Wednesday afternoon just before sunset Ed Phillips sat alone in his shop listening to conservative commentator Mark Levin on a portable radio. Phillips, 75, is a large, barrel-chested man with a baritone voice that sounds like the rumbling of a volcano. On this afternoon he is wearing his standard uniform, a long-sleeve camouflage shirt, brown canvas work pants and sturdy Wellington boots. Around his neck he sports a necklace of what looks to be alligator teeth; they are turkey spurs.
Every week or so Phillips hosts a wild game feast at his shop on Old West Point Road for a group of men that include lawyers, businessmen, tradesmen, landed gentry and the occasional ne”er-do-well. Other than being Phillips” friends, the men have in common a passion for hunting and for the dishes their host prepares from their kill.
Randolph Lipscomb, a Columbus attorney, is the first to arrive. Lipscomb is wearing fresh pressed khakis, a crisp blue short-sleeve sport shirt and deck shoes without socks. He is smoking an expensive cigar, and as he threads his way through the spectacular clutter of Phillips” shop, he pauses to put a cigar in his host”s shirt pocket.
“We bring Ed whatever we kill and catch and trap,” explains Lipscomb, “and when the mood”s on him, he prepares it and we eat it.”
The raison d”etre for tonight”s feast is five loggerhead snapping turtles supplied by brothers Kenny and Bill Kidder. The Kidders caught the turtles in beaver traps. Kenny Kidder, who before Wednesday night, had never eaten turtle, said the heads of the turtles were as big as a man”s fist and their shells 12 to 15 inches in diameter.
I will spare the reader Phillips” blow-by-blow instructions for cleaning a loggerhead only to say after cutting off the reptile”s head, you must remove the claws. A turtle that”s been headless for even as long as a day can still inflict damage.
“You can”t work on a turtle with paws,” says Phillips.
He estimates he”s cleaned 500 turtles over the years. “I love turtle meat,” he says.
Tonight”s menu includes turtle soup with sherry, fried turtle meat, a whole deer rib cage, french fries, wilted spinach salad and homemade apple pie with vanilla ice cream, all made by Phillips.
Phillips says the soup is inspired by a similar concoction from the Tidewater Inn in St. Michaels, Md. When asked the ingredients, he replies, “I”m not going to tell you, but I will tell you there”s scuppernong wine in it. I don”t think anything gives it flavor like scuppernong wine.”
The wine is of Phillips” making, as is a potion he makes from fox grapes. He stores the wine in carboys in one of his several refrigerators, the doors of which are bedecked with photographs of Phillips and his son, Joey, holding wild game they”ve killed. When asked for a sample of his fox grape wine, Phillips takes a plastic tube, and much like someone siphoning gasoline from a truck, draws a glass for his guest. The drink is thick, sweet and grapey. “I can”t make a dry wine,” he says.
As day fades to twilight, guests begin arriving at a steady clip. Phillips” cement-block shop was once the barn of an old dairy farm. The place is piled to the ceiling with tools, cooking utensils and various culinary apparatuses including a homemade rotisserie (50-pound capacity), a smoker, wine press, salvaged aluminum sinks on makeshift stands and an 8-foot-by-10-foot drying rack stacked with cooking pans of every size and shape.
The shop has a small cement apron on which sit a metal chiminena and an array of metal folding chairs for guests. This back porch looks to the southeast and, depending on which direction one casts his eyes, overlooks a derelict silo, a partially disassembled barn in an advanced state of decay, a 200-yard-long fox grape vine Phillips transplanted from near the banks of Cataba Creek, and a thicket of fruit trees.
Phillips, who markets his own line of seasonings, salad dressings and hot sauces under the label LA Gourmet, began cooking in his mother”s kitchen as a child living on a farm in Central Illinois.
“My mother, Helen, was a wonderful cook,” he says.
Phillips had three sisters, and his mother would cook each child”s favorite breakfast on a rotating schedule. Pancakes every fourth day wasn”t good enough for the headstrong boy, so, with his mother”s blessing, he taught himself the ways of the kitchen.
For a time, Phillips and his wife operated a restaurant in the old depot building on Main Street and catered private parties, in particular a memorable dinner cruise on the Tombigbee. Though I”ve forgotten what we ate that night, I do recall the grace and élan with which Phillips prepared a flaming Bananas Foster as we swayed and bounced down the dark river.
Phillips has been working since morning on tonight”s feast. The turtle soup is ready and awaits in an oval Crockpot. After frying a vat full of hand-cut french fries with skins attached, he drops into his fryer fist-sized chunks of turtle meat he has parboiled and battered in a spicy flour. Someone removes the deer carcass from the cooker and puts it on an oversized platter. Phillips pours hot bacon grease over the spinach salad.
“You need to stir the turtle soup before you dip it,” Phillips announces. “There”s sherry on the side. You can drink it or put it in the soup, whatever the hell turns you on.”
A line forms and the eating begins.
“I couldn”t tell you what it was,” says Kenny Kidder afterward, but I”m gonna tell you, that”s pretty good. I”m never going to pass up a turtle in the road ever again.”
Brother Bill concurred, though seemingly with less enthusiasm.
“I can”t think of anything wrong with it,” he says. “It”s not wild and it”s not fishy.”
The fried turtle had a surprisingly delicate flavor — more like chicken or quail — and, thanks to the parboiling, was as tender.
Afterward I thanked Phillips, said good-bye to fellow diners and carefully picked my way through the overgrown piece of ground between the shop and silo. On my way back to town, I rolled down the windows, and as the night air washed over me, considered my good fortune, to have been part of this uniquely American evening.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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