Staying busy in deer season: In the woods of Alabama, a South African butcher plies his trade

December 28, 2013 11:34:30 PM

William Browning - [email protected]


VERNON -- On the road that connects Steens, Miss., and Vernon, Ala., there is a man deer hunters sometimes wait in line to see.


His name is Adrian Van Zyl. He is an intense but amiable 47-year-old South African with a mustache and thick forearms. Usually, he is wearing a red apron and holding a knife.


Van Zyl is a butcher. He operates a small, nondescript meat processing place called Hunter's Gold on Steens Vernon Road. But there is nothing small about the way Van Zyl approaches his life's work.



He chases perfection.


One day last week a hunter named Barry Goodin stood in the gravel parking lot at Hunter's Gold and was asked why he takes what he kills to Van Zyl.


Goodin, dressed in camouflage, thought for a moment.


"Some folks do it for the money," he said. "Adrian does it for pride."




This is any deer processor's busiest time of year.


Wildlife officials from Alabama and Mississippi say that from early October through the end of January, more than half a million deer will be killed in the two states. They all get processed somewhere.


To keep up with his workload, Van Zyl is working 14-hour days, seven days a week.


"Sometimes I think he might give himself a heart attack," his wife, Catherine, said.


She half-jokingly used the word "stubborn" to describe his ways.


This is what she was referring to: Van Zyl has four part-time employees but will let no one else cut the meat. The seasonings he uses arrive from South Africa in unmarked packages so no one knows exactly what the ingredients are.




Van Zyl grew up around his family's cattle farm in Durban, South Africa. That was where he decided to be a butcher.


"I've processed just about everything that walks on four legs," he said. "Except cats and dogs."


In his hometown he apprenticed in a meat market for a stretch before going to culinary school. There, he became a master butcher.


His journey to the woods of Alabama began 15 years ago when Catherine, his future wife who is a Lamar County, Ala., native, visited South Africa. Van Zyl was working at a grocery store and happened to be carrying a 50-pound bag of sugar on his shoulder when she spotted him.


"That's a lot of sugar," Catherine said.


"It's not for me," he replied. "I'm sweet enough."


Not long later, they married and settled in Alabama.


"One day you're a butcher in South Africa. The next day you're a butcher in America," Van Zyl said with a laugh.


He worked as a meat department manager at several grocery stores before opening Hunter's Gold about a decade ago and going into it fulltime.


The business has grown steadily, mainly by word-of-mouth. In 2012, Van Zyl processed 700 more deer than he did in 2011. He is on pace for a similar increase this year.


He said he would like to go back to South Africa and find a butcher to bring back to help him with his workload. Then he smiled and said he just can't find the time.




Van Zyl works in a compact place. He had it built that way on purpose.


"The more room you've got the more walking you have to do," Van Zyl said. "I'm half as tired at the end of each day as I would be if I had a 40-by-40 place."


To watch Van Zyl cut a deer inside of his processing house is to witness an economy of movement. His facial expression never changes.


He stands at a waist-high metal cutting table with a quartered deer laying on it. He places the name tag to the side, picks up his knife and, with rolled-up sleeves, begins.


The silver blade works through the red meat, forwards, backwards. It moves smooth, like going through paper. As raw chunks come loose, Van Zyl drops them into bowls. He flips a leg over, repeats. Finished, he discards the bones and begins another.


A 200-pound deer is finished in six minutes. He does about six deer an hour. He is averaging 50 a day.


When an entire deer is done Van Zyl begins the process of turning the meat into whatever the hunter requested: burger meat, cube steak, bacon burger meat, sausage, brats, snack sticks, bologna or summer sausage.


Then he packages it and puts it into a refrigerator and moves onto the next.


Everything happens beneath an old South Africa flag hanging on the wall.


Walt Starr, a local doctor and avid hunter, has been taking his game to Van Zyl for roughly three years. Starr has had him make boudin out of turkey and sausage out of duck.


"I've had it from all over," Starr said. "His is top-notch. The guy is an entrepreneur."




Come February, business will slow down a bit.


Until then, each morning and evening, out in front of Hunter's Gold, trucks will slow down and turn into the driveway and hunters will step out looking to drop their kills off so the South African can do what he does.


"I really enjoy what I do," Van Zyl said. "I mean, it keeps the water bill paid, certainly, and that is good. But my biggest satisfaction is when a customer calls me and asks, 'What do you put in your meat?' with a mouthful of food."


William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.