"Manny, if this is gonna happen, it's gonna have to happen very soon," Allan Boyd, our guide, calls from the opposite bank of a five-foot-wide canal, where the water is so black there's no telling how deep it is. With both hands he's gripping the left hind leg of a 200-pound Russian boar sow. Cornered between two cypress, the pig hammers back at the four hunting dogs attacking it. One of them has locked onto its snout. With a vigorous, elliptical sweep of its broad neck and shoulders the sow swings the dog high above its head and slams it savagely onto the cypress roots on the swamp floor. The dog doesn't loosen its grip. This happens four more times, even as the three other dogs tear at the boar's face and ears. Now Boyd is annoyed: "Manny, these dogs are getting hurt. They've been up on her too long."
Struggling for breath, I drag myself onto the bank and up on my knees behind Boyd. The barking, growling, and screeching is loud enough that Boyd must yell to be heard. His body jerks forward when the boar lunges. The scramble of animals just four feet from us rattles my every nerve. When the sow regains its footing in the soupy filth, it stands almost three feet at the shoulder. It is four feet long, coarse black bristles matted with mud. Both dog and pig snarl and whinny at turns, the pig's squeal a unique mix of ferocity and fear.
"Take the knife, Manny," Boyd insists, suddenly concerned for dog and man, gesturing with his chin to an assortment of weapons hanging on his belt above the back pockets of his jeans. I pause.
"Grab the knife!" he commands.
"There are two, Allan!" I bark in a voice several jittery octaves higher than I would have preferred.
"The orange one! Orange, Manny!" Boyd responds. Only at that moment do I notice that Boyd is using my name an awful lot. I wonder if repeating it is a time-tested stratagem: mood control, providing false confidence, panic-proofing – possibly for both of our benefit. I unsnap the scabbard and unsheathe the knife.
In South Carolina, wild boars are so despised by the locals that even fish and wildlife authorities virtually ignore them. They are classified as "feral'' and thus offered little protection from human predation. On private land there is no mandated season for boar hunting; no set limit on size or age or sex exists. An out-of-state hunter need only purchase a $40 small-game permit to go after them, the same document required to shoot a squirrel. This reflects a near-universal consensus that the hogs are a complete menace.
Until now my twin passions for hunting/fishing and eating extra-ordinarily well-prepared food have had few intersecting points. The back page of hook-and-bullet journals – where the recipes generally hide – call for a frying pan, bread crumbs, butter, and some paprika (if you dare), and only a few chefs I know do more than fly-fish. What, I wondered, would happen if I got a chef in the swamp and a boar hunter in the kitchen? Take two experts, give each a chance to demonstrate his art, then tear each out of his comfortable world? Good fun, as I know just enough about both disciplines to be dangerous.
When I get the invitation to join Oliver "Bubsy" Thames on a two-day boar hunt at his hunting club on an island in the Santee Delta, just outside McClellanville, South Carolina, I ask if I can bring a plus-one. "A fancy New York chef," I declare.
"The more the merrier," replies Bubsy, whose generous spirit is only the most obvious of his genteel gifts.
McClellanville is a tight community with a declining shrimp fishery and a population of 500 people. A nearby employer, ArcelorMittal Georgetown, temporarily shuttered its steel facility in the fall. Measured in physical miles, by all rights the town should be an exurb of Charleston. It is not. There are no art galleries or antique stores, only the Bulls Bay Supply, simply called "the hardware" by locals.
The chef I brought with me is Brad Farmerie. I met him over a pint of pig blood in his kitchen a few years back. I had reached out to a handful of professionals, needing a modest amount of the substance for my first effort at boudin noir, a sausage popularized in France made of (among other things) pork, apple, garlic, duck fat, heavy cream, porcini powder, rum, and plenty of blood. "Come by any Thursday morning," he had said. "That's marginal meat day at the restaurant, and I always have some extra pig blood hanging around."
Farmerie has a gentle manner and a clear-eyed intensity that upon first meeting him are tough to reconcile. He is old-school in the best way. Born in Pittsburgh, he threw over mechanical engineering at Penn State for a life in the kitchen. He wandered, exploring and experimenting with the cuisines of the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and North Africa, before ending up in London. There he got serious. He received a Grand Diplome (his ticket to ride) from the fabled Le Cordon Bleu academy and spent eight years working for some of the most influential chefs in the vanguard of London's culinary revolution. Since moving to New York six years ago, he has helped open two very successful restaurants: Public and, just around the corner, Double Crown.
I've heard Farmerie's food described as free-spirited fusion, just the kind of flouncy foodspeak that starts me heading for the door. Call it what you want, there isn't a flavor combination he won't try when looking for unexplored ways to prepare even the most worked-over hunk of protein. Though he hasn't said much about the meal he planned to cook in South Carolina, he has let on that a boar's liver would be an essential ingredient in the dessert.
The only way to reach the Santee Rod Gun & Guitar Club (the name has been changed) is on a boat – a small boat. The camp here has no running water and no electricity. A propane tank fuels the stove and a wall-mounted lantern. The screen porch is piled high with gear of every description. Every cinder block, every piece of lumber, all the shingles on the roof had to be hauled over on a barge.
The most important person on a boar hunt is the guide, who is also the dog wrangler. Out here, that's Boyd, an athletic, square-jawed spring of a man with the bearing of a junior-varsity football coach. On the hunt the dogs have two main jobs. A pack of chase dogs leads the hunters into the swamp, tracks the boar, and battles the prey long enough for the hunters to arrive. There are as many opinions about what breed makes the best chase dog as there are boar hunters; Boyd runs a string of mixed-breed stock dogs called Catahoulas – midsize hounds with mismatched pale eyes and, often enough, blue brindle markings.
The second job belongs to the catch dogs, vicious fighters held close on strong leashes and not put into play unless the chase dogs are outmatched or the hunter is in peril. Often a pit bull (occasionally a specialized breed, the black mouth cur), the catch dog does not stop working until it or the pig is dead.
Boyd is proud of his pack, values them for their noiseless pursuit of pigs. "A barking dog teaches the boar that trouble's on the way," says Boyd. "Pigs are smarter than dogs; they'll put the dog and the bark together the first time, then run away every time after that. When a good silent boar dog gets up on his hog, chances are that barking is the last thing that hog'll hear." Only when a dog sees a boar does the barking begin.
A chase dog won't attack a boar alone, but the instant the dog is joined by another member of the pack, they pounce on the pig. At this moment the barking becomes a haunting bay. It's a troubling sound but nothing compared to the sight. "When you hear the bay, the first thing you need to do is find a tree that you can get up in quick," Bubsy warns Farmerie and me on the way out to the island. "It can get pretty wild fast out there."
A boar uses its tusk as an edged weapon, slashing with terrible effect at dog and man in a fight. Boyd carries a suture kit with him on every hunt in order to bind up wounded hounds. When asked about the perils of a boar hunt, one local warns, "A big boar just touches your leg with his tusk, that be the leg you had."
Feral boars can be found in many parts of the country, but the biggest, baddest beasts seem to end up at hell-and-gone corners like this. Three miles long and almost two miles wide, the island where the club is located was first cultivated as a rice plantation. Now reclaimed by nature, what is left of an expanse of intricately engineered dikes, dams, and drainage gullies makes up a patchwork of inhospitable, occasionally impassable swamp. Its only inhabitants are possums, raccoons, squirrels, alligators, snakes, deer, bald eagles, and, of course, boars. In the middle of the island, where the swamp is densest, the water deepest, and the silty mud most viscous, the hogs are most at home. Somehow they move through these swamps like Olympians through water, on top of the ooze, not through it.
On the morning of the first day, the hunting party starts on the island's north side, not even three miles from camp, but the swamp is so dense in places that the only way to access some areas is by going all the way around the island by boat. The hunting party, nine men, travel in a hodgepodge armada of flatboats that draw only four inches of water and can move through most any creek, provided it is wide enough.
The success of the journey is entirely dependent on the tide, and today the window is narrow. So, after a nine-mile ride, we tie the boats up in a creek with high red clay banks and try to make the best use of our time. For the first two hours there is not even a hint of hog. The only boar we see is a stray brown piglet so tiny even the catch dog all but ignores it when, in a total panic, it scrambles in between and past us. Determined to find a pig, Boyd announces that he's taking the dogs into the heart of the swamp. This is what passes for a plan on a boar hunt: the guy with all the dogs heading off alone into the deepest filth in order to drive a boar, notorious for fighting, not fleeing, out of hiding and onto higher ground.
This strikes me as something of a challenge to my Yankee manhood – and, as such, irresistible. I follow him as he disappears into a thicket of young oaks. Just walking through the swamp requires judgment at every step. Each time your boot disappears under the black water there's no telling whether you will need to pull yourself free or lose your balance entirely. Boyd, however, simply leaps from the base of one sapling to another. After 20 minutes, he is so far ahead of me I can barely see him – and then the dogs begin barking. "Hog!" yells Boyd.
A few moments later, the baying starts. My instinct is to run, but the closest I can get to moving faster than a crawl is hand-over-handing through the saplings and dead trunks, pulling myself along as much as walking. So much muck is splattering on my face that I stop trying to wipe it.
Boar hunters who reject the gun or bow for the blade make an awfully big deal about the knives they use. Bloggers devote thousands and thousands of words and hundreds of jpegs to their pig stickers, which often bear more resemblance to swords than knives. Some are 10-inch brutal, cold steel weapons; others are handcrafted with polished, scalloped blades of stainless steel fixed to exotic woods with bulbous pommels.
The knife in my hand now, though – a paltry six inches – has an entirely unappealing prefab orange plastic handle, a waffle grip perfunctorily stamped into it. With the notable exception of its viciously serrated spine, my pig sticker, little more than a shiv, hardly seems up to this task.
There is a proper way to stab a boar to death. The pig will die instantly if the blade pierces its heart. The efficacy of a proper strike is why knife hunters consider their method the most humane. And there is, it is said, no mistaking a proper heart strike. "You don't have to go all Norman Bates," says Boyd. "Just thrust and press down. Pull the blade. Watch for the plume."
My first strike is high, piercing lung, not heart. There is plenty of blood, but it's not arterial. The boar, seemingly oblivious to the hole I have opened in its chest, is still lunging at the dogs, who shake their heads violently whenever their jaws lock. The pig squeals, pulls loose, and bites back. If I were nervous, and I was, I am not anymore. I am confused, absorbed, and desperate to stop the battle in front of me.
Sure of my footing, I bend my knees and lean in for my second strike, a hound's jaws snapping inches from my head. I aim and plunge the knife a full four inches lower than my first thrust. I pull the blade. More blood but no plume. I step back, next to Boyd, still panting from the race to get here and only noticing this now. "It's okay," says Boyd. "She'll die soon now."
"You know, Allan," I say, after a brief pause, watching the pig fight on, listening to the battle, "if it's all right, I'd like to try to finish this. Can I try the other side?"
"If you like," says Boyd, immediately grabbing the boar's right leg, stretching it out, exposing the vulnerable hairless patch on the pig's right flank. My third strike is also high, but the fourth is true. What little life it has bleeds out in one beat.
"Dead pig, dogs," says Boyd, his voice little more than a whisper. The dogs fall silent, shrugging off the combat. They shake their blood-soaked heads as if tossing aside a daydream, stand still for one moment with their noses in the air, and then cruise off silently through the swamp for another boar.
"You know, you bring a hundred guys out here, most all of them will not do what you just did," Boyd says, gripping me by the shoulder. I am pleased that he is pleased, but I'm not particularly happy. I've made a hash of the perfect kill, and I am worrying that I have fouled the meat, ruined it with adrenaline by letting the fight drag on.
We start calling to the members of the hunting party who have spread out all over the center of the swamp trying to find us. On my knees now, between the pig and a cypress I'm leaning against, I've finally caught my breath as Bubsy, Farmerie, and the five other hunters converge on the site. "You okay?" asks Farmerie, looking from me to the boar, both of us on the ground. "Sure," I reply, offering a thin smile.
As with all hunts, it's after the kill that the real work begins. But even pulling a full-grown mule deer off a snow-covered Montana mountainside is child's play when compared to dragging a boar out of a massive swamp. When we agree on a route back to the boat, Boyd pulls out an extra-large choke chain. I assume it is for a dog, but the dog that fits into this chain I have yet to meet. The necklace is clipped to a short nylon leash secured to 18 inches of branch, and, two at a time, we take turns on what is called the drag.
The sow is dead at 11:24. Dead low tide is at 12:33. Bubsy's 23-year-old son Ross figures that the boats will be stuck at least 10 minutes before the tide is out. We are 1.7 miles away from the boats. We'll never make the tide, Ross predicts. Boyd shushes him. "We might if you grab that pig from the Yankees."
Hip waders are useful right up until you walk through waist-deep water. After they've been topped you're essentially carrying a bucket of water on each leg. The first time I top mine, in front of Boyd's 17-year-old son Chase, the boy smiles sympathetically and says, "That's exactly why I just wear football cleats and jeans. I don't look as cool as you 'hunters,' but I can follow the dogs all right." With that he marches off with my sow, gliding atop the same mud that I sank in up to my belt.
The tide is now so low in the creek that most of the boats need to be dragged a half-mile out by at least two men. Every member of the hunting party can tell a story about getting hung up in the mud for six hours at a time, sometimes just at dusk, waiting for the flood tide to release them. That specter shortens just about everybody's temper, but all four of the boats manage to pick their way back to camp as the light starts to fade.
The next morning, at dawn, we unfold ourselves from the wayworn cabin, gather our kit (essentially the swampland equivalent of foul-weather gear), and march off after the dogs looking for another pig.
Mercifully, we find one half a mile out of camp on nearly dry land.
"Go! Go! Go!" Every one of the nine members of the hunting party gives way to Farmerie on the path as the bay grows more insane. As Farmerie passes me I grab his arm. "It's the knife with the orange handle," I say under my breath.
Farmerie nods and takes off along the path, weaving his way among the cypress roots toward a 100-pound hog backed into a hollow cypress tree, protecting its flank from the three dogs snapping at it.
"Brad, I'm gonna push this nasty pig out of the tree and hold on to its hind leg," shouts Boyd. "Brad, that'll be your one, maybe only, chance."
Farmerie nods. "Now take the knife, Brad," says Boyd.
All those years breaking down pigs (and anything else he was told to butcher) in the basement of some of London's most celebrated restaurants has endowed Farmerie with an unconscious understanding of a boar's anatomy. Though he had earlier copped to doubts about being ready to kill, he seems
focused and determined. He takes the first step toward the pig's wildly thrashing head and plunges the blade just once, severing the aorta and piercing the heart, killing the razorback instantly. Each member of the club has mentioned, at one time or another, that you cannot mistake a perfect kill. All have, some repeatedly, provided a vivid detail of one. A quick survey of the expressions on the members' faces suggests that a fatal blow like Farmerie's had not been seen for a while at the Santee Rod Gun & Guitar Club.
The sun is just now rising above the trees in the swamp, casting dappled light over the scene. In the distance a bark turns into a bay, and Boyd instructs Chase and Ross to see to the dogs. If we're going to make good on our promise to produce a meal from one of these boars by tomorrow evening, Farmerie says we need to pack up and be back at Bubsy's home in McClellanville by noon, latest. He had allotted 36 hours to prepare the meal. Bubsy suggests we split the party in two. Boyd and Chase disappear between the trees to collect the dogs and quit the island.
We don't get to Bubsy's place until mid-afternoon, so we're already behind the eight ball. Two of Boyd's dogs had gone missing, and no one felt right leaving with their fate uncertain. Bubsy was pouring browns – bourbon and ginger ale – in brightly colored plastic picnic cups. Farmerie plans to cook every inch of the sow – and, yes, that includes pig's-head terrine with guindilla gribiche, truffle oil, and smoked paprika; black pudding with poached egg, maple-glazed apple, and grilled sourdough; crispy pig ears flavored with mustard, oregano, Tabasco, and moromi miso (a pungent fermented barley miso); and boudin noir. All this will be followed by a pig's liver crème caramel with maple-roasted grapes.
We lumber up the stairs to the back door, deposit the sow on the picnic table on the screen porch, and roll into Bubsy's open kitchen. His wife Debbie has unpacked the boxes of gear and ingredients that Farmerie had shipped ahead, some 80 items, in neat rows; Farmerie's metric scale, a blowtorch and extra fuel, butcher's twine, chinoise, microplane, muslin, pastry piping bags, and other foreign objects now litter her otherwise tidy kitchen.
After a quick, very thorough shower, Farmerie takes charge. He has the same air he had when he killed the boar – all reflex and instinct – only this time his confidence is palpable. Like a diver or a jumper, he checks and rechecks his gear, then begins weighing out ingredients and handing recipes to Bubsy, Debbie, and me, bidding us to follow his lead – expecting it, really. This is the only way to run a kitchen.
"In the kitchen I don't let the guys call me 'chef.' I don't like it," says Farmerie, ingredients flying through his hands into a series of bowls, each for its own dish. "A lot of guys call you 'chef,' figure that's the respect taken care of, and do whatever they please on your line. 'You got it, chef.' That's not how I know I can count on a cook."
A couple of hours later, Bubsy walks into the kitchen. "What on earth is that?" he asks, gesturing to the boar's face oscillating among coarse-cut vegetables in the rolling stockpot on the stove. "I didn't even know we had a pan that big," he says, staring in wonder at the scene.
"I don't think I've ever seen Bubsy even wash a pan in this kitchen," half-jokes Debbie. "When you need him to get working, just tell me, I'll motivate him."
Farmerie's ingredients and the tools he travels with are selected for maximum flexibility. Two hundred pounds of pig to dress and only a 12-inch chef's knife? "This'll do fine." An ingredient gone missing? "Use that stuff instead." And then everything stops for 15 minutes while he meticulously strips meat from the rib of his rack roast.
Working in a restaurant kitchen during dinner service is like working on a submarine that's on fire. It is unbearably hot and cramped, and there is nowhere to hide. Under these conditions Farmerie sends more than 250 meals into his dining room every night. Tomorrow we'll have about 25 guests, which should be manageable, but he is alone. In fact, it's worse than that: Farmerie has me and Bubsy helping him.
He appears calm somehow, even with a dead pig on the picnic table on the porch and less than 23 hours to cook it all.
Of course, he only sleeps two of those hours.
"Manny, how are your knife skills?" asks Farmerie, looking sideways at a pile of produce that should have been diced a few hours ago.
"You wouldn't let me work a second day in your kitchen, but they will do for now."
I have always prided myself on my pro-sumer knife skills, but I am too slow and not nearly precise enough for Farmerie's needs. Within 20 minutes I have retreated to the dishwashing station. No small task. In the next 18 hours I will wash the same 12 pots and pans more than 10 times each. "We do have a dishwasher, you know," teases Debbie.
"Not fast enough, hon," I reply, all business. Just like in the swamp, I was simply trying to measure up. Bubsy is standing next to Ross, both ogling Farmerie like a pair of new med students watching their first surgery as he frenches the ribs of that loin rack roast. "I know you said you were going to use the whole pig, but I guess I didn't think it through," says Bubsy. "How did you learn to do all this?"
"I worked at a couple of places in Britain; one grows most of their own veggies during the summer," Farmerie explains, without looking up from his work, "and we used mostly whole animals, so we utilized every part of it for something. It was common to use kidneys, livers, heads, hearts, hooves. They even have an amazing dish that is a chicken steamed in a pig's bladder. I learned to make blood sausages there, worked at terrine-building," he says, gesturing to the bubbling head on the stovetop. "I broke down whole pigs and cooked more foie gras than I care to remember."
After 12 hours of prep work, we all crash at Bubsy's at around 3 a.m. By late afternoon the next day, the spare ribs and then the pig's-head terrine start flying out of the kitchen onto the back porch. I take the dishes around to club members, who are recalling the hunt. A few polite nods and thin smiles, a halting reach for a little something, a question about condiments. "Just eat it," I command, clapping Boyd on the shoulder. "I take 100 men into a restaurant..."
Boyd offers a broad grin.
The members of the Santee Rod Gun & Guitar Club are leading with their feet, not their faces, on this project. If the first few dishes needed passing, the fourth and fifth need to be cut into fair portions. The club is migrating to the kitchen now, wondering how Farmerie does all this. There's also some jockeying for position when the second round of sausages, draped in absurdly fresh, rich caul fat, are ready. After the six and seventh courses have been wolfed down, Boyd seizes my arm. "You know, coming over, I thought I'd give everything a try – be polite. But, well, I really did enjoy everything."
From the gut bucket to the table: liver for dessert. Farmerie presents this dish with a straight face, as though he doesn't expect anyone to blink.
"What is that flavor?" asks a guest, curious, not appalled. No need to reply just yet.