By Jeremy Walther
Photography by Jody Horton
To some people, hunting is a sport, in which winners and losers were determined by the evolutionary development of a trigger finger. It’s a cultural tradition, as deeply ingrained as church on Sundays and stadium lights on Friday nights. And that’s how it started for Chris Barker, who’s been killing animals for food his entire life.
“I remember very clearly the first animal I killed,” he recalls.
“This occasion was also my first time to shoot a real rifle, a .270, and I didn’t have the slightest inkling of what I was in for. I’m surprised it didn’t rip my arm out of [its] socket.”
Barker was a nine-year-old growing up in Kerrville at the time, and in a life stage still represented by fading innocence and a growing desire to be mistaken for a much older kid.
“I felt really bad for the deer; its big brown eyes just looked so peaceful and full of life. I did not talk to my uncle about it at the time. I was trying to be a big boy. I just didn’t know how to process the emotional complexities of killing. It was just too heavy.”
During his high school years, hunting became more of a social exercise for Barker—something to do because it was cool. But in college, his view on hunting shifted dramatically. He started thinking about food and where it came from. Interested in the realities of the commercial meat, dairy and fishing industries, Barker did some casual investigating and became repulsed—enough to drastically change his lifestyle.
“I began following a strict vegan diet supported by the probably-unhealthy combination of beer, tacos and cereal,” he says with a laugh.
And then a funny thing happened.
“Although I felt that the commercialized supply of meat was carried out in a repulsive manner, the cornerstone of my qualms rested in a belief that animals are sentient, intelligent beings. As these thoughts grew and developed, a somewhat surprising, and potentially contradictory, outcome emerged: I felt no moral conflict with hunting and fishing.”
Barker’s thinking further developed after he graduated from college. “I moved to Durango, Colorado, where I met some folks attempting to turn a ranch into a center for sustainability,” he explains. “We tried to emulate a balance between food production and land stewardship. These types of farms gave me great encouragement—a hope that small, local, ethically run farms could turn a profit and raise food for their local communities. And it also helped me realize how hunting can be an important part of that.”
Now married to his wife, Celeste, and back in Kerrville with two young children of his own, Barker hunts and fishes regularly.
“My five-year-old daughter is very quick to let me know if I miss a spot when we clean and process a deer that I’ve shot,” he says. “She and her brother know that if we eat pastrami, it came from a cow just like their favorite calf, White Spit Spot. Connection with our local food is empowering, and, for me, it offers an important connection with life, death and our inevitable involvement.”
Barker’s self-developed notions might be original and personal, but they’re certainly not uncommon. The desire to make a meaningful connection with food is driving a new trend in Central Texas—one that extends beyond the waving rows of vegetables and fruit trees at local farms and into our rolling, wooded hills and bountiful streams, rivers and lakes.
Mindfully and sustainably harvesting and processing one’s own wild game has quickly found its way into the burgeoning food culture, and the growing movement is attracting followers from a rainbow of demographics—men, women, young, old, rural and urban—as more and more seek a DIY approach to our area’s abundance of white-tailed deer, doves, catfish, squirrels, rabbits, ducks, geese and wild turkeys, as well as naturalized exotics like axis deer and feral hogs.
Marshall Wright was raised in the South, and his father-in-law used to hunt, but until recently, that was the extent of his history with hunting. Yet Wright is a strong supporter of the local food movement and area farmers, and regularly buys produce at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown—not only to boost the local economy, but also to improve the distal relationship our culture has with food. A devout meat lover, Wright decided that learning to sustainably hunt and process meat and fish seemed like a natural next step to being a locavore.
“I attended a Texas Parks and Wildlife [TPWD] class on hunter education, and a second on hunting field skills,” says Wright. “These workshops helped me understand the safety concerns with hunting, but also taught me that possessing a firearm and purchasing a hunting license doesn’t make you a hunter. It can be more cerebral than that…and should be more cerebral than that.”
After the workshops, Wright was given the opportunity to go duck hunting with an experienced hunter—a timely chance to apply new insight and knowledge to practice. “Hunting certainly brought me closer to thinking about how bad I want or need food,” explains Wright. “I have a clear idea of why I’m hunting and what I want to get out of it, and it’s not to put a deer head or duck on my wall. For me, hunting is all about honoring the animal and the sustenance it will provide my family. I don’t feel any different about that than I do about humanely harvesting a domestically raised animal.”
Adding healthy, local meat to one’s lifestyle might be akin to building a vegetable garden in the backyard, but the process is much more complicated. No deadly weapons are required to harvest an heirloom tomato, and the licensing requirements to grow spinach are pretty lax. But, as in Wright’s experience, the best way to face the challenges of hunting and fishing is with help.
“People can go to the farmers market and, with reasonable effort, act on the inspiration to grow some herbs or tomatoes at home,” says Dai Due Supper Club and Butcher Shop owner, Chef Jesse Griffiths. “Then they can get chickens and have their own source for eggs. But when it comes to fresh, healthy meat, most can’t have a cow in the backyard. But they can go out and shoot one or two feral hogs or white-tailed deer and have a year’s supply of delicious, free-range meat in their freezer. We live in a great state to be able to do just that.”
Griffiths is as passionate about hunting and fishing as he is hard to label, and his company follows a model that is difficult to describe in a brief paragraph. His extremely popular roving Supper Club prepares multicourse feasts in settings that provide as much seasoning and flavor to the meals as the local ingredients used to prepare them. But the main focus of Dai Due is its Butcher Shop. Open to the public each week at the SFC Farmers’ Market–Downtown, it offers wild-game products like venison breakfast sausage, burgers, wild-boar bangers and chorizo.
Dai Due also offers classes on sustainable food preparation, most notably the Deer School and Hog School—intensive three-day workshops held at Madroño Ranch in Medina, about 15 minutes west of Kerrville. “The three we did last year were so successful, we’re doing six this year—including one open only to women,” explains Griffiths. “We’re also offering two scholarships for each of the eight-student workshops, to help make this accessible to everyone. We cover everything: shooting, field dressing, eviscerating, butchering, cooking and eating.”
Workshops like these attempt to make local, healthy meat available to people from all backgrounds. Non-hunters who want to go deeper into their relationship with food are taught how to access sustainable meat, and lifelong hunters are shown efficient ways of butchering and processing by people who hold a deep respect for the animal as a food source, and not as just a trophy.
“My experiences through Jesse’s workshops have pretty much been life changing,” says past attendee Brad Otts. “When I was hunting with Jesse this past winter, it was my first time to ever shoot a deer. It was an intense spiritual and emotional experience. I was able to have a time of prayer, and, seeing the animal up close, I was filled more with a sense of responsibility versus pride. Jesse’s class helped me to learn this, and for that I am forever grateful.”
It’s these kinds of revelations that reward Griffiths more than anything else he has experienced in his career. They also validate a broader vision he has for the culture of hunting in Texas.
“We want to share hunting as it was before the age of commercial processing—take it back to its original source and celebrate local, healthy, fresh meat the way Texan culture has done for centuries,” he says.
The sustainable harvest of animals contributes more than just meat to local food economies, too. Hunting and fishing license fees go directly to wildlife conservation, and science-based regulations and limits on quantity and quality of harvested animals promote healthy animal populations. The ripple effect that hunters and fishers have on local economies is also significant.
“The total Texas economic impact from hunting and fishing is almost $10 billion per year,” says Clayton Wolf, director of the wildlife division for the TPWD. “Nearly $15 billion, if you include wildlife watching.”
Hunting can also have a direct environmental benefit. According to Mark E. Mapston, a wildlife biologist with the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, feral hogs are the most prolific large wild mammals on the continent. Of the four to five million feral hogs in the U.S., about half are found in Texas, populating 80 percent of Texas counties. As a free-ranging exotic animal, feral hogs in Texas may be hunted by any legal means, any time of the year.
“Feral hogs are the linchpin of the environmental arguments for hunting,” says Griffiths. “The State of Texas officially regards them as a destructive pest—as farmers, ranchers and native wildlife managers can testify.
Eliminating hogs through hunting helps prevent erosion damage in riparian areas, native plant disruption, the spread of diseases like swine brucellosis and competition with native wildlife for food sources. Feral hogs also happen to be a delicious food source.”
Like Griffiths, modern hunters are not easily categorized. But more and more these days, they’re sharing a renewed veneration and responsibility for the animals they hunt and harvest. “I sat in a blind with a longtime deer hunter once who teared up after bagging a doe,” says Cecilia Nasti, executive producer of TPWD’s Passport to Texas radio program. “I shared this experience with a game warden, who I expected to be completely detached from the emotional side of killing animals. His response was grave and genuine: ‘The moment you lose compassion for the animal, you need to stop hunting.’ It was eye-opening.”
“That’s just part of it,” agrees Chris Barker. “Fresh, delicious meat from a beautiful animal should come with a price. If a wild deer or duck or hog sacrifices its life for our sustenance, the least we owe them is a tear. It deserves a hunter’s respect; it deserves to be hunted with reverence.”
Austin Woods and Waters Club: austinwoodsandwaters.com
Dai Due: daidueaustin.net
Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast
Texas Fishing Forum: texasfishingforum.com
Texas Hunting Forum: texashuntingforum.com
Texas Parks and Wildlife Hunter Education: