Growing up on Sullivan’s Island in the ’70s, my hippie parents enforced minimal boundaries upon me. One of the few strict edicts was toy gun control. Of course, my reaction was the polar opposite of the one they’d intended. In my tiny hands, everything was a weapon in waiting—sticks, Legos, even my grandmother’s cane became my munitions.
At summer camp, I spent an inordinate amount of time on the range, eventually becoming quite the marksman. In high school, I procured a secret BB gun that I used to hone my sniper skills on oblivious models in J.Crew catalogs. It never even dawned on me to shoot an animal.
After college, I became a fishmonger and then a professional cook, before my career veered into arts and design. While I continue to be an ardent renderer of melted porcine products and am comfortable with cooking and even butchering, I never once faced the visceral reality of where that food chain began.
Then, in my thirties, I fell in love with my wife, Leila, and in turn her family from Mer Rouge, Louisiana. The tiny town is a relic, a veritable time machine where hunting is an ingrained part of life—not for trophies but for meat, tradition, and connection to place. Her father was once renowned as the best shot in Morehouse Parish.
We began spending Thanksgiving and Christmas in the Delta, where hunting is as central a component of those holidays as turkey and dressing. As the years passed, no one in the family ever invited me to go hunting, reasonably assuming that an art curator named Buff probably had no desire to participate. But as an omnivore with few dilemmas, I was interested and finally asked to join them.
My father-in-law tested my accuracy in a fallow field while the family watched. After I passed, they offered advice about scent, targeting, and other salient hunting strategies. I couldn’t believe it: I was in! On Thanksgiving Day 2003—lacking any actual camouflage—I donned the brownest outfit I could find: a Quicksilver surfing jacket, khaki pants, and some brown dress shoes. No doubt they snickered as we each tromped off separately into the woods.
I had backpacked my whole life, even soloing for weeks in remote mountains out West. Walking in that day, though, I was struck by a profound difference. Suddenly, in this predatory capacity, the humble little woods seemed to posses the vastness of the Rockies.
My breathing began to slow. The stillness amplified typical forest sounds. You don’t realize the deafening cacophony that a single busy squirrel can generate until you’ve hunted. As I sat and focused on the shadows, I began to see deeper and deeper into the woods than I knew was possible. Reflecting on this unexpected state that I dubbed “Buddha for Bubbas,” I understood that hunting has more to do with yoga than either side of that equation will ever admit.
I was lost in that contemplative moment when a twig snapped. My heart raced as I spotted a buck. I could hear my wife’s voice whispering, “Don’t shoot Bambi!” Heck, I wasn’t sure if I could even pull the trigger, but I did. The deer jumped and disappeared. In that wide-eyed instant, I realized I hadn’t asked a single question about what would happen if I actually shot. Most of my prior hunting knowledge was garnered from Sunday night episodes of Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom. The animal falls in situ, and you just pose for your picture, right?
So I leapt out of the stand and began running full-speed through the swamp. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find the deer. After an hour, with tears welling in my eyes, I located the beast. I offered my gratitude for his sacrifice before turning my focus towards the task of getting a 235-pound deer back to the truck.
I tugged futilely on its hoof; it was far too heavy to be moved that way. Then I grabbed its antlers and slowly, over 30 minutes and a low-blood-sugar crisis, managed to extricate his carcass. At nightfall, my brother-in-law and his sons retrieved me and helped me load my quarry into the pickup. Back at the house, everyone wanted to know, “How many points?” Ignorant of how this game was scored, I exclaimed, “Four!” After an initial shoulder slug from Leila for killing an immature deer, I was informed that you get to count both sides of the rack.
An eight-point buck! My proud father-in-law jumped on his CB to alert the parish. Rituals were performed—some blood smearing and a little prayer. At 35, I was experiencing a rite of passage usually reserved for 16-year-olds. It didn’t matter. I marinated the backstrap in buttermilk and herbs for three days before preparing it for family and friends. The meat didn’t taste any different, but for the first time, I knew where it had come from.