This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of North American Whitetail magazine.
“So how about it?”
“How about what?”
“Your last meal, idgit. What would it be?”
I hadn’t been paying attention to the conversation at hand, obviously, and had to endure a few jibes concerning my mental capacity.
“Come on, what would it be?”
Such questions are common at the deer camp I share every fall with my dad and my brothers and nephews. Which North American big game animal would you most like to bag? What’s the ideal rifle caliber for a pronghorn antelope hunt? Who used all the toilet paper? I begged off a few minutes to think and then shared what I believed was the only and obvious answer.
“I’d have fried quail with lumpy mashed potatoes, homemade biscuits and white gravy. Morels, salted and peppered and rolled in corn meal, then dipped in oil till they’re golden brown. Crappie fillets bathed in butter and swimming with lemon in a recycled aluminum frozen cobbler pan on the top rack of the grill. Dessert would be a cup of strong coffee and another biscuit, this one slathered in mom’s peach preserves.”
I came to, smacking my lips. A hush had fallen over the camp. A hush my oldest brother soon broke.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“What do you mean?”
“Why not veal or lobster or sushi? That spread you just described, well, if you could shoot straight or set a hook, you could have that for every breakfast, lunch and dinner right here in Oklahoma!”
I thought about it a minute and wondered why I don’t spend more time in the woods and on the waters that I love, why I so often settle for fast food when Mother Nature regularly offers me a home cooked meal. Never has a cliche country music lyric made more sense. ‘Live like I was dying,’ indeed.
“Okay then, smart aleck, how about you?”
“Oh, I know just what I’d have.”
But before my brother could answer, my dad cut in from his bunk in the tent.
“You boys are foolish, and the right answer’s as plain as the noses on your faces.”
“Oh yeah, what is it?”
Dad propped himself up on an elbow and peeked through the tent flap, quite the feat considering his air mattress had been leaking for two nights straight.
We all looked at dad and wondered whether or not he might still be half asleep.
“You got mud in your ears or what? Yes, Tag Soup. The recipe’s simple. You start with a couple of cans of unrealistic expectations and three cups of well-laid plans. Sprinkle in some daydreams and a dash of hope. Stir in your strategy, and then flavor to taste with close calls and near misses. Serve it up with dry leaf rustling and getemnextyears, and you’re ready to eat.”
“But, dad, that’s crazy! A bowl of Tag Soup means that you missed an opportunity, that you went home empty-handed!”
“Better to be empty-handed than empty-headed like the lot of you,” he shot back. “No, son, Tag Soup doesn’t mean that you missed an opportunity. It means that you earned yourself a better one, the opportunity to enjoy not just the kill, but the hunt. Think about how good that coffee tasted this morning and how fine the fire’s gonna feel tonight. You wouldn’t enjoy those things the way you do if you hadn’t just frozen your tail off in a tree, now, would you? And how many sunrises and sunsets would you miss if you punched your tag on Opening Day every year? The Man Upstairs has some paintbrush, and Tag Soup has allowed me to see a lot of his handiwork. Besides that, boys, Tag Soup teaches a man the things he’s got to learn, things like how to convince his wife he needs a new gun and how to stretch the truth a bit with the guys at work.”
“The way I see it, Tag Soup keeps a man fed year round. As far as appetites are concerned, nothing satisfies a soul quicker than a big bowlful of it, and if I was choosing my last meal, that’s exactly what I’d have. But enough of this nonsense, it’s getting late. Lace up your boots, boys. Let’s get to our stands.”
I thought about Tag Soup as I walked to my tree stand, and I could nearly taste it when the sun set on another black powder season. I hadn’t seen a deer all afternoon, and I’d only seen one yearling doe the whole trip. My youngest nephew missed the only shot we had all week. But the mornings had been crisp, and the campfires had been cozy. The time we’d spent talking about nothing at all had somehow been stimulating. And I was already thinking about how far down the ridge to move my stand next year. Maybe dad had been right after all. The Tag Soup was tasty, and I couldn’t wait for another bowl.