I have an old friend, Crow Dickinson, who was called the “Dean” of the NH House of Representatives, as he was the longest-standing legislator in the House with 32 years of consecutive terms. He was first elected in 1974 and served until his retirement in 2006. Crow was also instrumental in helping the NH midwives get our first ever in the country Board of Midwifery that is a state licensing agency that regulates the practice of midwifery. Crow was the New Hampshire midwives’ staunchest champion.
Crow is a true Yankee blueblood, New Hampshire’s version of aristocracy. Crow’s real name is Howard but he is called Crow because, well, he actually looks like a crow. He is a huge man with white hair and a hooked beak, and he has the habit of tipping his head sideways with an intense beady-eyed expression when he thinks someone is bullshitting him. He looks exactly like a crow that has spied something shiny or is honing in on some road kill.
After his infamous stint in the legislature, Crow retired to his antique cape in the North Country and his 1000-acre kingdom on a mountaintop with majestic views of snow-capped Mount Washington in the background. Crow is also a life-long avid hunter and gun collector.
One day in late Fall, Crow asked me if I would like to go pheasant hunting with him. I said, “Sure!” I would love to have some game birds in my freezer.
Crow picked me up before dawn on a freezing cold day. I dressed in many layers of warm clothing that I’d scrounged and we set off in his funky old Bronco full of firearms. He gave me a tutorial about the etiquette of shooting in what he described as a “well-designed driven shoot.” I had previously been given some pistol shooting lessons with a friend who was a pro at the local firing range, so I was fairly confident of my aim.
We drove several towns over to an exclusive “members only” sporting club that provided their own birds. When we got there, a couple dozen men and a few women were standing around a bar drinking coffee and talking about ammo. I felt a little out of place, so I wandered around looking at all the stuffed/taxidermy animal specimens that lined every wall. I was beginning to wonder if this was such a sane idea.
The “shoot” consisted of a very large, irregular circle with 12 shooting stations around the perimeter that had 2 guns (people) to each peg. Crow and I walked to our first shooting position and waited until an air-horn blasted loudly announcing that birds were being released from a platform in the center and it was time to load. By the time I was loaded, all the birds had soared over my head and were probably safely nesting and raising their young in Hillsboro by the time I was ready to shoot them. With the next air-horn blast, it was time to unload and walk to the next station.
I was shooting one of Crow’s favorite guns, a Benelli 20 gauge automatic that shot 3-inch shells of #6 birdshot. It was a really nice looking sleek, sexy black shotgun. I was finally getting a little faster at loading and actually took a few pot shots at birds that flew frantically toward the perimeter of the circle as 24 people blasted away at them.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM-BLAM!
I was trying to look up to see the birds as torrents of birdshot came raining down into my eyes and face. I felt like I would be eating gunpowder and grit for the next three weeks.
The “money bird,” which was a gorgeous male pheasant with a strip of neon surveyor’s tape tied to its leg, flew past us and Crow shot him in a heartbeat. This meant Crow got the prize of $250 for that special bird—which also meant now his expenses were even for sponsoring me. I was getting really excited.
At the next station, when the air-horn blasted, I quickly reached into my pocket to get a bunch of shells to re-load. My heart was pounding. Without looking, I dropped the shells in the chamber.
Just as I was about to raise the Benelli, Crow screamed at me.
“Whoa! Whoa! WHOA! What the hell was that?!?”
He grabbed my gun and unloaded it. He had been watching me out of the corner of his beady, avian eye. Out popped my Dr. Pepper Lip Smacker lip-gloss—which happened to be about the same size as a 3-inch shell—and which also happened to be in my coat pocket at the same time.
“Jesus Christ, Leonard, you’re about to get us both killed.”
Moral of the story: Never put your lipstick in the same pocket as your ammo.
On the very last peg, a beautiful male ring-neck flew right in front of me at the perfect height and I squeezed the trigger and down he came. I couldn’t believe it. I turned to Crow and grinned. This was the nuts!
At the end of the shoot, everyone re-convened at the bar for shots of whiskey and cigars. There were lots of inflated stories of skill and bravado, camaraderie and much guffawing and posturing.
When it came time to leave, I wanted to take my bird home to cook him. There was a pile of pheasants outside about four feet high. I was astounded. I asked Crow; didn’t people take their birds home to eat them? He said some did…most didn’t. The dog handlers took a few of the best birds. I was appalled. I picked through the pile to find the birds that were the most intact and with the least amount of birdshot in them. I found eight beautiful birds that I claimed for my own and brought them home with me.
When I got them home, I skinned them by using the old Yankee method of removing the whole pelt instead of plucking. Here’s how you do it: Place the bird on its back and spread the wings out and step on the “armpits” of the bird. Place your toes right where the wing joins the body. Firmly grasp the legs and pull and the whole pelt of feathers slides off easily, like removing your overcoat. This way you have a clean, skinless breast. Then you just have to cut off the wings and clean out the innards.
One time I cooked a Guinea fowl hen that I had raised. I decided to roast her and I placed her in a pan with two strips of bacon crossed in an X over her breast. When I took her out of the oven she had shrunk down to the size of a canary. It reminded me of the scene in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane where Bette Davis served her sister, Anne Bancroft, her sister’s pet parrot that she had roasted. Totally disgusting.
This time I decided I would cook these birds by pan frying them and then simmering them to keep them as moist as possible. Here’s the recipe I made up:
Wild Pheasant in Sour Cream
2 pheasants (about 3 lbs. each), quartered
Coarse cracked black pepper
Unbleached white flour
¼ C (or more as needed) extra virgin olive oil
4 smashed garlic cloves
1 can low sodium chicken broth
1 bottle of good Chardonnay (1 C for the birds and
the rest for drinking while cooking)
1 t dried rosemary
1 pint low fat sour cream
Rinse the pheasants, pat dry. Sprinkle lightly with pepper, then dredge in flour, shaking off excess. Heat about 3 T of the EVOO in a Dutch oven; add the pheasant, a few pieces at a time, and brown well on all sides. As pieces are browned, set them aside. Add more oil if needed. Drink a glass of wine.
When all the pheasant is browned, add the garlic to the pot and stir until golden, then blend in broth, wine, rosemary. Return the pheasants to the pot, bring juices to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until meat is tender when pierced, about 2 to 2 ½ hours. Transfer pheasant to a warm serving platter, keep warm. Drink another glass of wine.
Boil pan juices over high heat. Sprinkle with 1 T flour, then whisk sour cream into pan juices. Cook, stirring, until heated through. Spoon sauce over individual servings. Finish the bottle.
Serve with wild rice. Makes 4 servings. Open another bottle of wine for the “guests.”
Out of respect for the spirit of the birds, I wanted to make use of them as much as possible, so I decided to make the stunningly beautiful pelts of the males into hats (the hens were too drab). I chose three of the most breathtaking pelts for their iridescent colors of green and bronze and black and gold. I salted the skin side of the pelts thickly with coarse kosher salt. Salt kills off any bacteria that may be festering on the fleshy side of the skin that has been exposed. Also, salt dehydrates the flesh and blocks further growth of bacteria by eliminating moisture.
I draped the salted pelts skin-side down over overturned mixing bowls. I left them to dry for about three weeks, salting them again a couple more times. The pelts dried into perfect head-size rounds. I found some felt caps that I stitched the feather pelts onto. The results were unbelievably gorgeous. I had three of the most beautiful feather hats in all the world. I was making plans to visit the sporting camp on a regular basis to scrounge the left behind birds to make into chapeaus. I could sell these in Manhattan in a heartbeat!
I wore my pheasant hat all the time for about a month. I got tons of compliments—especially when I said I made it myself. One day, as I was wearing my hat, Tom was peering at me intently. I thought maybe he was thinking how beautiful I looked.
I asked coyly, “Are you bedazzled by my sheer beauty?”
He replied, “Ah, no, not exactly, honey. I’m pretty sure you are sporting a head full of maggots.”