By Tom Poland
A few years back on a fall day I attended a wild game dinner on the grounds of Hobcaw Barony’s Bellefield Stables. I sat among folks from up north. The chef and caterer was also our speaker and his opening statement was a doozy.
“Now I know you Yankees think we Southerners drool grits all the time but we won’t eat you. We ain’t gonna kill you.” Northerners stared in disbelief. Southerners laughed.
Ginger-haired, stocky, raconteur wild game chef Frank Beckham was holding court outside Bell Baruch’s posh equine residence. The stables stand among gnarled old oaks heavy with Spanish moss. Fanny-pack clad Northerners and I sat at wooden picnic tables beneath live oaks green with resurrection ferns. We dined on shrimp and grilled mallards Beckham shot in Nebraska. Grill marks scored the dark meat. It tasted like steak.
“You know why these ducks taste so good?” Beckham doesn’t wait for an answer.
“They’re corn fed. Ducks down here eat stuff in the muck. Gives them a fishy taste. Believe me it won’t hurt you. I’ve had the wildest game possible. I flew helicopter gunships in Vietnam and I’d hunt deer and wild hogs from the air, gunning them down with an M60 machine gun. I barbecued a 400-pound hog at base camp for my fellow Southern boys. We didn’t let Yankee fellows eat with us.”
Northerners stared at each other again. They didn’t know what to make of Frank but I did. He’s a man who’s seen just about anything life can throw at you, including being a chopper pilot in Vietnam. Cooking proved to be an outlet, a way to forget life’s troubles, a way to please others.
“I’ve always been interested in cooking,” said Beckham. “I remember the first meal Mom let me cook. I was four years old. I stood on the little stool in front of her gas stove. It had four burners and a griddle in the center. She put some butter down and let me crack an egg and salt and pepper it. I don’t know if it was because of the copious amounts of butter or what but it was one of the greatest eggs I ever ate.”
When Frank was in Cub Scouts, the scoutmaster would come to his tent because the other kids would be cooking beanie-weenies and hot dogs. Frank would cook Salisbury steak, mushroom gravy, and rice.
Frank got off to a good start on the road to chefdom. “Louise Chestnut, a black woman, would help Mom cook lunch in the summertime. Louise would have all the soul food you could think of and I loved to be with her when she cooked. She always told me, ‘You got to feel the food.’ ”
Frank’s as comfortable cooking over a campfire as he is over a gas stove. “I can’t stand electrics. I’ve gotta cook on gas cause it’s just my mindset. I’ve had to cook at some people’s houses on an electric stove and I couldn’t. It just killed me. Gas is instant.”
Cooking puts Frank at ease. “For me cooking is comforting, just like scuba diving in black water. That is one of the most comforting things when you get down there and you can’t see a thing. It’s as quiet as can be. And you know nothing down there is going to hurt you. Of course a big ole catfish will take your light out of your hand, but that’s it.” Frank took up scuba diving in 1963. In the years to come he’d find camel teeth and Megalodon teeth in the Cooper River.
Frank treated me to lunch at the majestic Caledonia Golf & Fish Club at Pawleys Island one day. It was no accident that we were there. Frank’s father was one of Caledonia’s founders. Caledonia, such a beautiful word, eases off the tongue.
Frank Beckham, a Southern original, is a fellow you just want to being around. For sure he feels the food. His wild game dinners are unforgettable, just like him.
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