St. John’s Hunt Club, which traces its history back to 1800, has never been overly concerned with hunting. “It was really a social club,” explains former club president Richard Porcher. Rather than spend time stalking wild animals, members of the elite Berkeley County fraternity have long preferred to linger around the dinner table.
“I wouldn’t call it lavish,” Porcher says of the meals proffered for monthly meetings. “The planters up there weren’t given to ostentation. It was substantial plantation food: Rice and potatoes.”
South Carolina is still home to dozens of private hunting clubs, but St. John’s offers a unique window into their historic dining culture, partly because its culinary traditions were extensively documented in a Charleston News story marking the club’s centennial. According to the article, rice and potatoes weren’t the only dishes on the St. John’s table.
Club rules dictated that members would take turns supplying the meal for a monthly meeting. “Each member in turn shall find a dinner in turn as follows,” the rulebook stipulated. “A barbecued shoat or sheep; a ham or piece of salt beef; a turkey; two fowls or two ducks; two loaves of bread, and, in the season, potatoes, half a bushel of rice; pepper, salt, mustard and vinegar; one bottle of rum; half a gallon of brandy and one dozen of good Madeira; pipes and tobacco or one hundred cigars; one dozen tumblers and two dozen wine glasses.”
If a club member brought more or less than the required amount of food and drink, he was required to continue hosting monthly meals until he got the quantities right. While exceeding the allotment doesn’t sound problematic, the newspaper explained that “a similar club on the Cooper River had gone to pieces because the members had vied with one another as to the elegance and variety of the dinners furnished.”
The meal repeated every month with such consistency that a meeting held in 1810 was still discussed decades later: Because of rainy weather, host Dr. James Brickell had the feast to himself.
In 1862, St. John’s suspended operations on account of the Civil War. But it restarted in 1900, and 120 members now meet twice a year in an old Civilian Conservation Corps mess hall moved to the edge of Lake Moultrie.
“It’s an all-male club, unfortunately, but that’s the way it is,” says Porcher, an emeritus professor of biology at The Citadel, and author of “The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice.” “The waiting list is so long you have to put your name in when you’re born.”
Mutton barbecue and wild turkeys are no longer served at club meetings, but meals conform to a set menu of fried chicken, ham, red rice, okra rice, butterbeans and mac-and-cheese. Desserts vary, but Porcher has lately been bringing pecan pies. He also brings a bottle of Madeira, in the spirit of the retired Rule Four, to make the requisite toasts to the club and “The President of the United States.”
“I don’t drink,” Porcher says. “All I drink is Madeira, so I take a bottle with me everywhere. At the meetings, we just have port and sherry. Maybe one day they’ll serve Madeira again.”