These Texans have been prepared for a pandemic all along.

By Sarah Engstrand
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COVID-19 has brought about unprecedented changes in the way we live. In the United States especially, grocery stores have always been havens of opulence, bursting with an intimidating abundance of choices. Today, shelves are bare at worst and picked over at best, and it's become strikingly obvious how reliant we are on modern conveniences.

But for hunters, life continues much the same. Here in Texas, hunting is a way of life passed down by generations, and a stocked freezer is de facto — pandemic or not. We spoke to three hunters who shoot, trap, and fish for their meat, to find out more about the lifestyle that's about to become a lot more popular.

Sarah Engstrand

"I do not hunt things I will not eat."

Holly Hearn | Industrial Engineering Student | Beaumont, Texas

Holly Hearn, a 25-year-old student from Beaumont, Texas, is finishing up her degree in industrial engineering, but she still makes time to hunt. She doesn't fit the typical hunter stereotype: she's blonde, well-spoken, and well-travelled. And of course, she's a woman. But Hearn loves hunting, and she wants to show other women they can sustainably provide for their families while maintaining femininity.

Hearn first started going into the woods with her family when she was just eight years old. She spent the next seven years watching them hunt and learning the processes, like how to age a deer. Each state has specific laws on what you can harvest based on species population, and if you break them, there are heavy fines.

When she turned 16, it wasn't a car waiting for her in the driveway. It was a Benelli Montefeltro 20-gauge shotgun and a pair of handmade Lucchese cowboy boots. "If that ain't the most Texas thing you've ever heard," she says with an easy laugh.

RELATED: Browse our collection of venison recipes.

Though she officially started hunting at 14, Hearn only recently completed her first solo shoot. A piece of the resulting deer is now sizzling on her cast iron pan. The black pan stands out in her color-coded kitchen of pink, complete with a full set of berry Le Creuset and a jar of pink shotgun shells.

"It's not that I couldn't do it before, but hunting has always been the time that we bonded. My dad is a workaholic, and it's the one time of year he doesn't have his phone, and we are completely focused on spending time together and being in nature."

Sarah Engstrand

"I do not hunt things I will not eat," Hearn says seriously as she busies herself around the kitchen. She's whipping up a pan-seared venison loin with caramelized peaches and a balsamic peach vinaigrette, while talking about some of the other dishes she makes. She mentions quail pot pie, prosciutto-wrapped quail breasts, and quail medallions marinated in a honey miso with ginger and garlic. Her meals are inspired by her travels (27 countries and counting), her voracious reading, and what's in her fridge.

She hands me a piece of venison straight from the pan and it's surprisingly tender and not at all gamey. "It's all in the way you process it," says Hearn. She's pedantic about her methods and takes great pride in every step from hunting, to dressing, butchering and, of course, cooking.

Sustainability is another passion of Hearn's, and she casually rattles off the basics of regenerative farming techniques – something that has recently piqued her interest. "That's the sustainable way to raise meat. That's healthy. We, as a society – because of the convenience of grocery stores and the widespread use of technology – have lost the connection we had to our food," she says.

At the height of the COVID-19 panic, Hearn's Instagram has been a mix of ways to help the community (she's offering to deliver groceries for the elderly, and trying to engage others to do the same) and restaurant-worthy meals with meat she's hunted. There was pan-fried pheasant Parmesan over homemade pasta, Korean pork belly with blistered Brussel's sprouts, Moroccan-spiced quail and venison sausage. Don't bother to ask for leftovers, they're already spoken for: Hearn feeds her church youth group and brings meals to her father twice a week.

Sarah Engstrand

"When you kill a deer, you eat from it for a year, and you're forced to remember the whole path of that resource."

Jesse Griffiths | Chef, Author, Restauranteur, Teacher | Austin, Texas

Jesse Griffiths has built a career around his passion for hunting. Unlike most Texans, he took to the sport late, about 14 years ago. Since then, he has opened two hyperlocal Austin restaurants, Dai Due and the Dai Due Taqueria, and authored Afield: A Chef's Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish. The red-bearded multihyphenate also founded the New School of Traditional Cookery, which teaches people how to hunt, prepare, and sustainably utilize local resources.

A lifelong angler and gatherer, Griffiths relies on the land to provide for his community. "With friends, we have a rule that whenever we go out, we split everything equally." The group will head back to Griffiths' house to break the animals down and process them – ensuring everyone's freezers are stocked and their families have food to eat. Nothing he kills is served in the restaurant due to food safety regulations.

"It's excellent meat, you don't have to worry about antibiotics or any chemicals, and the animals weren't sat on a feedlot. The quality is far superior because it's grass fed. People think it's going to be gamey, or tough, or bad. But that just means it's been prepared improperly," he says.

At home, Griffiths whips up cutlets — "Any lean piece of game works, like hog, turkey, pigeon or deer" — by pounding them thin, and breading them. "That's a big hit in our house; it's what we're having for dinner tonight, actually," he says. And there's always plenty of fish. Last weekend, he and a friend took home 52 crappie.

Griffiths introduced his daughter to the sport, and she's also become an avid hunter. The nine year old has already killed a deer and two boar this season. "I wanted her to understand where food comes from, because I think hunting is such a great lesson and resource. No matter what it is, when you take something — whether it's an animal, gas for your car, or a t-shirt from the store — you're using a resource, and there are implications to that."

Apart from chicken wings, which he calls his "kryptonite," Griffiths hasn't bought meat in over nine years. "The most off-putting arguments I have with people aren't with vegetarians, by any means. It's with people who eat meat but think that hunting is wrong."

"When America alone slaughters 150 million chickens a week, their individual lives have no value," he continues, and compares that to animals that have been hunted. "When you kill a deer, you eat from it for a year, and you're forced to remember the whole path of that resource."

"I saw a lot of death this year," says Griffiths, who feels the act of killing gets harder with experience. He's cleaned over 50 animals through The New School of Traditional Cooking, and another 25 with others. "You don't ever want to lose respect for the individual animal, and you don't want to lump them all together. I think that's harmful, and whenever you stop feeling sad, it's time to quit." Griffiths only hunts to fill his freezer. Once he has enough food, he stops for the season. "I'm right about there," he says, "I just need a little more hog in the freezer."

Due to COVID-19, the Dai Due Taqueria is now closed, but the butcher shop and restaurant are still serving customers to-go.

Sarah Engstrand

"Non-hunters don't understand the respect we have for the animals."

Bob Williamson | Retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist | Highland Haven, Texas

"Hopefully we're never going to see a situation where we have to survive without [modern amenities], but if we do, a lot of people would be in big trouble," says Bob Williamson from his home in Highland Haven Texas. "They wouldn't know how to find water, catch a fish, or get meat."

Williamson is a retired fish and wildlife biologist from Illinois, and he knows that if needed, he'd be able to provide for his family. In fact, the 73 year old provides most of the protein for himself and his wife already.

"The best tasting meat he's brought home is the wild boar!" says his wife from the kitchen. "He fixes it on the smoker a lot, and it really doesn't taste any different than domestic pork." Williamson actually prefers it, because the animals are leaner and haven't been pumped with antibiotics the way factory farmed pigs have, he says.

Their game diet started off as a health measure to combat his coronary artery disease and diabetes, which he developed young. "Game tends to be a much leaner meat than what you can buy in a store. Most doctors will tell their patients not to each much beef, but I can eat all the venison, elk, or boar I want!"

Williamson needs about 100 pounds of venison a year, or roughly three young bucks. A Texas state license allows a maximum of three bucks and two doe each season. His two freezers are always stocked with game and fish, and he processes it all himself. Occasionally, he'll send some meat to the butcher, but only because he likes their sausage recipe.

RELATED: See our collection of elk recipes.

The Williamsons have just celebrated their 50th anniversary, and they remember a time when hunting was a welcome supplement to their grocery shopping. But it's no longer cost-efficient. Of course, there's the gun and processing equipment. But beyond that, you need a license to hunt. And while those are affordable and readily available, public land – at least in Texas – is not.

As a result, most people either take leases, or pay landowners steep fees per kill. "It's not unusual to spend three or four thousand dollars for a deer lease, and you get three deer." It can cost a hunter up to $10,000 to shoot a buck with impressive antlers. But Williamson still hunts, because it's his passion and he believes it plays a vital role in the ecosystem.

Without hunters and anglers, he's not sure how the state parks will continue to afford biologists who have helped restore populations of whitetail deer, wild turkey, and even river otters. Beyond that, the strict quotas help control population, so species aren't driven to starvation or taken out by disease.

"Non-hunters don't understand the respect we have for the animals," says Williamson. It's not a mindless bloodbath; it's a carefully considered pursuit, and you take what you need."

Keep Reading: Browse our entire collection of wild game recipes.