Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Chucker

Everyone who has ever hunted chucker could sign their name at the bottom of this story, and no one would doubt they wrote it.  I heard it many times before my first (and only) chucker hunt, and I’ve heard it many times since.  The only way to hunt chucker effectively is in one’s dreams.

Bird hunting was usually an afterthought for me.  Fishing was always first on my list, and hunting was a second choice.  In the category of hunting, deer hunting was first, elk came in second, and at the very bottom of the list was bird hunting somewhere below rabbit hunting, squirrel hunting, and ‘possum hunting.  I was good with a shotgun, but I preferred single projectile hunting.

I was visiting a company store in Arizona one year and the store’s manager invited me on a quail hunt.  Okay, but I didn’t have a shotgun with me.  No problem.  The store manager had one I could borrow, if I didn’t mind using a twenty-gauge.  If I am going to bird hunt, I prefer a twenty-gauge, so the hunt was on.  We finished our work, and made plans for the next morning.

Lanny picked me up at my hotel about 3:30 the next morning and we drove about two hours to a valley where he said his family had farmed and ranched since the 1870’s.  Apparently they were the target of various raids by the people who occupied the land before them, but they had managed to remain and build generations of family.  Now the family just used the old farmhouse as a weekend retreat and hunting lodge.

We arrived with the sky growing light in the east, and I really enjoyed watching the valley come alive as the first rays of light met up with the lush green meadows and hillsides.  The stream running through the middle of it made me wish I had brought along my fishing equipment.  I thought this was a fantasy world—a painting that became a reality.  But this wasn’t where we were going to hunt.  This was where we were stopping for breakfast.

After a breakfast that was the dream of every Texan, we drove over to another nearby valley, and the contrast between the two valleys was indescribable.  The second valley was definitely a desert.  The cacti were everywhere, grass was nonexistent, and every bush had a rattlesnake under it.  This was where we were going to hunt.

The quail were running everywhere, and we kept the dogs busy for several hours as we gained our limit.  But I kept noticing another bird, and finally I asked about it.  Lanny bit his lower lip and looked down at the ground for a while before responding.

“They’re chucker.”

“Can we hunt them?”

“Only once.”

“Just once?  Why just once?”

“I’d rather not say.”

I couldn’t get anything more out of Lanny about the chucker, but as I traveled about the country, I began asking about chucker hunting.  I heard the same story over and over and over about how they are the mathematicians of the bird world.  They examine the type of shotgun one is carrying, the chokes, and the loads, They then watch the speed one is walking and calculate how fast they have to run uphill to stay just out of the range of the pellets.

Yeah, right.  But it took a long time for me to find someone who would join me for a chucker hunt.  At last I found someone.  $300 for the day (1971), plus food and beverages.  And fuel.  A dog would be $100 extra.

The hunt was back in Arizona, not too far from where I had been quail hunting with Lanny the year before.  This time I was much more prepared with snake guards and my own twenty-gauge.  Rhonda (the guide) suggested I use magnum #6 shot and a full choke.  He (yes, the name was Rhonda) also suggested I train by wearing heavy boots with 5 pound ankle weights and run up several flights of stairs four or five times a day for a couple of months before the hunt.

I felt stupid wearing a suit with heavy boots and ankle weights, but I did it anyway, and I’m glad I did.  As anyone who has ever hunted chucker knows, these birds always run uphill.  No matter how fast or slow a hunter is, the birds will always be about 50 to 60 yards ahead—running uphill.  I climbed those hills so much that day, my next stop could easily have been the top of Mt. Everest

Each time the birds reached the top of the hill, they would fly up into the air above my head and settle back down at the bottom the hill—always 50 to 60 yards from me.  I was glad for the magnum loads for the few shots I was able to take, but it was only for the birds that were behind in their mathematics homework.  I took about a dozen shots at chucker who strayed within 50 yards, and four of them went home with me.  But I must say it was a very tough day.


About 3 o’clock I had had enough.  I was hot, tired, thirsty, dirty, and frustrated.  I had encountered so many cacti that I had as many thorns as any of them.  I don’t remember ever having wasted so much money for such a small return on my investment.  And I now understood why Lanny didn’t want to talk about hunting chucker.  No one wants to be outsmarted by a bird with a Ph.D. in mathematics. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Charlie’s Ribs

My Uncle Charlie made very good pork ribs, but I didn’t realize this until just before I moved away from Texas.  From time to time I would hear of plans for a family gathering where Charlie was going to be the cook, and I was never able to join in on one of these feasts until just a few months before my departure.  I had been to many feasts over the years, just not one where Charlie was cooking.
 
Charlie had married one of my grandmother’s sisters, and they owned a lake home next door to my grandparents.  In their back yard was a large brick barbeque pit my grandfather (a brick mason specializing in barbeque pits) had built for them.  I knew it was there, but I had never seen it used, and I always thought it was going to waste.  Little did I know, when Charlie cooked, it was all about the barbeque.
 
We didn’t have pork very often in our family.  It was usually too expensive for us, so we raised our chickens, and a steer from time to time.  In my travels with the company I worked for, I began to appreciate barbeque in forms other than beef and chicken, with pork being one of my great surprises.  When I joined in for what would be my last big family gathering, I was astounded to see Charlie cooking pork ribs on that barbeque.
 
The air was filled with the fragrance of pork scented post oak smoke, and my stomach decided it was time to eat right now, but Charlie knew what he was doing and there would be no rushing the ribs to completion.  The process took nearly 5 hours, and Charlie wouldn’t even consider shaving off just a single minute of time.  He would serve them perfectly cooked, or he would throw them away.  Simple as that.  So I waited.
 
My grandmother and her sisters knew just what to do for everyone while we waited.  At about 30 minute intervals, something was set out for everyone to nibble on and give us some momentary distraction.  A few fried oysters, a plate of cheese and crackers, some Fritos with Dog Food Dip, roasted nuts, and even some fried pies.  But nothing stopped the hunger.  As long as we could smell the ribs cooking, we were hungry.
 
About three hours or so into the process, Charlie raised the big lid on the barbeque and pulled out all 30 racks of ribs and laid them onto a big table beside the pit.  I thought it was time to eat, but NoOo.  He grabbed a big paint brush to coat the ribs with his special sauce before placing them back in the pit for another 2 hours.  I actually thought he was doing this just to tease me.  He knew those ribs were done enough to eat at that point, and he knew that I knew it also, but back into the pit they went.
 
When those ribs were finally finished, Charlie removed them to a cutting board where I was given the job of cutting them in half to serve.  That meant I had the privilege of sampling each rack to make certain there was nothing wrong with it.  I took my job seriously.
 
I have never forgotten those ribs, and they are still the standard by which I judge all pork ribs.  I’ve had good pork ribs from many places over the many years since that day, and some were every bit the equal of Charlie’s ribs, but none have ever been better.  His were simple ribs with a slightly complex basting sauce, but they were pull apart tender, and never ever touched by a flame.
 
This takes a big grill for indirect cooking, but the best way to go is with a large offset smoker.
 
 
Charlie’s Ribs
Serves 6 to 8
 
    2 quarts or more oak chips, chunks, or logs if possible
    1/2 cup Kosher salt
    1 tablespoon fresh coarse-ground black pepper
    1 1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
    12 pounds meaty pork loin back ribs (4 to 6 racks)
    Charlie’s Sauce (recipe follows)
 
Soak oak chips or chunks (not logs) in water to cover for 30 minutes up to 1 hour.  Drain well.
 
Prepare a charcoal grill by lighting fire at one end only or in the offset box of a smoker.  When coals turn white, spread about 1/3 of the oak over the coals.  Bring the temperature to 250F.
 
In a small bowl, mix together salt, black pepper, and red pepper for dry rub.
 
Remove the membrane from the backside of the ribs and pat the dry rub into the ribs.  Place on the grill away from the fire.  Cover and smoke 3 hours, maintaining the temperature at about 225F to 250F and turning ribs every hour; add more soaked chips every hour.
 
After 3 hours baste both sides of the ribs with Charlie’s Sauce.  Cover and cook until very tender, basting and turning occasionally, about 1 ½ to 2 hours.  Cut ribs in half to serve.
 
Charlie’s Sauce
Makes about 5 cups.
 
    1 tablespoon mild smoked paprika
    2 teaspoons ground black pepper
    2 teaspoons chili powder (use Pendry’s if you can find it, otherwise use Gebhardt’s)
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1 tablespoon bacon drippings (or melted butter)
    1 medium onion, finely chopped
    4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
    1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
    1 cup beer (Shiner Bock, Tecate, or Original Coors)*
    1/4 cup ketchup
    1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
    1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
    2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
    ¼ cup steak sauce (I like Heinz, but A1 is also good)
    2 tablespoons light brown sugar
    Hot sauce to taste
    2 cups beef stock
 
Mix the paprika, black pepper, chili powder, and cumin in a small bowl.
 
In a one or two quart saucepan, melt the bacon drippings or butter and slowly cook the onion over medium heat until translucent.
 
Add the garlic, bell pepper, and the spice mix. Stir, and cook for about four to five minutes, and then add the stock and the rest of the ingredients. Stir until well blended. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 to 30 minutes, then place in a blender.  Process until somewhat smooth.  Use as a basting sauce for pork ribs.  Can also be warmed and served on the side for dipping.  (Since it has not been used on raw ribs, the same sauce used for basting can be used for dipping.)
 
*Charlie originally used Griesedieck Beer until the mid- or late-fifties.  At that time he switched to Falstaff Beer, and sometime in the mid-sixties he started using Jax Beer.  When Jax Brewery closed the doors, he switched to Pearl.  Good luck finding that.  Original Coors brings the recipe close to Charlie’s original taste, but I like to use Shiner Bock when I can find it.  Otherwise I use Tecate.  I’ve tried many beers over the years, but most don’t taste right in this recipe.  Stick with Shiner Bock, Tecate, or Original Coors, and you won’t be disappointed.
 
 
Dog Food Dip
Makes about 6 to 7 cups.
 
    2 tablespoons canola oil
    2 pounds ground beef
    1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
    1 cup roasted corn kernels
    1 (10 3/4-ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
    1 pound cubed Velveeta cheese
    1/2 cup chopped pickled jalapeno chilies, well drained
 
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat.  Cook the beef with the onions until the beef is browned and the onions are soft and translucent.  Drain the excess fat and oil, but leave the beef and onions in the skillet.  Add the roasted corn and stir for 1 minute.
 
Stir in the mushroom soup, and then mix in the Velveeta and jalapenos.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until everything is well blended, 10 to 12 minutes.
 
Can be served immediately, but the flavor improves if covered and placed in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight and slowly reheated before serving.  A small slow cooker works perfect for this.  If the dip has thickened too much, add some water two or three teaspoons at a time and mix well.  It’s easy to over thin this, so add the water slowly, mix well, and wait before adding more.
 
This is perfect with big Fritos, but taco chips also work well.  Potato chips just don’t cut it.  And something simply isn’t right about celery sticks.  In a pinch, just use a spoon.