On The Hunt For My Spirit Animal

Me – So I’ve got this idea. I want to make a spirit that will evoke the spirit of the outdoors into anyone that drinks it. I want it to fill their souls with the fire and flavor of their surroundings, to promote good fortune and prosperity for their harvest, life death and everything in between.  Also, I want to use meat…

Jody – I think I know a guy…

And so a few weeks later, on an early afternoon in April, my friend Jody Horton and I found ourselves following Jesse Griffiths and his buddy Cameron Crow down a lost Texas highway just outside of Lockhart. Jesse is a renowned outdoorsman and chef and at Dai Due, Located in Austin, Texas. As a hunter and chef, Jesse has also authored one of my favorite cookbooks, which is centered around his passion for outdoors cuisine aptly named “Afield”. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked about this trip… The road to the ranch was freshly paved, smooth and rolling. The pastures along the countryside were dotted with cattle and the grass was a vibrant green because of all the rain we had this spring. Soon Jesse’s truck started to slow down and we turned right onto a smaller less managed road. After another 2 miles, we turned right, onto an even smaller and even less manged road that squeezed into a corridor of mesquite trees, wildflowers and barbed wire fence that was covered with overgrown, wild grapevines…We are here, I thought to myself.

We pulled up to a gate and Jesse hopped out of the truck to open it. as both cars drove through Jesse held out his hand and bowing like a Victorian gentleman welcomed us into his world… Hog heaven.

We drove up a long winding drive, passing by grazing cattle and donkeys. Just up ahead there was an old barn and a ranch house that looked like they had been built in the early 1900s. As we pulled up to the ranch house and turned off the vehicles,  We all stopped and looked at each other with one raised eyebrow followed by the slow head shake of disapproval.   The rancher that leases the property decided that this would be a good day to mow and clean up the property. What we saw was an extremely loud tractor mowing down all the natural cover and scaring any potential game far away from where we were planning on hunting. Never the less, we got out and were greeted by the ranch house tenant, Adam Levine. I could tell right away that I liked Adam. He was not your usual ranch hand. he was wearing a high crown baseball cap cutoff jean shorts and a Tito’s Vodka T-shirt with a turquoise necklace draped over the top and a big smile on his face.  As we unloaded the gear from the trucks Adam and Cameron taught me about the properties role in Texas history. You see, the ranch house was lying at the end of Plum Creek Road, and this is the site of the Battle of Plum Creek. This was the battle that Texas Rangers, with the help of Tonkawan warriors, put an end to the great raid of Chief Buffalo Hump and his band of Comanches.  There is a graveyard to the far corner of the property. It is overgrown with wild grass and vines but the cut line that the mower left behind avoiding the headstones made it stand out like a sore thumb. Cameron tells me that its inhabitants are the relatives of his kindergarten teacher. The history that this place holds is so close you can taste in the air.

I digress… After our history lesson, we got the kitchen put together. Jody and I collected firewood while Jesse pieced together the old fire pit. In less than the time, it takes to crack pepper we had a fire going. Cameron was sighting in his rifle for tomorrow’s hunt and the sound was another oddly comforting sound adding to the experience. Eventually, The flames diminished, leaving glowing embers and allowing Jesse to lay the dutch oven over the top. Soon the smell of roasted pork and charred banana leaves filled the dry Texas air. Jesse then opens some mason jars filled with pickled onions, salsas, and the other accouterments and places them on the picnic table… We ate, we laughed and we drank irregularly strong cocktails with the gin I had made a few months ago with some cucumber and whatever citrus we had in the cooler. After dinner, as we cleaned the dishes and cookware I poured us some coffee mugs of Lagavulin 9 year. Its one of my favorite whiskeys to drink in the field. It’s oily, smoky brine pairs so well with a fat ridden dinner cooked over an open fire. Shortly after we retired to bed. We needed to be up pretty early in the morning to surprise our prey. I had rolled out my bed on the back porch of the ranch house. After a filling meal, a few drinks and good conversation I fell asleep to coyotes laughing in the far corner of the ranch.

My alarm went off at 4 am. I have to admit, I slept well but I was half awake with anticipation the last hour before the alarm. We all rolled up our beds and prepared to take to the field. The morning was dead calm, the air was cool and the sky was clear. The Stars were electric and the moisture on the ground created a low-level fog that was patchy across the open ranch. There is something euphoric about hunting this early in the morning. I have to think its the little sleep that one gets mixed with the alcohol from the night before. Throw in the fact that your senses are on high alert, your eyes trying to cut through the darkness, your ears sifting through every little movement of grass or grunts from the livestock rustling in the distance. Your mind is literally running overdrive on fumes from the night before.

Jesse and Jody teamed up to walk the south side of the property while Cameron and I made our way for the North. We quietly made our way to a tree in the middle of the pasture and kept quiet. Shortly after sitting there we heard a grunt we both stopped breathing to listen more intently. It grunted again. Cameron shouldered his rifle and scanned the area through his night scope. He then passed it to me without saying anything. I looked through and saw several shadowy figures, some standing some laying down and realized that it was the cattle that grazed the ranch. Apparently, we had woken them up and a few of them were on high alert just like us.

Before long Cameron and I were tired of being absolutely silent. We quietly exchanged stories of each other’s pasts, presents, and passions in life. It’s amazing and peaceful to me the things that we share while in these pristine places. Cam talked about the cemetery that lied right in front of us was the resting place of his mother’s kindergarten teacher and her family dating back to the early 1900’s He had also shared how he had just found out that he was going to be a dad and that he was madly in love with his future wife. Its times like these that I love being outside hunting and fishing with good people and sets as a reminder that hunting is the best way to get to know someone.

As the sun came up we slowly moved towards the house. We saw Jesse and Jody off in the distance doing the same. We all met up at the house with little remorse as there are far worse ways to spend a morning. We surmised that the mowing that occurred the day before was most likely the reasons for not seeing hide nor hair of our commonly seen piggy friends. After a short deliberation, Cameron had a plan B property that just might save the mornings hunt. We quickly packed up and headed back down the highway. After about 30 minutes, we pulled into another low fenced barbed wire pasture. It was about 10 in the morning now and we only had a couple of hours before we all had to be back to take care of our families. We set out on the property this time always on the move. We made our way through tall grass, dry bottom creeks and new oak groves following obvious game paths. Soon we started to see signs of wild pig. There were fresh hoof tracks everywhere, pulled up roots and dirt and scat that looked like had been laid in the last few hours. We moved a little slower, quieter and sure enough, there they were. We could only see a few pigs about 50 yards away. Pigs have an extraordinary sense of smell and will bolt from the unfamiliar scent of a human. The wind was blowing in our face and therefore, in our favor. They had no idea we were walking upon them. We all knelt down and stayed extremely silent. Jesse took full advantage of the wind and walk slowly up to the five yards at a time. 45, 40, 35, 30… in my mind, I am thinking, shoot, shoot, shoot. 25, 20 he is almost on top of them now, Just then he shoulders his rifle, takes his time and fires… The next thing we know there is a sounder of 100 pigs running in front of us just beyond the brush. They seemed to just keep going and going. It was a realization of just how many pigs had taken over this area.

After the commotion, we walked up to Jesse and his prize. He and Jody gave each other a big hug. I could tell this harvest meant a lot to them both. This beast was the last pig Jesse needed to document in order to finish his new book. It was hard work and I think we were all a little worried that the day’s efforts would prove fruitless. That said, we were all stoked that he was able to check it off the list. We did a short inspection and figured it was about a 75-pound boar that was about 9 months old. This was another eye-opener to me.  Besides the fast gestation period of 114 days, these pigs can grow devastatingly large in a fairly short period of time.

It was almost noon and the sun was starting to radiate through the broken shade being cast by the windblown mesquite trees. We had about a mile and a half to get back to the truck, which does not seem fair, but we had to drag this pig back in one piece so that Jody could document the filed dressing and break down of the hog for the book, and the best place to do that was back at the truck. And so, I took off my jacket, tied it around my waist, picked up a hind leg with Jesse grabbing the other, and we proceeded to drag the sack of dead weight through the rough field of cactus and low branches. Every so often we would have to switch sides to give the opposite hand a rest. by the time we were near the truck I thought my hands were going to fall off at the wrist.

Jesse hoisted the pig up on the gambrel as he and Jody went to work. Jesse explained every part of the procedure while Jody photographed every detail. They both worked with such care and intent it was like watching surgeons, Jesse quite literally, cutting and slicing, and Jody manipulating light with his positions and reflectors. I was watching art unfold right in front of me.

with the hunt over and the meat harvested, I now had the vital component that was going to allow me to create my art… TOTEM

TOTEM is an expression consumed to invoke a prosperous harvest and good fortune, to celebrate life, death and everything in between. Made with a proportion of ingredients foraged, harvested and hunted right here in the Texas Hill Country.

As I stated above, TOTEM is meant to be drank for good luck and prosperity. It is meant to be drank as a kind of ritual before the hunting or fishing trip or after to celebrate an outdoors adventure. The way to unlock the power of the spirit is to rim your glass with a local honey that has been collected from the area you plan your adventure. This is what ties the spirit to that land. The bees did the foraging for you in a sense. Then pour the spirit into the cup and light it aflame. The fire awakens the spirit. Blow out the flame, lick the honey and drink your spirit.

TOTEM starts as a base mash of malted barley and passion fruit which is fermented and is distilled 3 times to contribute a more pure liquid. on the third distillation, I added several ingredients that I foraged from the Texas hill country including, peaches, dew, berries, pecans, rosemary,  lavender, bottlebrush leaves, smoked chilies, Grapefruit, and lemons. I then smoked the ham from the hog that we harvested with oak, pecan, and mesquite and hung it in the onion of the still above the boiling botanical infused low wines. As the low wines boil the heat and vapor cook the ham and it renders drippings that drop into the still. Those drippings infuse with the vapor and are carried over into the final distillate.

The concept of TOTEM comes from  Oaxaca, Mexico where mezcaleros make a spirit called Pechuga. Pechuga is mezcal that is infused with fruits nuts, herbs and spices through the distillation. On top of that, the mezcalero or distiller will hang a chicken breast in the still above the mash to add roundness and body to the final spirit more so than the flavor of actual meat. This precious spirit is usually reserved for special occasions and holidays.  To that effect, I set out to create a well-balanced spirit that was to be held in the same regard.

I hope you take TOTEM with you on your next adventure and that this spirit fills your spirit with the spirit of the outdoors.

Until next time, May your rod always be bent and your whiskey straight.

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