Fall is a magical time. Right on cue, it delivers the hunter's moon, favorite holidays and the opening of South Carolina's dove hunting season. Hunters look forward to the sport while family and friends anticipate the joy of cooking - and eating - the hunters' harvest. Most hunters agree that contributing to the pleasures of the table adds significantly to the pleasures of the hunt.
As a game bird, the mourning dove, Zenaida macroura, is second in popularity in the South only to the wild turkey. Dove hunting is one of the most enjoyable hunts because of the challenge of this erratic, fast-flying bird, often referred to as "the feathered rocket," "the gray ghost," or the "Teflon bird." For generations, South Carolinians have enjoyed dove hunting for the sport as well as for its social traditions. When opening day rolls around in the Palmetto State, most everyone knows someone who's going dove hunting. According to South Carolina Department of Natural Resources estimates, between 35 and 40 thousand hunters will participate in the dove season this year (along with many more friends and family members there to enjoy the eating and socializing that often accompanies a successful dove hunt.
Hunts take place on family farms, private pay-to-shoot fields, at one of hundreds of invitation only shoots, or at one of the 40 or so public dove fields in the state. Some private hunts have been taking place for so long that one is reminded of a pew in a Southern Baptist church - people have simply claimed a spot of their own. One hears, "Go over to the east side of the field, but stay away from that old tobacco barn; that's Joe's stand." After the shoot is over and the guns and ammo are stowed, dove hunters often enjoy a libation or two while the guys that always do it are "shuckin" the breasts from the harvest. Others are firing up the charcoal. Metal 55-gallon drums cut in half and covered with a mesh metal grate have probably cooked more dove breasts than anything under the Palmetto sky. Southern-style potato salad, sorghum-laced baked beans, "light" bread and sweet tea complete the post-hunt field menu.
South Carolina has always had a bounty of wildfowl. John Lawson, surveyor-general of North Carolina, traveled the Santee River in the early 1700s exploring the area and studying the Native American tribes living there. He found them eating blackbirds, crows, buntings, pheasant woodcocks, snipe, partridge and pigeons. Reports indicate that the early colonists were "dumbfounded" by the abundance of game they found. Many of them had little opportunity to hunt in their native lands, as hunting was a privilege reserved for the upper classes and turned to the Native Americans to learn how to find, kill and cook game. For nearly 250 years, game was a significant and substantial part of the daily diet of Americans. This was particularly true of Southerners who spent their lives in rural areas and small towns. For several generations after the colonial period, game was eaten more than almost any other meat. Then, it was a matter of necessity. Today, it is a matter of pleasure.
In 1791, William Bartram wrote in Travels Through North and South Carolina: "There was a little hommock or islet containing a few acres of high ground, at some distance from the shore, in the drowned savanna, almost every tree of which was loaded with nests of various tribes of fowl We visited this bird isle, and some of our people taking sticks or poles with them, soon beat down and loaded themselves with these squabs, and returned to camp; they made us a rich supper; some we roasted, and made others into a pilloe (pilau) with rice."
Doves are very tasty when cooked properly, and there are numerous ways of cooking them. Many hunters field dress the bird and bring home only what they consider to be the best part - the breast. Some prefer to dry-pluck and cook the whole bird, even saving the tiny heart, liver and gizzard for gravy. Dove meat is dark in color and fine in texture. It has a taste similar to duck. The meat is less dry than most birds that have white meat. However, as with most game, it is better when larded. Larding is adding fat - usually by inserting long, thin strips of pork fat or bacon into dry cuts of meat. Larding makes the meat more succulent, tender and flavorful.
Each of these recipes uses its own form of larding - whether wrapping the dove breasts in bacon, adding butter or marinating in an oil-based dressing. Home-cooked doves are delicious served with plain or garlic/cheese grits. If your freezer is filling up with doves, here are some recipes that are sure to please the most discriminating palettes.
A friend who grew up hunting the woods and fields of South Carolina, contributed this recipe. He warned that the most important thing to remember when serving this dish is to "stay out of the way of your guests."
20 doves, breasted out and breastbone removed
Italian dressing bottled, or use the dry packaged type and mix with olive oil
4-5 jalapeno peppers, seeded and sliced into strips about 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide
20 slices hickory smoked bacon
Remove the breastbone by using a sharp filleting or boning knife. Cut the breast halves away from the breast bone so that you have two small pieces of dove breast. Place all the dove breast pieces in a shallow non-corrosive dish or large plastic bag, and cover with Italian dressing. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 8-10 hours (overnight). Remove from refrigerator. Take a strip of the sliced jalapeno pepper and lay alongside each breast piece. Wrap with 1/2 slice bacon and pin with a toothpick.
Cook over hot charcoal on a grill about 4 inches above the coals for 8-10 minutes. Be careful not to overcook. Baste occasionally with fresh Italian dressing. Serve hot. Serves 6.
This recipe was given to me by a Department of Natural Resources agent who taught "Care and Preparation of Game" at the "Becoming an Outdoors Woman" weekend held each year. During the class, 20 women cleaned dozens of doves and cooked them using this recipe. There were no leftovers.
12-24 whole dove breasts (bone in or out)
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1 tablespoon dried onion
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Italian dressing bottled, or use the dry packaged type and mix with olive oil
Mix all spices together. Pierce dove breasts with a fork. Sprinkle spice mixture over dove breast, and rub in thoroughly to coat. You may not need the entire mixture. Lay the breasts in a shallow, non-corrosive dish and gently pour on the marinade. Make sure marinade covers at least halfway up the breast. Cover and place in refrigerator for 24 hours. Turn over once after about 12 hours.
Grill over hot coals for about 8-10 minutes. Do not overcook. Serves 6-8.
DOVES IN FOIL PACKAGES
This recipe is from "Mrs. Whaley Entertains" by Emily Whaley, Algonquin Books. Cooking doves in foil is an easy way to use the whole bird.
6 doves, drawn and dressed
Salt and black pepper to taste
Paprika to taste
Dried thyme to taste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 teaspoons sherry
3 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Sprinkle each dove with salt, pepper, paprika, and thyme. Put 1/2 tablespoon butter in the cavity of each dove, followed by 1/2 teaspoon sherry and 1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar. Using heavy-duty aluminum foil, create 3 packets for the doves. Each packet should hold 2 doves. The packets should be securely folded and without any tears, so that none of the juices will escape. Cook in the preheated oven for 2 hours. Unwrap the doves, transfer to a serving plate, and serve immediately. Serves 2-3.
Guest blogger Amanda Dew Manning is a native South Carolinian and a Southern food historian and enthusiast. A version of this article was first published in the Charleston Mercury newspaper