Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Food for the Soul

Story Birney Imes | Photographs Luisa Porter

On a Wednesday afternoon in late August, Jack Hendricks, 67, was working alone at Magowah, the private shooting club in Lowndes County where he has been pit master for eight or nine years.

A tall, strapping man with an easy smile, Hendricks, pulled up the lid of the pit to show off the 40 Boston butts and 12 lamb hams he had been nursing since 2:30 that morning. The offered sample of the darkened meat was succulent and imbued with flavor that only comes from slow cooking over charcoal.

Hendricks watched wordlessly with a knowing smile as the visitor sampled his wares. He’s been helping and learning from other cooks here since he was a teenager.

Hendricks’ forte, though — the food he has raised a family on — is venison. He and his wife Earnestine have eight grown children.

“That’s what they growed up on,” said Hendricks, “and if you see any of them, you know they didn’t miss any meals.”

Eating wild game was a way of life in the Prairie, said Hendricks. When he was a boy — a time before deer were plentiful — Hendricks hunted rabbits and raccoons with his father. They used tap sticks, a 3-foot long stick with a metal bolt attached to one end.

“When a dog jumps a rabbit, you throw that stick and knock it down,” he said. “I used to tote three of them, and I was good, too.”

Deer are plentiful now, says Hendricks. “You could kill a deer every day.”

Hendricks said he kills about nine to 10 deer a year (with a .270 Remington). He feeds his family and supplies elderly neighbors and members of his church with venison. All three of his sons hunt.

He used to dress and process his kill; now he takes it to a processor who makes hamburger, link sausage, summer sausage and tenderloin.

Hendricks, who learned to cook standing in the kitchen holding on to his mother’s apron strings, sums up his cooking philosophy in three words: “Do not rush.”

“If you ain’t got the patience, ain’t no need of you going into the kitchen,” he said.

Michael Bennett, an Ohio native, began deer hunting after moving to Columbus to take a job with Humbolt Products in the mid-1970s. Bennett echoes Hendricks’ assertion that deer populations have grown plentiful.

“The equipment has gotten so much better, too, all the way from the calls, the scents, the camouflage; it makes it easier to kill deer.”

Bennett, who hunts with a group, said he’s in the woods four times a week during deer season.

“There are trophy hunters, and there are meat hunters,” he said. “I’m a meat hunter.”

Bennett and his friends do their own processing. After dressing the deer, quartering and aging it for about a week in a refrigerator, he debones the meat, removes the fat — unlike beef, venison fat is undesirable; it imparts a gamey taste — and then cuts the meat into small steaks. He then runs the steaks through a tenderizer, shrink-wraps and freezes them.

Before grilling, Bennett sprinkles the steaks with lemon-pepper seasoning and douses them liberally with La Choy soy sauce. He puts them in a plastic container and lets them marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

He grills the small steaks about two minutes on each side.

“People don’t believe me when I tell them it’s venison,” Bennett said.

The golden rule of cooking venison, any wild-game chef will tell you, is don’t let the meat dry out.

“Deer ain’t nothing but lean,” said Hendricks, “straight lean. You’ve got to put some grease or oil on it or it’s going to dry out.”

Henderson marinates his venison in Italian dressing.

He favors the tenderloin, which he bakes as a roast with potatoes, carrots, onions and gravy; wrapped in bacon or battered and fried in a skillet.

On holidays like the Fourth of July, Hendricks cooks for a crowd of family and friends he hosts at his home on Whispering Pines Road in south Lowndes County.

“You’d think we’re cooking for an army,” he said. “Boston butts, ribs. We like to cook out here.”

Slow and easy, to be sure.