On a Sunday afternoon in the winter there is practically nothing that well-off people in the state of Virginia like to do more than go beagling. So it was that I found myself in the grounds of an ante-bellum plantation house last weekend along with a pack of small dogs, assorted senior citizens and some men in bright-green jackets. The men were also attired in jodhpurs, but without the usual boots. Indeed they appeared to be wearing bedroom slippers and so their legs resembled those of capons that had been dropped in a bucket of dye.
Dr Johnson once defined pointless activity as being like getting on horseback on a ship. Beagling, I soon found out, is very similar. Essentially, it is a long walk to nothing. The men in green jackets crack long, snaking hunting whips and blow horns. The beagles pick up a scent, usually that of a rabbit, and chase after it. The humans follow the dogs as best they can. As the dogs lead one through briars and under hanging branches, this did not bode well for my Chanel sunglasses.
More often than not the dogs cannot find the rabbit which does not bode well for anyone — except perhaps the rabbit. So we trudged about rather aimlessly, without seeing any action, for about two hours. There was considerable consolation, however, in the house. Eerily lovely in the sunset, it stood before a lake, white and porticoed. The front porch was bedecked with rocking chairs whispering their secrets as they creaked in the breeze. A small but exquisite drawing-room conjured up long-forgotten conversations between southern cavaliers about to die for a lost cause.
Someone, I couldn’t find out why, had hung a hangman’s noose over the branch of a large oak in the garden. It swayed crazily with creepy effect, nodding towards the old slave bell by a side door. Suddenly, as the sun went down, the air became cold and icy.
‘Chilly?’ asked someone. I turned to find a smiling lady beagler behind me. ‘Well, I am a bit cold,’ I mumbled, pulling myself out from a half-insensate state. She stared at me. ‘You did say chilly?’ I ventured. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘There is chilli for tea in the barn.’ It turned out that all beagling afternoons end with a large tea. Actually, there isn’t any tea and there are certainly no scones or finger sandwiches. This is a strange southern meal consisting of hot and cold savoury dishes, alcoholic beverages and fizzy drinks. Most of the beaglers tucked into the chilli with enthusiasm. Some other people had arrived, probably for the chilli and the booze.
In between plates of food, there was some discussion of the forthcoming Thanksgiving celebrations. Thanksgiving, as Spectator readers will know, has nothing to do with giving thanks for having got rid of the British, but is a pagan-style winter festival that traditionally took place once the harvest was safely in. It remains the only non-commercial occasion in the United States. People are more fanatical here about Thanksgiving being ‘for the family’ than they are about Christmas. Inevitably, however, social observers have identified a ‘new trend’ towards individualism in the case of Thanksgiving, too. Worry over being blown up by mad terrorists has not prevented younger Americans from deciding to abandon their families and to fly to the Bahamas for a quietly decadent couple of days.
This sort of behaviour is more northern than southern. Most Virginians stick to Thanksgiving at home. There is a lack of homogeneity with regard to the actual meal, however. I had imagined that everyone eats turkey, but it was explained that in Virginia this is not the case. The rural poor, or rednecks, as locals call them, often hunt down their Thanksgiving meal and shoot it, in the shape of a deer. Others with little in their pockets buy venison rump, which is the cheapest and least desirable cut, and fry it into a sort of greasy stew.
This does not mean that the less well-off don’t eat turkey at all. Other rednecks kill or buy a turkey and lower it from a tree into a large frying-pan set over a fire. The men then sit around drinking moonshine all night in the cold. The mainstream middle-class Thanksgiving, however, is usually a roasted bird. The turkey comes with a series of stuffings, the most popular of which is oyster. Then there is a sea of gravy and cranberry sauce to drown it all in.
I inquired about bread sauce. This elicited blank looks. I quickly discovered that it is impossible to explain bread sauce to an American. Many of the beaglers thought I must be talking about dried breadcrumbs. Others thought I meant porridge. No one could grasp the idea of wanting to soak bits of bread in milk and to make a sauce out of the result. ‘Is that for people who can’t afford cranberry sauce?’ asked one of the men. ‘No,’ I assured him. ‘It’s actually very popular with the upper classes, especially with game.’
After the Thanksgiving turkey comes pumpkin and apple pies. Not very good for the figure. Even in the south, everyone has heard of Dr Atkins. Some of the beaglers were expressing concern about weight gain. But the New York Times has rushed to the rescue. It recently printed three pages of recipes for a carbohydrate-free Thanksgiving dinner. I threw my copy out, however. After all, outdoor activities require a large amount of starch, especially for the uninitiated townie.