Best in the Game: Tim Love's Annual Texas Dove Hunt Party

Photos by Jeff Wilson

Long before Tim Love rose to celebrity-chef fame, he was just another Texas boy who loved to hunt. Today, his passions for hunting and cooking result in some of the most flavorful and original wild game anywhere—which the author helped himself to last fall at Love’s annual dove party.

“This is the perfect Texas day,” Tim Love is saying. He’s talking about the weather—more precisely, how the welding-torch heat of midday has given way to a breeze-driven balminess—but he may as well be talking about the day itself: the way the doves are skittering across the cloudless blue sky in steady, there’s-more-coming-behind trios; the way a 40-pound pig, its skin already shellacked with smoke, is twirling on a spit suspended over hickory coals; and the way his 11-year-old son, Tannahill, and his friends have been ripping by on dirt bikes and four-wheelers between their stints in the dove field or on the trapshooting range.

We’re rolling along the south edge of the main dove field in a farm truck outfitted with a high rack, where Tannahill, nicknamed T, is sitting beside my 10-year-old son on a bench seat, and we’re headed toward a sweet spot on the field’s eastern fringe. From the center of the 7-acre field, where a solitary mesquite tree provides cover and shade for a pair of hunters, we hear two shots, and as the boys let out whoops, we turn in time to see two folded doves drop onto the sunflower stubble. A grin overtakes Love’s face. That’s two more doves he’ll be cooking tonight. He stops the truck and hops out, keen to add his own doves to the larder, hollering to the boys to hand down the guns. They oblige him with frantic glee. This is one of the pleasures of dove hunting, and what sets it apart from many other varieties of hunting: You can insert yourself immediately into the action, which is precisely Love’s intention.

Love is a chef. Most famously, he owns the Lonesome Dove Bistro in the Fort Worth stockyards, which he opened in 2000. Love has earned wide acclaim and consistently packed reservation lists by marrying regional ingredients—rattlesnake, wild boar, country ham, chiles—with the technical precision of haute cuisine but also with a whole lot of irreverent Texas attitude. He and his line cooks wear cowboy hats, rather than chef toques, and his menu features entertainments such as buffalo corn dogs and kangaroo nachos. Eleven years ago, when Love was invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City, he traveled part of the way on horseback, gathering ingredients at farmers’ markets along the way. Since then, he’s branched out with a steakhouse, Queenie’s, in his hometown of Denton; a classic honky-tonk, the White Elephant Saloon; a burger joint called the Love Shack; and most recently, the Woodshed Smokehouse, his homage to Texas barbecue, where you can gnaw on a beef shin that Love smokes for 16 hours and serves with fresh ricotta and beer-simmered pinto beans.

Love is also a hunter. The hunting, in fact, preceded the cooking, which despite the obvious logic is not always the case with the newer generation of hunter-chefs. He shot his first deer when he was 12 and from its hide sewed the backpack he carried in high school. Three years ago, he cranked up the volume on his pastime by joining a long-term lease on close to 5,000 acres of prime hunting land near Gordon, Texas, roughly an hour’s drive west of his home in Fort Worth. On the property’s hunting menu are whitetails and axis deer, blackbucks, wild boar, ducks, and turkeys. Earlier in the day, giving me a tour of the property, formerly a cattle ranch dating back to the 1880s, Love pointed out a high chair overlooking a scrub field swarming with grasshoppers. “T shot his first turkey from there,” he said, launching into the story of the boy’s 80-yard rifle shot. “As much as I love all this,” he told me, “it’s really more about the kids.”

Which is where the dove hunting comes in. And in some sense the cooking, too. Shortly after leasing the property, Love inaugurated a father-and-son (or daughter) dove hunt at the ranch. He lured a slew of dad friends to Gordon with the promise of great shooting and arguably greater food—a traditional Texas dove party, but with all the trademark flourishes that’ve made Love a Lone Star state icon. Joining Love for the third annual dove throwdown, with my son, McCaslin, I can’t help but admire the way Love has stewed all his favorite activities—hunting, fathering, cooking, and grinning—into his own version of the perfect Texas day.

Dove Affair

Let’s start with the hunting. Of North America’s 350 million to 500 million mourning doves, roughly 50 million have a Texas connection, either as resident birds or migratory transients. This explains why a third of the nation’s dove hunters are Texans. Texas dove parties have a long lineage—a cache of ancient dove bones discovered near Lake Amistad in Val Verde County suggests Stone Age Texans were hunting doves as far back as 9,000 years ago—and a mighty reputation. “One should never plan a party, a wedding, an art opening, or an important event in Texas that requires sizable numbers of males in attendance on Sept. 1, for that is the opening day of dove season,” wrote the painter Stuart Gentling in Of Birds and Texas, a landmark collection of bird paintings whose commentary the Fort Worth–based Gentling coauthored with his brother, Scott, in 1986. “Dove hunting is almost a ritual activity in this state.”

A ritual activity, for sure, and also a social one. Although there may well be hunters who shoot doves by themselves, I can’t say I’ve ever encountered any. The dove hunter tends to belong to a category that author and sportsman George Bird Evans dubbed “The Social or Gregarious Hunter.” This owes something to the nature of the shooting, and no doubt to tradition, but also to the logistics of grooming dove habitat. Large-scale cultivation yields the ideal hunting conditions. Mourning doves dine primarily on seeds, which has made them highly adaptive to agriculture. But planting a field of sunflowers or millet demands a considerable investment in time, energy, and land. It’s like cooking a seven-course meal—you’re going to want to invite some friends. Love and his seven lease partners invited about 80. They trickled in all morning, boys in camo T-shirts piling out of the backs of Supercabs, with everyone gravitating toward the trap range where the kids got some shotgunning practice and the dads knocked the rust off of their shooting skills.

Late afternoon finds many of them scattered around the edges of the sunflower field, some tucked into the brush, others perched on overturned buckets or folding seats in the wide open. The dove field is L-shaped, and Love has parked us along its top left edge, about 100 yards across from a guy who’s taken it upon himself to call out the action like a college-football announcer. I half expect him to say the birds are flying in T formation. Love and his son hunker down by the truck, while my son and I wander about 30 yards up, watching a pair of doves run the shooting gauntlet with some acrobatic zigzagging that gets them past the field unscathed. A note of disappointed irritation roughens the field announcer’s tone.

This is where the fathering comes in. Love has a Browning Citori o/u 12-gauge, and I’ve got an ugly but sentimentally prized Savage 12-gauge in my hands, but neither of us is doing a whole lot of shooting. We’re giving the boys the first cracks. Love’s son downs two doves within a few minutes; my own son devotes those minutes to studious observance of T’s shooting. While he’s proficient at the trap range, this is McCaslin’s first bird hunt—an event, I should note, that he’s been anticipating for approximately half his life. When he signals to me that he’s ready, I instruct him to load his Remington Model 1100 20-gauge, and to hold tight for some doves.

The wait isn’t long. “Three coming low,” the field announcer shouts, and my son steps forward, raises the shotgun, fires, and misses. He fires again. This shot takes the dove nearest to him, dropping the bird into the center of the field. He spins back toward me with a stunned, disbelieving expression.

“Did I do that?” he says, a reasonable question in a field ringed with hunters, shotguns firing like popcorn.

“That was you,” I respond.

Once there’s a lull in the action, we head out together into the field to retrieve the dove, McCaslin’s pace about three times as fast as mine. He hollers his discovery of the bird, holding it up with one hand.

A mourning dove’s beauty is an understated one, the colors of its feathers ranging through various shades of gray and drab violet, often with a striking splash of turquoise around the eyes. What’s most exquisite about them, to my thinking, is their sleekly functional design, the aerodynamic brilliance of their sharply tapered tail and long raptorlike wings. When I look up from admiring the dove, I can see that its warmth in McCaslin’s hand has unsettled him, splitting his emotions between glee and solemnity, that mixture of gravity and joy that I hope, as a hunter, he never outgrows. I tousle his hair and compliment the shot as the field announcer heralds more birds incoming.

We hustle back to the field’s edge as this next spurt of doves wings its way overhead and down the line, as T swivels his shotgun toward them. The afternoon repeats itself this way, the sun plunging lower and lower in the sky as the boys shoot and we fathers coach, and then later as we fathers pull down a few doves for ourselves, a faint drizzle of shot pellet occasionally raining upon us, and a feast taking imminent and ever clearer shape with every downed bird and every boy’s whoop of shotgun pride.

Let's Eat

At many if not most Texas dove parties, our story would end thisaway: with skinless dove breasts swaddled in bacon on a grill. And while that’s not a bad ending, by any means, it’s not the ending to this story, because its hero is a chef—one who’s committed to teasing the fullest and purest range of flavors from wild game.

First, the scene: Love’s got a mobile restaurant kitchen installed in the shade provided by a copse of cottonwood trees, just across from the dove field. There’s his pig cooker, a.k.a. the Love Box, a Caja China–style outdoor roaster Love modified to use as a spit cooker, which is currently giving the pig its last few twirls after six hours over hickory. There’s a long pro-grade grill, intermittently manned by two line cooks, plus a stovetop rig. There’s a full bar, too, with bartenders serving the best margaritas you’re likely to be handed while standing within sight of a dove field. Six round tables are positioned on that dirt, not all that far from the pile of feathers left by the boys after they plucked and skinned the day’s birds under Love’s tutelage.

Now he’s at the grill, basting a couple of dozen butterflied doves. The basting liquid, he explains, is a Thai-inspired vinaigrette: “Some sesame oil, cilantro, fish sauce, hoisin, garlic, ginger, and sesame seed.” This is the urban end of what Love calls his “urban cowboy cuisine,” in which he takes elements from the diverse culinary streams of Texas’s cities and applies them to some down-home proteins. After ferrying the butterflied doves off the grill with tongs, he arranges several dozen breasts over the fire. These have been coated with Love’s Badass Rub, a mixture of thyme, rosemary, chile powder, and other spices. They don’t linger long on the grill, about 90 seconds per side. The key to dove cookery, he says, is in the cooking itself: quick and vigilant, so the birds cook through but don’t veer off into dryness (which ushers in the slight liver-y taste we call gaminess). Doves are spectacularly lean, meaning the line between done and overdone can sometimes be measured in seconds.

“The reason most people wrap dove breasts in bacon is because it’s a safety net,” Love says. “It’s a natural instinct to add something like cream cheese, or some other fat.” Yet there’s a price for that safety, he claims: Doves bear a magnificently subtle flavor that’s easily overpowered. “A dove breast wrapped in bacon is going to taste a whole lot like bacon,” he says. “I don’t want to disguise the flavor.” To demonstrate, he slips me a preview of seared breast, and also slips one to McCaslin, who feels certain that it belonged to one of his doves. The rub makes the first statement on the tongue, but its flavor swiftly dissolves into that of the dove breast. It is rich, earthy, with layers of savory nuance. This, I’m reminded, is one of the other great pleasures of dove hunting: culinary immediacy. We’re eating these birds just an hour, and a few hundred yards, from their last flight.

Twilight comes, introduced by a sunset so purple that even the locals hoist their smartphones to the sky for photos. The guns are unloaded and tucked away; the boys corralled or almost corralled. I can hear the snap of cold beers opening, along with the sounds of guys explaining away misses, or chalking up their boys’ successful shooting to incredible luck so as not to brag (though they’ll brag later, to their wives, and wonder aloud if shooting skills like that are genetic). Then, come nightfall, it’s time to eat.

Love leads me to the food table, where the evening’s dishes are arrayed, and gives me the rundown: “Here we’ve got the dove breasts, and the Asian barbecued doves with Thai vinaigrette. Our borracho beans are made with Sierra Nevada pale ale. This is a pheasant shepherd’s pie with Manchego cheese. Some rabbit-rattlesnake sausage. We’ve got the pig that we roasted all day, and some tortillas, and two kinds of salsa, a salsa cruda and a smoked tomato salsa. Some pickled chiles. Cole slaw. And an escarole salad with smoked pecans, red onions, and cherry peppers.”

This is the feast I’d been anticipating in the dove field, magnified 10 or more times. The doves themselves are transformative: Some of the first-time guests, unfamiliar with Love’s tactics, vow never to cook them the same way again. The shepherd’s pie, for me, elicits an audible “wow” with every forkful. Ever the restaurateur, Love makes his way to each table, fielding questions and fervid compliments, urging seconds on everyone. Then he kicks back with a whiskey, slumped comfortably in a folding chair with that air of exhilaration and exhaustion you tend to see on chefs after their last service, and on hunters after a long day afield. “The perfect Texas day,” he says again, but this time the weather has nothing to do with it.

Grilled Dove Breasts With Badass Rub

Ingredients
Skinless dove breasts
Badass Rub
Peanut oil
all-purpose Badass Rub
1⁄2 cup guajillo chile powder
1⁄2 cup kosher salt
1⁄4 cup cumin, ground
2 Tbsp. rosemary, chopped
2 Tbsp. thyme leaves, chopped
1⁄4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. coarsely
ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. garlic powder
2 Tbsp. brown sugar

Directions
1. Make the rub: Combine all the ingredients and mix well.
2. Brush the dove breasts with peanut oil. Generously rub them with Badass Rub.
3. Place the meat on the grill, with a high fire, for 1 1⁄2 minutes per side.