becoming overbearing again. I’ll try to not fall in love – but there are some things we are not so in control over; I’ll try though and it will help if you promise to not be brilliant and beautiful anymore. Maybe it is better for all if we eat the biscuit, and forget about health, joy, love and experience; at least that way we can protect our hearts from exposure, if not from the thick hard deposits of rancid biscuit plaque.

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This is a single pleasant photograph of artichokes in the garden. The rest of the photos are of meat in various stages of transition after once being beautiful creatures, or after being garden thieving scoundrels of vegetable destruction, depending on one’s perspective.

So, rather than lie to you, dear reader, about something that has not happened, like good, healthy eating, this post will flash back far into the past.

Have you ever met someone and almost immediately felt a strong affinity? That is what this post is about. RR is a German man I met through real estate contacts. He is retired from owning a textile operation – they wove sweaters and socks in New York. He worked very hard and was successful. He owns a nice, large tract of land nearby and a grumpy bully of a neighbor wished to buy a portion; I was brought in to handle the negotiations and to be an insulator between the two of them – one a loud blowhard and the other a quiet, considerate but firm personality. RR shared a magical cordial made of sweet juice from black currents and vodka – damn, that was some kind of fine. We have only spent a total of about three days together but they have been inspiring and most enjoyable.

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A highly unusual outcome from one of my outings – success.

RR loves venison and I shared some with him. One of his favorite dishes is sliced, fried heart. Our family didn’t do that but if he was into it, I was happy to share my hearts with him. If ever a deer is born with a bad enough brain to fall for my deficient hunting skills, I’ll share the new way I clean them. It’s fast, simple and requires no hanging or saws or gut bucket. The final food extracted is the heart – a long slice is made between the upper ribs so that a hand can slip inside to pull the heart out. More than half the time the heart is an exploded mess – I aim for the heart – but when it is still presentable, it is saved for RR or it is ground into meat with a few slices of bacon for flavor. Heart is just meat – it’s not like the other organs which are funky – it’s just meat. Well, that is easy to say sitting here presently but when RR invited me and RG, who introduced us, to lunch to eat sliced fried heart, my heart, not the meat thing inside me but the tender organ of inspiration and pain, sank. We don’t eat heart. I never considered that the situation would arise where I was cornered into the uncomfortable position of having to choose between eating heart or offending a client and new friend.

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Another highly unusual outcome from one of my outings.

Breathing deep to encourage fortification, I accepted the invitation for the meal. While not afraid of snakes, water, darkness, spiders, or property owners whose land I may hunt without permission, a sliced fried heart did release an inner panic. I tried to laugh – I did laugh but it was the ‘oh shit’ kind of laughter, not the pleasant, stress relieving kind. Minds are amazing things and I was in amazement at how many perfectly good and plausible excuses my mind was creating to excuse myself. Being German, plans were made well in advance – Germans do this to extend the agony and fear one has before they are compelled to eat heart.

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More unusual outcome

Dismissing all excellent excuses and forging ahead courageously through the thick fog of fear, we arrived for the meal. RR had everything prepared – my heart was there and ready.
We had a beer and when everything else was on the table RR heated grease. He explained the philosophy which is the same for everything – don’t overcook. Preparing the slices in the exact fashion used for frying green tomatoes (salt, pepper, cornmeal mix) he said the trick is to place the pieces in the oil until the blood begins to come through to the top. When the blood comes through, turn them over and cook until the blood comes through on the other side and remove them. Whatever you do, don’t overcook. Just like that it was done.

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The best parts will be fried. the less best parts will be ground. The worst parts will be slow cooked for about four hours until the tendon breaks down in a broth of wine and herbs.

As much as I tried to remain horrified, the pieces looked damn good – but I was sure they would be terrible – if they were not terrible, I’d spent decades wasting something fine. Surely they would taste like liver – or worse, if that was possible. I was going to gag and it would be an embarrassment to me and would mess up the $30k commission that was in the pipe. OK – after years in Asia eating God knows what in addition to bloody eels, roasted sheep heads and various dishes made of dog meat, I sucked it up, took another of those fortifying breaths and tried a bite.
It was as fine as anything ever tasted. There was nothing offensive at all – the flavor was mild, the texture superb and the crisp corn meal a delightful complement.

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Meat ground with a little bacon. This, a cold beer and a sweet thing make each season much better.

I guess that this post is meant to encourage all of us to take a chance, to share our hearts with those we love, both old friends and new. If our heart happens to end up sliced and fried it’s not the end of the world; it’s delicious, actually. If we have the courage to push through fear, we can share our hearts and enjoy, even if they end up in hot grease for a few minutes. Courage and love are not for all; slice my heart and fry it baby, I’ll be there with you to enjoy.

Enjoy your heart as follows:

Take slices of deer heart and cover with salt and pepper
Each side should be dusted evenly
Raise the temperature of the grease until it’s hot, just before smoking
Resist the urge to put the slices in too soon
Introduce the pieces into the hot grease and flip as soon as blood is pushed through. Do the same to the other side and eat. Do not over cook.

Narcotic Euphoria, Low Country Swine, and Joan’s Mountain Party

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(editor’s note: While St. Helena appears to be a steady, simple place there are strong currents roiling beneath the Spanish moss which drips like inverted ghosts from the live oaks and other trees. Fearlessly, and with a vigor indicating his love for both food and his son, Dad dove into a multi-party negotiation which on the surface dealt with money and a location where the hog could be shot but underneath was required to handle greed, desire, betrayal and the highly charged conditions surrounding not only a hog, or three actually as there was a joint project, but also the fluidity of a romantic entanglement becoming untangled. Dad did it. The rails were greased well enough for all to proceed. To recount for new readers, my friend Joan had the idea to cook in the yard, out the yard. We looked for a sheep, a goat or a pig. Dad, being a natural at procurement, took the challenge firmly and found, among multiple opportunities, a hog. When life looked like easy street, there was danger in the hog yard (backyard, really) – marital turbulence, relationships in transition. Through greed, lust, alcohol and the artifacts of previous violence and the ever hanging threat of future violence, Dad showed yet again he is eaten up with strong DGAF. The scene was set; our meal, roasting below (sorry to give away ending) was becoming ever more of a reality.)

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There was an awful racket in the yard just before my eyes were about to close. Coyotes – they make some funny sounds and each group screams and hollers like aliens from different parts of space. This group sounded like roosters; distressingly, it was roosters – the time for coyotes had passed and the roosters were trying to keep the whole world awake. At least there were a few hours to sleep; the alarm was set for 9am. At 5:36 my eyes closed; ah, the relief after driving all night and then shooting a few moon pictures at Lands End – there is an almost narcotic euphoria when one’s exhausted eyes have finally been given permission to close. Ah the relief, the euphoria and it lasted a whole two minutes.

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Dreams of Sleep

The phone rang. Dad wanted to make sure I was there. I damn well was there and was also about to enjoy some sleep like normal people do at 5:38am. OK, stand by for instructions, he said. They’ll be there in a few minutes. He’s gotta go to work. Safer if he goes with you, and a whole bunch of other things that seemed like malicious fabrications designed to annoy for the sake of Dad’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, and maybe for the first time in his life, Dad was serious.

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Roosevelt

The deal was $125, paid to S, with complicity and agreement from Ruby. S and Ruby were one unit. Then for humor Dad told H, of the other party, that he had given her $400. Ha ha, Dad’s got a funny sense of humor.

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Ruby and S

There is a false stereotype that early mornings are a peaceful, beautiful times of day; if the morning was either, I was incapable of experiencing it … until Ruby emerged from the truck. OMG – what beautiful hair. Not in a year of guessing and predicting would that have ever been expected. I wanted her picture. Badly. That was my only thought – no longer was the carcass of a swine important – the reward of abundant stress, stressful diplomacy and diplomatic negotiations had already paid off. While not functioning at full speed, my mind functioned as fast as it could searching all corners of my brain for the correct words, the correctly respectful approach that would allow the camera to do its work. A grumpiness thicker than Asheville fog was gone; desire for the image immediately replaced the sour mood. But how? But How?

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Ruby got out of the truck and saw the camera immediately. The moment of truth – what to say? What to say? ‘Hey Baby, I love your purple hair and want to make your picture,’ didn’t roll around right and before a more suitable tact could be crafted she spoke first and more beautiful music had never hit ears on the island.
The first words out of her mouth were, ‘You got to take my picture with the donkey!’

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Her Picture, with the Donkey

You bet I have. And I did. S and Ruby were great. We laughed. And shot pictures. Ruby loves donkeys and Roosevelt, the donkey, seemed to love Ruby.

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After the daybreak fun and games of picture making, we settled into a deep conversation about how to approach the next situation. An aroma of gin infused the air. The ultimate plan was to take the tractor over to the hog so that it could be loaded into the bucket but it would take a lot longer to drive the tractor rather than the car. I decided to follow them in the car with the gun; I could shoot the hog and then return with the bucket to drive it back.

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Tension, tension in paradise. How could an island home have ever looked better? The early sun scattered through the trees above the yellow house. But there was tension which could not have been helped by Dad’s funny little joke. H wanted $20 each for three men who had gathered to clean the hog; around the side H got $14 to load the whole dead animal in the bucket. There was some shuffle about $50 for this, and other things confusing. Gin still filled the gentle sea island breezes; sharp, large knives were laid about and a washtub was set to boil. Miraculously correct words were uttered. The deal was set. S and Ruby disappeared, vanished and there was nothing left but business.

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My thought was to shoot the hog right then. All apprehension about taking this life was absent; the concern now was that somehow minds would change; concern was focused on ensuring our food for Saturday rather than on feelings of sentiment. We held council. As a bleary eyed white boy with North Carolina plates, they did not extend much confidence in my skills. That changed slightly when they heard that Sporty Roach had raised me and that I had grown up in Wallace and Capers – on St. Helena the areas of the island are called by their old plantation names. Roach was the nickname of Namon; they had known him. He was a big figure in their eyes just as he is in mine – a legend of the creeks and of the baseball diamond and the proprietor of the Chicken Shack, a deadly dangerous club tucked into the Capers area where I had freely roamed from the time of my first steps. Even from beyond, Namon opened doors and gave a sense, correct or not, of protection. On a scale of one to ten with one being no ‘pass’ at all, my status seemed to climb up to about 2.5. Better, acceptable even. Thank you Namon.

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S, Helpful at Daybreak

The plan hatched. The hog had received another quarter hour to live. I drove the car back and got the tractor. How surreal – the almost cool air from atop the Massey, the anticipation of killing, the concern for a change of heart. H guided the tractor in and the bucket was lowered. Scrounging through all dark and dusty corners of my life, only two shotgun shells could be found and they were ancient rusted things that looked like survivors of many years of fruitless pursuit in wet places. Would one fire? Note: a 12 gauge is not ideal for the work – while completely effective, the trauma leaves the head a useless bloody mess.

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One of the men said to another, ‘I guess he ain’t gonna eat the head if he shoots it with that.’ He was right. The traditional way of killing and butchering a hog is to use it all; that was not the intention of the day. I’d butchered dozens of wild hogs – the down and dirty way – by stripping off the shoulders, the hams and the loins before reaching inside to pull out the tenderloins and heart. That was my bleary eyed plan. No removal of the hair as the skin would be discarded. No hog’s head cheese.

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So the moment came. H brought a stingy amount of corn and dropped it in the driest, cleanest part of the pen. I asked if it would hurt the other two hogs’ feelings if we shot their sibling in front of them; H said it is how they did it and he assured it would not hurt their feelings at all. With coaching reminiscent of a covey of drunk and excited baseball fans, the gun took its time settling into the right place to a chorus of, ‘right between his eyes, shoot him right between his eyes.’ And just like that the shot was fired. The hog collapsed into post death spasms and with agility the gun was replaced with a camera.

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H jumped across the fence and grabbed the writhing body. The camera was pushed behind as I was called to help lift the still violently shaking but dead animal out of the pen. The throat was cut and remaining motion stopped as the final blood exited through the throat wound and through the head.

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Shooting more pictures, my whole being was focused on the images, and trying to get them correct.

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And just like that, it was over. The next day’s meal was now still, except for dripping blood, in the bucket. Retrieving the Browning pump, my trusted partner of many excursions stretching decades, it seemed odd how little the other two hogs seemed to care – inches from a coagulating puddle of blood and brains they were cleaning up the last kernels of corn. One looked suspiciously at me and made a noise before returning to the now almost gone bait. The men offered to clean it which would have been fine except for the devotion I felt to you, dear reader, which inclined efforts to doing it myself, alone, to show how easy and practical the process is. (for the sake of drama, I am trying to add embellishments to the process – truthfully, there is little to it and anyone can do this work easily; please accept the dramatic telling for its low brow intent while remembering that making food out of a live hog is actually quite easy – easier that creating drama surrounding the killing)

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A funny feeling settled. I really, really wanted to party with those guys. I wanted to stop right there and start on the gin and on cooking and on making tight portraits of their fine faces. A rain check was the best that could be given – work was at hand and my hands were not steady.

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A school bus passed and dozens of kids looked down in the bucket and saw the gun and the results of its bloody handiwork. A sense of pride nearly overtook me; Joan, we had our meat – we had it secure. Despite the NC plates on the car and the color of my skin, we were the ones on the island at that moment with a trophy of food. Thank you Beautiful Maker for the moment and for Your bounty of the day.

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Now what? Excitement had worn off and the reality of the work settled in. What a beautiful beast – except for the fact it was covered in pig shit and mud and hard thick hair. Channeling Joan, and the other spirits of past and future meals, the decision was made to not simply strip the quarters, loins and heart but instead to skin the whole thing and to then split the back so that two halves, two beautiful halves, could be presented to our party which was scheduled to begin in 28 hours.
But how? How to make it happen? Scrounging through tools, a saw was found – check. On top of a doghouse was about 25 feet of old rope discarded from a shrimpboat. We were in business.

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The hog was cleaned. Details, quasi instructions really, are below.

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Done, Done. And about that time Dad pulls up. Perfect timing – the work was finished. We laughed as the two halves were lowered into a huge cooler. Still covered in blood, we drove to get the meat iced; unless you have about four days free, don’t get in the car with Dad. When he says, ‘I’ll bring you right back after lunch’ don’t believe him. We rode to get ice and we rode to get goat food and we rode to see people and we rode some more. Thrilling as it was, my eyes were heavy and humor thin. Finally we got back to the house and I stripped naked and washed in hot water with soap before drifting off – there were 58 minutes available before the oyster tide.

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Pushing forward, oysters were collected. A reunion was had and miraculously the meat and oysters were delivered to Joan’s door. The rest is history, as they say. A party was had – oh boy, was a party had!

DSC_1513While there was a great crew at Joan’s, all day my mind drifted to the world so different from the mountains, to the new acquaintances and future friends on the island. My mind drifted to the vapor of gin and to the smell of leaves burning in the yard in an attempt to dissuade gnats. I dream of having a party at H’s house, and of drinking gin with that crew.

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The feeling that we should have just bought meat never came up – it would have been easier, and probably cheaper. What is the point of it all? Are we here to connect to Wall-mart by IV, to be dripped an opium of plastic and industrial crap? It is a decision – how do we wish to live? Exhausted by days’ end, I felt a gratitude that extended to new friends and to family both alive and passed, and to a Maker that has already provided countless blessings and the offer of realizing those blessings through work and skills learned.

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This gratitude makes me think warmly of you and the never ending question allowed us by Bad Rooster, the blog. What can we kill in your back yard?

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Joan, Making things Delicious

Cleaning the Hog

With a sharp kitchen knife in one hand and a sharpening stone in the other, business began. Pig skin is tough and hog hair is hard – the combo is hard on a knife edge. As with any hairy animal, the trick is to cut from the inside out – this keeps the edge sharp much better and also creates far fewer loose hairs that stick to wet meat. On the hind legs is a thick tendon that is used to hang the animal. Just above where this tendon connects near the feet a tiny incision is made and then the knife is turned so the sharp edge faces away from the leg. With the edge pointed outward, a ring is made around the leg. Then a slice is made between the bone and tendon (careful here – it is a ton easier if the tendon is not cut).
Once both legs were ringed, the rope was secured with bowline knots which formed a loop which was wrapped around the bucket. Although I’d never done it that way before, it worked like a charm and the body was lifted into the air to a perfect position for comfortable work – a finer working situation could hardly be imagined – thank you again Dad for the idea.
Pigs are dirty; before opening one up it is good to wash it.
Cleaned, or at least with a large amount of the pen soil washed away, it is time to take its clothes off. The front legs are ringed at the lower joint and from the inside a cut just skin deep is made from each of the four rings to the center of the belly. A skin deep cut is then made from the throat to almost the anus. Care must be taken on the belly – at this point only the skin is cut and if a deeper cut is made the intestine or stomach is sliced and an otherwise pleasant job becomes nasty. One thing that is different about cleaning a hog versus cleaning a deer is that the feces of a hog is much nastier than that of an herbivore like a deer. It is like human shit and it nasty – therefore extra care is warranted. I cut a patch around the anus, leaving the vent surrounded by about an inch of skin. Once the preliminary cuts are made, the skin is removed – just work it off always keeping in mind to create the most pleasant looking finished product as possible – there is art involved. Some areas of skin can be pulled off, others need the help of a somewhat dull knife to assist the skin – the perfect blade is sharp enough to cut soft fat, which is between the skin and hide, but not so sharp that it easily cuts the hide.
About this time some neighbors arrived. In the still chilly breeze they built a small fire; I had stripped all clothes except for boots and breeches and the fire felt so good; it added a cheerful aspect to the work. Speedy and Reggie, I am so happy we have gotten to know each other and I look forward to a lifetime of closeness.
Now comes a part that requires care. It is time to liberate the insides. There are two parts that need great attention – they are not difficult but they do require attention and careful knife work. The belly muscle must be cut; just inside of the muscle and pressurized by gravity are the organs we commonly call guts. Carefully nip a hole at the top of the belly which is the part closest to the ass. I’m sure each person has a different technique but at this point I insert two fingers of the left hand into this small cut which are used to guide the knife while holding the intestines away from the edge. There are two layers of membrane which can be felt – one is muscle and the other is like a netting. The netting is not so strong and it can be allowed to hold the guts while the belly muscle is cut down to the sternum, the boney rib cage. You don’t want to cut the guts, especially on a hog.
Now it is time to remove the guts. They are not fragile. Open the hole wider, by breaking the netting with a hand – this will expose the guts. On a deer they easily, too easily sometimes, fall out; a hogs are more secured by tissue. Work the guts out; some work will be required of a knife but again, be careful. When the guts begin to drop the bladder will become visible. The bladder, what we always called the piss sack, is the other critical place where one wants to be exceedingly careful. If you are inclined to sweat with nerves, this is your place to feel very scared and uncomfortable – the whole thing can go tits up fast if the bladder is ruptured and piss get all over the meat. I stick the middle finger of the left hand behind the top of the sack and close the fingers into a fist which seals the top, dry part of the sack between the middle finger and the two fingers above and below; holding that tight, it is time to cut the sack out – a simple nick above the top finger does it and the sack is free and in one’s hand – the sack is then typically thrown at a child or other unsuspecting person nearby – veterans of the process generally scatter like quail in flight when this process is ongoing.
Ease the guts out. Help them out gently – they will fall over the sternum and will stay self contained. The intestine connects to the anus. Reach in as far as possible and push the feces down – it’s easy because the gut is slick; clear the final eight or ten inches of feces, stripping the contents down. Then tie a cord or string around the gut to keep anything from coming out and cut the gut.
Inside the chest the diaphragm will be all that is holding things in. Carefully reach in with a guarded knife and cut the diaphragm close to the ribs – this may have to be done more by feel than sight – and the whole package will want to drop. There are two things that should be recovered – the liver and the heart. The heart is muscle – nothing gross at all – and is good food. The liver is eaten also – but not by me. The guts should be dropped into a bucket for disposal. Just like that, it’s almost done. The final thing is to remove the anus – help it pull through the pelvis with a knife – it will come out nice and easy.
Wash your hands. Have a smoke. Relax a moment. Good work has been done.
I prefer to go sawless most of the time – it is a trick my Grandfather taught and each time I break a carcass down by splitting joints it feels like taking communion with him. Sometimes, as with this hog, a saw must be used to split the whole into halves. A deer’s joints gain incredible strength through design which makes them trickier to separate with a knife; a hog gains strength due to bulk and the joints are much easier to handle sawless. Remove the feet by splitting the lower joints with a knife – the end product is nicer and there are no sharp, cut bones. A saw does not cut meat well therefore with a knife cut down to the bone along the center of the chest; likewise mark the cut line down the back. Ring the neck as close to the head as possible down to the bone – the head should twist off pretty easily once the tissue is cut; a little help with the knife may be needed.

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The final thing is to saw the chest and back bone from top (ass end) to the neck. Now there are two halves ready to the pit. You are in business.

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Perfect Finish; Never Ending Dance

It’s not every day that a friend graduates from engineering school. G, you tore it up! And the red robe looked good on you. You did the work and we got to eat steaks – thank you for your four years of work – I just hope it does not take four years for this hangover to go away. We ate out the yard a little – more on our delicious strawberries and lettuce in a moment – but we certainly ate in the yard. Monster shrimp from the backyard of C, G-made salsa, Charlotte made guacamole, and craftsman made beer all added to a special night of friends and family celebrating a great achievement. Gillian's dinner Damned old chickens are getting up earlier all the time. Why do they feel the need to scream and yell insults at each other so early in the morning? If they drank alcohol at night and needed coffee in the morning they would curb some of their screaming ways. Friday morning somewhere near Anathoth Community Farm & Garden in Cedar Grove the roosters have not been trained to sleep late and they woke me up just as I was getting to sleep. After driving from the mountains the car was beginning to get mighty comfortable and eyes were drifting down heavily when the birds started with their insults and challenges. I dream of a world where chickens sleep until ten.

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A little after the rooster show, but long before feeling rested, a car pulled up. From behind drooping eyes, the sound of a door was loud. It was Julia, my cousin and heroine. She was not expecting me – or anyone else really, to be sleeping in a car at her farm. She was getting it done at daybreak – collecting boxes to pick in, organizing a big day of making vegetables. No picture was taken of her at that rude time of the cruel morning but she was as sunny as 2pm.

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Julia, not quite so early

This is not the time to share the story of the garden but it is a living testament that humans can make the decision to allow tragedy, even the most horrible and unspeakable kind, to fuel kindness and generosity and love. A tragedy, a truly horrible tragedy fell and from that humans chose love instead of hate. Humans chose to let the tragedy bring people closer instead of allowing it to drive people apart or to drive them inside out of fear. As the sun shown early on my swollen head, surrounding the car was living garden, bursting with life and food, food grown for neighbors, and mothers of young children and for strangers who could use a little more healthy food.

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What if we could all follow the example of this community? What if we each could turn our resentments and our anger and our fear into gardens from which we could share and build friendships? What if we chose to trade anger for love? I’m not quite ready to let go of all my resentments but it would sure be great if you could. This year you lead by example and after I get even I’ll lead by example too. Forgiveness, love, food – all great ideas, right? What was amazing was that in this corner of the country a community came together and made the choice to do exactly that.

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So what is the deal? They grow a bunch of food and distribute it through a CSA program. From the CSA there are two goals – feed the people and cover the costs of running the farm. This day Julia was marching with a plan – filling boxes. Currently there are two growing areas. The original place has a shed in addition to plots. The shed is set up very nicely for processing veg and for gathering folks together.

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Wash Station

The newer spot is pumping vegetables from the ground. What colors! What vibrant growth!

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Strawberries

Thank you Julia for not freaking out too bad when you saw the car. It was a pleasure beyond words to be with you and to see the great work that is being done on the farm. The efforts, and results, are an inspiration to me and I hope will also be a working example to many others of how we can make our own food and eat out the yard. Keep up the good w**k. And let’s eat together soon!

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Chickens Electric chicken fence

The chickens are protected by a solar electric fence.

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Broken logjam of Marital Strife; Hog Gets It

Broken logjam of Marital Strife
(Editor’s note; this is an update on the progress being made to celebrate May 2, with a feast to accompany the gathering and bacchanal. ‘Journey of Death’ (part one) contemplates the proposal of a friend, Joan, to have a celebration that involves the killing, and cooking, of an animal. In ‘Boy and Girl Fight, Hog Wins’ disappointment rings with broad sadness that our hog, the result of tireless searching throughout all Buncombe County as well as St. Helena Island, was embroiled in a custody dispute and was unavailable to join us in the mountains. The update begins here.)

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When news of the thwarted play on our hog for Saturday was shared, I feigned disappointment.

Driven to a euphoria of expectation, the idea of buying and killing and cleaning a hog seemed like a good idea. Then as the story of the hog and the human circumstance surrounding the hog began to unfold, the idea of the plan sounded even more exciting.

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To cut a long story short, I’d been swept away from a solid grounding into a current of excitement. When intelligence arrived that the custodian of the hog was angry and had a deeply disturbed and violence prone dispossession it was a secret relief – ‘a one eyed, bipolar mulatto girl’ was how she was described. ‘A real potential for violence if you mess with her pig,’ were additional words used when asked about the situation. With unusual discretion for my Dad, the hog venture was suspended.
And immediately, a palpable relief flowed like cool blood through my veins. Killing and cleaning a hog is not just fun and games like it sounds. It’s a lot of work, too. We could have just done something easy like circle through Uncle Dave’s freezer for a venison hind quarter. We could quite easily have also declared total and utter defeat by buying a fresh ham from Ingles. I could sleep in a little. Four hundred million tiny little bastard sand gnats would go unfed but other than that, all seemed fine with not having the hog. Relief, relief.

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And then a few minutes ago Dad called. Through expert diplomacy, he has secured enough peace throughout a wide love triangle to liberate the hog – actually, what would one call a love entanglement that had about five points? A love star? (doesn’t sound, and isn’t, peaceful). I didn’t press Dad on the details but there were indications both in his choice of words and in the tone of his voice that signaled the depth of the patience and diplomatic skill he had had to mine from deep within to secure consummation.

The hogs, there are three and we can have our choice (or buy another to make for two), are up to their chests in mud. We can shoot them in the yard, no problem. No problem – except for the emotional turmoil that has erupted inside. It’s nice to laugh about it and before it became an impending reality it did seem like a light and relaxed idea. ‘Ask Bad Rooster’s correspondent, he’ll do it. Hahaha’ and Joan was exactly correct – I did allow excitement and hubris to propel my better senses forward until now, this point, where it becomes real. Like a black lab sailing through the air towards ice skimmed water to retrieve a fallen mallard, it has just occurred what the shock of reality is about to deliver.

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Pretty, but will seriously piss you off when gnats are out.

Have you ever had four hundred million little bastard sand gnats chewing your face and eyes and neck while your hands are covered in blood and you can’t wipe the gnats off because of the blood. If you have you will know exactly one corner of the terror that has descended since Dad called with the good news. I personally hate feeding gnats; I hate the way all exposed skin feels on fire and the more one kills and rubs into a mush the more they feast. I hate liking the sweet flavor that pops out from their bodies when they get between teeth. If you like experiencing the little corners of hell on earth, we should go down to the coast sometime and butcher a hog together.

From my perspective, in this deal there is only one rub of frustration. Dad really would like to take the hair off of it and I really don’t want to get into that much work. I’ve never done it – for one thing. Not that this is a preventative. But it just looks like a hell of a lot of work. We have a huge-ass double lined pot that would hold the whole 200 pound carcass. I so much want to do that with and for Dad especially after the gauntlet he has walked to secure our bounty. Using history as a guide, it will take about an hour to unzip and divide the yard hog; that is what it took on the wild ones. Any thoughts? Bad Rooster would love to know. Using same history, it would take Dad and I about three days to get the hair off.

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If the hog can be on ice in time, there is a low tide middle of the afternoon. That is when oysters are active. You never see them at high tide but at low tide they come out to play. Wheee-doggy, the last bunch was so good and seemed to reach an approving audience. One thing that is noticeable – people get a lot more excited to see me when loaded with oysters than loaded with collards. Collards were good; oysters create giddy, at least in my mouth. One more time before the season ends, it would seem a shame to not bring a couple of bushels back to the mountains; make the party last another weekend. It’s better too, to bring coastal oysters to the mountains rather than mountain oysters to the coast.

Here we go, y’all. If you are not busy Saturday, and can maintain good behavior (Joan and her family expect such) and are not a huge bore then join the party. Even if you are a huge bore and are ill mannered it still might be OK – just call first and send a picture. We’ll be shucking and sucking, roasting and toasting. Unless I chicken out. How do they kill tofu, anyway? Joan, Joan, Joan – please keep sending courage. I do not want to be known as the only one who had a tofu BBQ because he faltered at the alter. When my courage seemed at a trough-like bottom today, you revived me with the cheer, ‘you’re a tornado of death.’ I will try to live up to your image. Thank you.

PS. Please laugh. It will be awkward if you don’t.

Boy and Girl Fight; Hog Wins

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Walter Rogers, on a day in 2008 when the hog was not able to benefit from domestic strife.

Boy and Girl Fight; Only the Hog Wins

Joan, there was no handshake, no quiet passing of $125.

Not only was the initial news true that a bitter custody disagreement was ongoing in the dissolution of marriage between co-owners of a certain hog on St. Helena, but Dad’s intelligence foray produced a witness who thought the girl part of the fight had a distinct likelihood of resorting to violence, perhaps even disproportionate violence, in defense of her perceived property rights in the hog.

Joan, Joan I should probably break this news to you in person or by phone but it looks like we won’t be quickly, quietly shooting the hog this Friday. Our pig roast may be a tofu roast.

I’m still headed down to the community of the hog so any miracle could happen. But as things stand, it looks like the only winner in this boy and girl fight is a hog.

29870018My Uncle Dave. Competent woodsman and owner of a freezer.

There are several freezers in the Low Country that belong to competent woodsmen and despite the absence of a distracting ally and co-conspirator, these freezers may have the potential of being mined. Nothing to speak of really – but before we freak out let me ‘tour’ a little.

And there will be oysters, God willing. In fact while the season is in, oysters may be a good thing anyway.

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Bad Rooster, the blog, is very much looking forward to the get together Saturday. Talk about eating out the yard? If Bad Rooster can avoid the 47 pound rooster, there should be some nice photos of food being made. We can all have BBQ tofu and think about the better killers and skinners who have meat – it’s one of my favorite things to do – imaging I too had meat for the grill. There is always next year.

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