Good Lord, it was 4am and I was already late. Puffy-eyed and tripping over my barely laced hunting boots, I crawled into the cab of John’s pick-up truck. I laid my shot gun on the floor and put my picnic basket on the seat; its savory aromas immediately filling the car and making John’s bird dogs hungry with anticipation. This, after all, is what Labradors live for: opening day of bird season. As we made our way further into northern California, John, a passionate hunter, regaled me with stories of his most recent, boys-only deer hunting trek. Seems he scored his one allotted buck on the first day of a ten day trip in the High Sierras with his bow and arrow. I slowly awakened in the front seat, sipping my Jasmine Pearl tea and looking out onto the still-dark flatlands of orchards and wheat fields, while imagining John, dirty and restless, on the remaining 9 days of his expedition.
We arrived into the agricultural town of Dunnigan, California well before sunrise, the official and natural start of the season. In the shadows, I was able to make out yards strewn with rusty farm equipment and cinderblock fences. We met up with the rest of the group, a dozen men and women, many of whom were members of the California Department of Fish and Game and all enthusiastic hunters and environmentalists. Each can rattle off species of trees and breeds of birds and bees before they even come into clear focus. And each is a great shot. I was privileged to be in such expert company.
Our motley group was granted access to a private ranch through a friend-of-a-friend. After greeting one another and petting our hounds, as many of us had not seen each other since the previous year’s dove opener, we scattered ourselves amongst the hundreds of acres and awaited the first light of day. I huddled into the arms of an enormous oak tree, shielding my bulky silhouette from sight. I was glad to have the warmth of my heavy hunting jacket, a hand-me-down gift from a friend who had recently traded up to a Barbour, a fancy English hunting coat. I tried to acclimate my eyes, looking into the dusk for darting birds and listening determinedly for the flapping of tiny wings. I could smell the cool earth, recently plowed on the neighboring farm and hear the distant screech of roosters greeting the day. The wafting pungent smell of good California ganja from my fellow hunter’s pipe put me into a reverie. I immediately regretted being momentarily transported, as the first flight of doves whizzed over my head, only to be knocked out of the sky further down field by a more attentive hunter.
As the red brush strokes of sky changed to orange and then to pink, the morning came quickly. The thumping of gunfire, both near and far, signaled the arrival of dove, ironically the bird of peace, as my many appalled friends had reminded me weeks prior to this early morning. I took aim and shot at many more of the tiny birds than I actually hit, although I managed to bag my limit of ten before midmorning. Overly excited, the dogs quickly retrieved the birds as they fell into the tall grasses and long before the ravenous ground squirrels were able to drag them into their dark dens.
I returned to the truck, my hunting jacket shedding feathers and my pockets brimming with spent shells. (I’m frankly embarrassed to admit just how many shells I went through to knock my ten small birds out of the sky). Most of my fellow hunter-gatherers were already situated in a circle, propped on their three-legged hunting stools, removing the dove’s feathers and trading stories about the ones that got away. The ranch property is surrounded by almond orchards and sunflower fields and the craws of the little birds revealed slivers of almonds and sunflower seeds; a testament to their incredible diet and our good fortune at being able to to hunt such marvelously situated land.
When the birds were finally picked clean and laid to rest on beds of ice, we opened coolers and picnic baskets to share our morning repast. Freshly pounded abalone from a recent dive was served alongside pears picked the prior evening. Crispy fried chicken and fresh figs with proscuitto found a place on the tailgates along with a succulent blackberry galette. Cold beer and cheap white wine were enjoyed until the bottles were drained. I brought an enormous fennel salumi I smuggled in from London’s Burrough Market and washed rind cheeses from Sonoma Valley. As I sliced several pieces from the hunk of charcouterie, I noticed my dirty, blood-stained hands; as much a badge of honor as purple mits are to the winemaker or dirt-caked fingers to the farmer.
Home by midday, I slipped the small bodies into a marinade and was grateful for a hot, cleansing shower. Later that evening, I sparked up the grill and pulled the cork on a mature, Italian Barolo. I carefully wiped the excess marinade from each bird and lavished them with salt and pepper. They were patiently cooked over a low flame until the skin was crisp and just beginning to pull away from the flesh. Each breast yielded only one, sanguine bite, made all the more precious by intense flavors of earth and game. With great appreciation, the birds of peace were silently savored. Following dinner, the carcass’ were made into richly dense stock which will again nourish during the cold winter months ahead.