Into the Woods with Angie Mar
What happens when Angie Mar and Pat LaFrieda go on a duck hunt in Arkansas? Good hunting, drinking, and live-fire cooking.
Rusty Creasey is talking to the ducks.
Come on down, he says (roughly translated). Check out this clearing in the high oak trees. There’s rice; there’s shade. Your friends are here, he lies, feeding and happy.
Sometimes he’s a waterfowl whisperer, sometimes a squawking bird barker. This morning, as day just about breaks over the Coca-Cola Woods—these 1,000-plus acres of swampy and exalted flooded green timber, a fabled invite-only private reserve known to initiates to host some of the best duck hunting in all of the South—the head guide’s call is forlorn and plaintive. A low, scratchy dirge: Donald Duck’s “Quack Quack Quack” song covered by Blind Willie Johnson.
For a long time, nothing happens. The hunters, shotguns aimed at the still-dark sky, stand alert, motionless, careful not to send even a ripple across the thigh-high water. It’s December and cold, though nobody notices, insulated in waders, inoculated by adrenaline. All attention is tuned to Creasey’s increasingly urgent entreaties. Finally, the call is answered. The mallards come in quick, wings flapping to slow their descent, feet down for landing. At last, Creasey gives the go-ahead. “Kill ’em!” he shouts, shattering the meditative cadence of quack and response.
Duck hunting, for the uninitiated, isn’t always quite so up close and immersive. “When you’re in a field, you’re shooting birds 75 yards away. When you’re in the hole like this, they’re gonna land right on top of you,” says John Dobbs Jr., the Memphis businessman who bought the property eight years ago. “I have 95-year-old guys who come to me with tears in their eyes. They say, ‘John, I’ve been hunting my entire life, and I’ve never seen ducks like this.’”
About the name: The property’s original owners also ran the local Coca-Cola bottling company. They entertained business associates and clients here, and the association stuck.
“It’s the volume of ducks” that accounts for its reputation, Dobbs continues, “but also the way you’re really in their world.”
It’s a world not many hunters get a peek at. “It dang near looks fictional,” one commenter noted on duckhuntingchat.com, adding, “I’d about give my left nut for a morning hunt.”
This morning we’re out early in the land of ducks not just for sport but to embrace and celebrate the full richness, glory, and utility offered by these handsome, wild birds—which is to say to clean, cook, and eat them, too.
“I’m really not a morning person,” says the Manhattan chef and restaurateur Angie Mar. Yet here she is, half-submerged in green Thinsulate boots, hair tumbling over her Frogg Toggs Pro Action Camo coat, happily carrying a few of the day’s kills to the little boat that will take us back to base camp.
McCrory, Arkansas, lies roughly 1,200 miles southwest of (and a universe removed from) The Beatrice Inn, Mar’s swaggeringly urbane chophouse on a twee cobblestone block in the West Village. In a candlelit 19th-century townhouse, she serves Russian caviar on buttered brioche points and $1,000 whiskey-aged steaks cooked to order. Bridging this topological chasm, however, is a shared primal desire to get closer to the animals we eat. It’s one thing to put the name of a farm or purveyor on a menu; it’s another to travel to a place to participate in the act of pulling these creatures out of the sky, to help track and kill and cook them in the place they’re from.
“I grew up going to the gun range with my dad and brothers in Seattle,” says Mar, “but I’ve never been hunting before. My cooking is about using the whole animal. Nothing is wasted. I had the head of the eight-point buck I served to the critic Pete Wells when the restaurant opened stuffed, [and it’s] hanging in the foyer of my apartment. I’m always begging Pat, who shot that buck, to take me hunting, but he was sure I’d be eaten by a bear.”
Pat is Pat LaFrieda, the fourth-generation butcher and CEO of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors who’s with us in the swamp. An experienced hunter, he is responsible for a few of this morning’s kills (unlike your intrepid correspondent, who managed to jam his weapon by loading the ammo in backward). Shooting at Coca-Cola Woods is about who you know. In this case, we’re here because LaFrieda knows Trey Zoeller, founder of Jefferson’s Bourbon, and Zoeller knows a friend of Dobbs.
Zoeller is a voluble Kentuckian who’s been called both “the Marco Polo of bourbon” and a heretic for his penchant for putting barrels of young bourbon in compromising situations—on a riverboat thrashed about by tropical storms, say, or in the hold of a shark-tagging cargo ship on years-long voyages crisscrossing the equator—to see how shifts in temperature and radical agitation accelerate the maturing process. Zoeller had gotten to talking to Dobbs about stashing a barrel of bourbon in a duck blind somewhere and forgetting it there for a couple of intensely humid summers and bleak winters—just to see what would happen to it. In the meantime, LaFrieda and Zoeller had gotten to talking about doing some shooting as well as maybe collaborating on a line of Jefferson’s-branded steaks made from animals fed on the spent mash from the whiskey-making process (“a protein shake for cattle,” Zoeller calls it).
Now that Zoeller’s bourbon had sat in marshy seclusion for two years, it was a good time to tap the barrel and a good excuse to do a little hunting. And if you’re going to have whiskey and ducks, then it only made sense to invite along a chef who knows her way around both and is also a master of fire and smoke as well as dramatic cooking situations—which is how we find ourselves here in this flooded woodland, just after dawn with a haul of freshly dispatched mallards and a barrel of mystery whiskey, ready for a stabilizing breakfast of Angie Mar’s freshly made buttermilk biscuits with Pat LaFrieda’s pork sausage recipe and onion gravy.
This is a story about hunting and drinking and campfire cooking. But the secret hero, the unifying character that ties all the disparate narrative strands together, is both self-evident and weirdly unheralded: wood. It’s everywhere, but we don’t always give it its due. This is really a story about wood: the reedy tall trees that offer a haven for hunters and an enticing trap for their prey; the charred new white oak barrels that give bourbon its caramel hues and bosky bite; the range of wood and vine smoke that Mar deploys to bring out layers of flavor you didn’t know a steak or whole bird had to offer.
Creasey guides us out in a small boat down flooded trails to a miniature cabin near the edge of a clearing bobbing with decoys. Zoeller finds his barrel, drills into it, and tips out corn whiskey the color of maple syrup. “Pretty damned good,” he declares, sampling it at cask strength before cutting it down to proof with a splash of water. “That’s a 2-year-old bourbon that tastes like a 6-year-old [one]. The humidity pushes it into the wood.”
Meanwhile, in a field back at the lodge, Mar and LaFrieda have assembled a large makeshift A-frame grill out of birch logs and are prepping for the day’s culinary main event, a massive wood-fired feast. Utilizing the morning’s take, there will be hunter’s stew with duck legs and cannellini beans, smoked duck breasts with apples cooked with duck jus, and tartiflette. (In addition to the local catch, the menu contains a few out-of-town ringers to channel a bit of The Beatrice Inn’s no-fats-barred approach: LaFrieda’s dry-aged rib eyes, truffle butter, and a sauce slicked with reduced red wine, snails, and pork trotters.)
At her restaurant, Mar treats steaks and chops to a preliminary cold smoke over knotted, aged grapevines, such as slow-burning Garnacha from Spain and Pinot Meunier from the Champagne region (especially well-suited to côte de boeuf.) In the spirit of the day, now she’s smoking rib eyes and whole ducks hung from the A-frame over staves from a broken-down bourbon barrel. “The different flavors of these woods really blow my mind,” Mar says. “It’s the terroir of wood. Once I was introduced to thinking of vines and wood as ingredients, it really changed the way I cook.”
As the ducks and steaks sway and soak up the steady plume of smoke, the duck blind–aged whiskey begins to flow. Mar serves a duck liver pâté made with Champagne, unaccountably light given its indecent amount of sage-scented melted butter.
“Sometimes I think there’s an old Frenchman trapped in my body,” Mar says of her penchant for unreformed classics. Ducks make Angie Mar—and her inner lusty Frenchman—very happy.
So, to quote the Marx brothers: Why a duck? “People talk about how ‘giving’ the pig is in terms of using the whole animal,” Mar says. “And I agree, but that’s so true of a duck, too. They’ve got the ratio of fat to lean we’re all looking for, which is to say a lot of fat. And duck fat is the ultimate fat.”
“If you could eat only one bird for the rest of your life?” Mar asks rhetorically, the A-frame fires exhausted now, bourbon giving way to Barbaresco.
“Pheasant? Forget it. Squab? Sorry, I can live without you. Chicken? Chicken is a vegetable. But ducks? Ducks are magic.”