In the Blind
A Weekend at Dai Due's Hunting School for Women
"Hunting and fishing for your dinner gives you a distinct sense of ownership and connection to your own food sources – as well as the responsibilities that come with that, like stewardship, conservation, and a deep respect for life and death."
– Jesse Griffiths, Afield
The first time I shot a gun, I was seven years old, instructed by my dad. Born into a Texas lineage of hunters and gun owners, I have a deep-rooted respect for the raw power of firearms, and I love the flavors of wild game. Apart from a brief flirtation with vegetarianism in my early twenties, I'm a lifelong omnivore with a profound passion for the intersection of food and culture, so I did not hesitate for a second when presented with the opportunity to gain a firsthand education in direct sourcing my food at Dai Due's Hunting School for Women. Reactions from friends and loved ones vacillated between shock and support, but nothing could have fully prepared me for my experiences at Madroño Ranch.
Food sustainability has tentacles that touch every aspect of daily life, though its champions vary as much in practice as philosophy. Despite modern Western culture's tendency to complicate the process, ideal food preparation involves staying as close to the source as possible. Wild game is seasonal and local, ostensibly organic, and wholly without hormones or antibiotics; the animals are entirely free to roam and forage as their instincts dictate. In our meat-centric society, the connection between live animals and food is lost because cultural sensitivities often obscure the full story, and that disconnection fascinates me. Participating in the Hunting School was my chance to examine my core beliefs about the universal nature of food.
Navigating the American food landscape with ethical intent is not for the faint of heart. Jesse Griffiths, author of Afield and Dai Due's co-owner/chef, spearheaded the Hunting Schools three years ago; his efforts to bridge the gap between field and table are admirable. The weekend includes guided hunts in the Texas Hill Country, an extensive class on butchering and cooking wild game, abundant spreads of foods, and gorgeous accommodations. Madroño Ranch, an Animal Welfare Approved ranch, is only used for hunting during these special weekends, and otherwise serves as a residency for environmental artists and writers. The 1,500-acre property features the most beautiful land I've ever seen in almost 30 years of living in Texas. Located near Medina, the rolling hills and surprisingly plentiful water sources boast a veritable cornucopia of wildlife.
I am a natural-born planner and worrier. In the week prior to departure, my preparation for the trip bordered on obsession: I borrowed a .30-30 lever-action rifle, acquired my license, and passed Hunter Education. It had been about a decade since I last fired a gun, but during a pep talk with my bathroom mirror, I assured myself that shooting skills fall neatly in line with bicycle skills. Thanks to a kind employee at Lone Star Gun Range in Lockhart, I shot several decent rounds and left with a fist-sized bruise on my shoulder. As the weekend loomed nearer, I battled a growing desire to remain an unarmed journalistic observer.
To strike a balance between my love of animals and my taste for meat, I felt a strong desire to participate actively in the process of learning to hunt and prepare my food. I was comfortable with the weekend's targeted game. I witnessed deer on makeshift gambrels periodically throughout childhood. As a resident Texan, I know feral hogs are an invasive species notorious for their ecological destruction and economic costs to farmers and ranchers. Sturdy, resilient, and intelligent, wild hog populations are particularly hard to control because of their ability to breed rapidly and thrive in harsh conditions. Still, I had never killed an animal, and I wasn't 100% sure I even wanted to, but my intrinsic sense of adventure propelled me forward.
On the Trail
I met my road trip partner when I knocked on her door Friday morning. Within minutes, it occurred to me that yet another weekend bonus had been revealed: camaraderie and community. Upon our arrival several hours later, my nerves had calmed to a manageable level. Friendly introductions to my fellow students, knowledgeable guides, and gracious staff accompanied a lunch of wild boar ham soup and spinach salad with bacon vinaigrette. At the shooting range, the guides helped sight-in the rifles and assess skills. It was decided that I would shoot Jesse's gun because mine lacked a scope – an essential component for clean kills. Convinced I would screw up royally, I was as shocked as Jesse and the other guides when I nailed two shots at 100 yards. I took my first deep breath in over a week.
I was strictly observing on the first hunt because Jesse and his trusty .270 bolt-action were guiding someone else. The next several hours of late afternoon in the blind allowed plenty of time to switch mental gears from the dizzying pace of my life, and to develop the relaxed but keenly aware senses required of hunters. I do not remember the last time I sat so still and quiet. Consequently, the detailed sounds of a nearby creek and rustling autumn leaves are etched in my memory. Watching a kamikaze lizard and a gang of turkeys, I began to understand the unexpected peacefulness of hunting that so many avid hunters cherish. A missed shot at a group of feral hogs paved my introduction into the whole process and prepared me for the upcoming events. By day three, I would realize how serendipitously my weekend played out.
Driving up the rocky terrain, we were awestruck by the majestic bison that roam freely on Madroño Ranch. When the groups had reconvened with no animals killed, Jesse and the guides shot two hogs trapped earlier that day. As they demonstrated the process of cleaning, dressing, and drying the game, I was amazed to realize how completely comfortable I was with the nitty-gritty details. Back at the main house, the talented kitchen staff served juicy Madroño bison burgers complete with Dai Due condiments. A shower and a beer later, I went to bed content and ecstatic with anticipation about day two.
Five thirty in the morning came early and the wind was not in our favor, but the groups set out anyway. Jesse and I trekked to the blind near the front gate, a spot known for its abundance of animal traffic. Just before first light, a white-tailed doe appeared, interested in the feeder that had yet to spill its goodies. I was ready. Whispered instructions from Jesse helped me to silently balance the rifle and aim, but the doe disappeared. Anticipation was building, and the happy tension was palpable. A new doe and her fawn appeared next, but they skillfully hid within the scruffy brush, and my one possible chance was sullied by my hesitation to shoot at an expert-only angle. In one example of the countless displays of gentle but supportive guidance exhibited by every guide on the trip, Jesse reassured me that I should be confident in my shot, or let the moment pass. His guiding moral compass anchors these hunts in the belief that the intention is eating, not killing for sport. More than once, the guides cited the women's school as particularly enjoyable because of the students' general willingness to accept and learn from constructive criticism.
Mindful of the time, Jesse decided we should move on and walk the grounds in another section of the property. The wind continued to whip as we walked, and except for a brave lizard and a few birds overhead, members of the animal kingdom stayed hunkered down in their hidden homes. Our return to the main house revealed that, once again, no animals were taken. Nevertheless, Jesse's class, held in the kitchen of our weekend home, exceeded expectations. Jesse is a master of butchery, and in less than two hours, he broke down a deer harvested the night before school started and a large sow cleaned the night before. Adhering to the belief that every possible part of an animal killed ought to be used, only one handful per animal was wasted. We learned a variety of techniques using a few basic tools, and as we watched, each cut of meat was given to the kitchen staff to prepare for the big feast that night. The class was a delight. Jesse's dry humor colored the hours of skilled instruction, and his passion translated as his face lit up while discussing various cuts and recipes in his book. Gifted Dai Due sous chef Tabatha Stephens expertly demonstrated sausage-making and charcuterie.
A blessing of thanks and gratitude summed up the weekend thus far. Saturday night's meal was a stellar example of sustainability revealed in brilliant dishes; relaxing with lively, wine-infused living-room conversations during a seemingly endless parade of delicious courses was wonderful. An overview of the punishing deliciousness handcrafted by Jesse and crew: saucisson sec, guanciale, venison tartare, pickled watermelon rind, radishes with butter and sea salt, boudin, grilled venison loin with horseradish sauce, sausage-stuffed grilled pork loin on turnip-potato gratin, venison liver with grapefruit, grilled venison heart, smoked sausage, pork choplets with mushroom sauce, carrots with caraway, charred green onions, and mincemeat-stuffed Basque cake. It was mind-blowing and perfectly executed.
The Weight of the Hunt
The weather finally shifted, and the last hunt of the weekend ended the lack of harvested game. Jesse and I crouched down just off the right-hand side of a hilltop road, completely exposed, shortly after sunrise. My clean miss about 15 minutes before had surprisingly boosted my confidence. I held the rifle in position, aimed at the feeder 60 yards ahead, and we sat – knees up, gun up, eyes wide. Jesse steadied the bipod shooting stick as I carefully monitored my breathing to prevent my nerves from unraveling at the culminating moment of three days afield.
An enormous black boar emerged, lifted his snout to the air, and gave a warning grunt. I suddenly developed an intense fear of feral hog ambush, but remained surprisingly collected, in part because of constant reassurance from Jesse. Three more pigs emerged from the dense undergrowth and scurried away when they realized the feeder still held their beloved corn hostage in its metal belly. My pig appeared again and stood broadside. Jesse gave permission to proceed and I fired. At that precise moment, the boar caught our scent and sniffed. The bullet hit his lower jaw fatally, but it was not instant death as I had imagined. I handed Jesse the gun and instinctively threw my hands to my face, tears streaming from my eyes. My heart raced and sank at the same time. I did not want the boar to suffer. I blurted an apology and gathered myself. The pig fell and Jesse fired what should have been the final shot. The pig screamed, stumbled, and ran into the brush. I gasped – partly in disbelief, partly in horror.
We respectfully gave the boar a few minutes alone to avoid placing ourselves in danger or pressuring the hog into running. We needed to let him find his peace and die without fear before we retrieved the estimated 80- to 100-pound pig that could provide months of sustainable meat. Five minutes later, our two-hour tracking began. I learned to track a wounded animal by its blood patterns that morning. We struggled, sweated, and fought through thick underbrush and sharp cedar trees in search of an animal that I had fatally injured. I learned the true weight of the gun in my hands and its enormously weighted effects. I humbly realized what it means to be a meat-eater. We did everything in our power, but we never found my pig. I told Jesse I had cried, and he said, "Never lose that."
After the ranch truck picked us up, we remarked on the beauty of the enormous antlered sika deer, skillfully shot and later cleaned by my road trip companion. Another student took a white-tailed doe. The Women's Hunting School ended with hugs and high fives, and as we drove away, my eyes welled up again. I realized that every intense emotion I experienced surrounding this trip served a specific purpose for which I am forever grateful. My first hunting trip is punctuated with an ellipses, and I fully intend to hunt again.
Dai Due's upcoming Hog Schools, which take place Dec. 7-9 and Jan. 18-20, are already sold out, but keep an eye on www.daidueaustin.net for information on future events and classes.