Tradition of hunting and wild game cuisine with Preston Wilson
By Ford Walpole
“Well, first of all, the way I was raised — you don’t pull the trigger on anything you aren’t going to put on your plate! That’s why I won’t be hunting Cape buffalo in Africa any time soon,” declares Preston Wilson, as he highlights the Lowcountry sporting heritage’s sacred union between harvest and feast.
Wilson’s baptism in both aspects of pursuing and preparing wild game took place on Cat Island in the Santee Delta. The property, which is now part of the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center, was then owned by Mary Morris and Bill Phelps, who eluded Northern winters on the island from November through February. Preston’s mother Adele and his aunt Sally Daniels were connected to the property through a distant relation on the Simons side of the family. Sally’s husband, George Daniels, hunted Cat Island and took along his nephew when exploring and appreciating the bounty of the place.
Sometimes, they stayed with the Phelps at Black Out, “ … a big, rambling house that had been painted black to camouflage it from German submarines during World War II. We also stayed at Penfold, an old cinderblock house nearby.” The island is home to an antebellum rice chimney, and Preston recalls discovering old hoes in the yard and open fields around the old house. A Confederate battery overlooks Winyah Bay, and all sorts of unique indigenous plants thrive on the island. Black Out and Penfold have since been razed, and all that endures of the former is the chimney, boot warmer box and marble bar.
On Cat Island, Wilson had access to 300 acres of rice fields for duck hunting, and the surrounding woods likewise provided ample opportunities to still-hunt for deer. “My cousins were off at boarding school, so I helped Uncle George get the place ready for hunting,” Preston says. “We went up during early fall to get the blinds ready. This involved repairing and replacing the chicken wire in the 14 or so duck blinds and re-threading it with palmetto fronds and marsh grass.”
The Phelps employed a full-time staff, who lived on the place. Ben Willie Richardson managed the property. Routine farm tasks included planting rye for winter cover and overseeing the flooding of the rice fields to encourage the growth of native grasses such as widgeon grass and spike rush. Ben Willie’s wife Mildred prepared meals, which imprinted the palate of a young Preston Wilson. “The Richardsons had children of their own, which my father, Dr. Fraser Wilson, delivered, and they also fostered additional children, all of whom were very successful,” says Preston.
“Ben Willie was an educated man, and he had also managed Kinlaw Plantation and South Island. He knew the Santee Delta like the back of his hand. Not long before he died, my cousin George Daniels, my brother Fraser, and I visited him. I am so glad I was able to make that reconnection with him, as he had a profound influence on my life growing up on Cat Island.”
Cat Island rice fields, which would later be destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, then beckoned a wide variety of ducks including ringnecks, teal, canvasbacks, mallards, widgeon and a lot of pintails. “If the weather was cold enough, we usually let the ducks hang whole for three or four days to naturally tenderize before we cleaned them. Mrs. Phelps used to say that the English let their ducks hang until they actually fell from their hooks,” Wilson says.
“My first recollection of eating wild game was when I was 12 or 13 years old. I distinctly remember eating seared wild duck breast, and it was the best thing I had ever put in my mouth; those ducks were so plump, juicy, and tender! They also cooked venison steaks on Cat Island, and I remember really liking those steaks, too.”
Years later, Preston moved to Boston, where he gained experience in hospital administration and completed a graduate program at Harvard. He began missing his native Lowcountry, and he cultivated a spiritual appreciation for its culture of game and seafood. When he came home to visit family and hunt, Wilson likewise savored the cuisine of his homeland. “When I got on the airplane to go back to Boston, I carried a hot and cold bag filled with barbecue, duck breasts, fresh collards, shrimp, boiled peanuts and liver pudding from Marvin’s Meats. I brought the Lowcountry back with me to Boston, and I started cooking for my roommates and friends,” he says.
In 1992, Preston returned to South Carolina, settling in Florence in the old Claussen family plantation house on two and a half acres. “I immediately put in a big vegetable garden and joined a hunting club,” he declares. “Rain or shine, every Thursday night, except Thanksgiving, everybody in the Pack Hunting Club took turns cooking for the 25 to 30 members. When you have to feed the masses like that, you start getting creative. My first time, I bought a tin of coleslaw from Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I cooked chicken bog and grilled pork chops.
“When we lived in Florence, I hunted doves and deer, and I worked my big vegetable garden with a tractor. I had access to seafood an hour away. At that point, I really sort of turned on my cooking and really got myself involved with it. Jack Hitt wrote an article in Gourmet Magazine featuring Dickie Reynolds and me as representatives of the Pee Dee. I prepared a venison tenderloin on the grill, and Dickie made a chicken and sausage bog. From there, we were launched into notoriety! Well, not really,” Wilson laughs.
“I am pretty much self-taught; it’s all trial and error,” Preston says of his amateur culinary skills. “I just enjoy learning and experimenting with new dishes and testing them out with my people; it’s an experience best shared with friends and family. I’ll put my shrimp and grits up against any restaurant in town,” Preston declares. Some years ago, he penned an article for the Mercury on “Big Dam venison and rutabaga stew,” a delicacy named for Big Dam Plantation, Wilson’s 425-acre hunting property on the Black River in western Georgetown County. In addition, Preston was featured on ‘Traditional Wild America,’ “cooking duck breasts in the Santee Delta with Cousin Gus Smythe.”
Preston’s personal favorites include grilled venison and pan-seared swordfish with a reduction sauce of mangos, olives and capers. Since we are in the midst of duck season, he generously shares his recipe for his signature duck and sausage pilau. “Take duck breasts, and place them in a Dutch oven with water, seasoning, and bouillon. Let them simmer until they begin to shred and take them out. Slice up a bunch of sausage or polish kielbasa, and cook that, and remove when finished cooking; I personally prefer sweet Italian sausage. Then, sauté onions and peppers, and throw in rice with the appropriate amount of water. After that, you add back in the shredded duck breasts, sausage and diced mushrooms, and proceed as though you are cooking a pot of rice.”
The cast iron of a Dutch oven heats and cooks evenly, and the seasoned vessel preserves the history of past meals. “For Christmas,” Preston goes on, “I made red rice in the Dutch oven for the first time. I cooked sausage, sautéed peppers and onions, and took everything out of the Dutch oven. I then added four cups of rice and eight cups of water and tomato paste. I brought the rice to a boil, put it on the low burner, added back all of the ingredients, and let it simmer for 20 minutes. It turned out pretty good!
“Everybody likes to eat,” Preston continues. “And I like cooking for people, preparing a nice meal, and enjoying the fellowship that follows. I love cold winter days when a fire is going, and you’re in the kitchen talking and drinking as the smells are wafting through the house. For me, that is why I like to hunt and fish and cook. It’s not just one aspect, but everything that goes along with it.
“So many of these Lowcountry dishes — take Hoppin’ John, for example — are not just meals but traditions. If somebody cares enough to take the time to teach you how to cook traditional meals, it’s a gesture of love that needs to be preserved. Healing people, teaching people and feeding people are three of the most noble acts you can do for others.”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.