While initially, readers of this column may think that I have lost my mind in confusing my normal culinary ramblings with candidates, caucuses, and political primaries, please bear with me. Sometimes the genesis of a discussion on food is not where one would expect.
Recently, one of the candidates for the presidential nomination, Mike Huckabee, indicated that in his college days he would fry up wild game, specifically, squirrel, in his dorm room popcorn popper. Almost universally, the comment was greeted with a global “euhhh”; it was not so much the perception that the furry little critters were being boiled alive in oil, but rather a reaction to anyone actually eating one. I concluded that the adverse reaction stemmed from what was being prepared, as no one ever had a similar reaction to the idea of a college student preparing a spaghetti dinner in a popcorn popper (as a note to younger readers, we are talking about popcorn poppers which used hot oil and not hot air. I am not at all sure how one would prepare a spaghetti dinner in a hot air popcorn popper).
It seems to me that our reaction, especially prevalent in the sophisticated urban climes, represents what I would refer to as “supermarket snobbery”. Somehow we have a perception that, with the exception of produce (which is still allowed to be displayed in large bins), if the product is not wrapped and sealed in plastic and foam trays, the mere thought of consuming it should evoke revulsion. My question is: Why? Part of the answer lies in the fact that, as modern carnivores, we like to be removed from the realities of our meat consumption. It is so much more pleasant and acceptable to go to the meat counter and purchase something which is more identifiable as a pork chop than as a part of a pig than it is to prepare something that is clearly identifiable as a rabbit, squirrel, or other form of living thing. Perhaps aquatic game, i.e., fish are somewhat of an exception, although even one who enjoys the perch fish fry certainly does not enjoy the attendant activity of cleaning the fish. But fish and mollusks are cold blooded and not nearly as cute as a squirrel, rabbit or deer and so the act of "hunting" them is generally viewed with much more acceptance. So, as supermarket snobs, we stick our noses up at those silly country bumpkins who butcher their own venison and eat such oddities as squirrel, grouse or wild boar. Not because any of them are unpalatable, because that truly is not the case, but merely because commercially raised pork, beef and fowl are more urbane and thus somehow more acceptable.
I have a very good friend who fairly regularly supplies me with all manner of wild fowl. Kevin, who could well go with the motto, “If it flies it dies”, is an avid hunter. As a result of his activities, I have been fortunate enough to have experienced patridge, pheasant, and 5 or 6 different species of duck (pintails are the best). I must admit that sometimes preparing the bounty of his forays is somewhat disconcerting, as it may be necessary to remove a still feathered wing or seek out shotgun pellets before they find their way into my molars. Disconcerting also because it places me squarely in the position of dealing with what was once clearly a living creature that I now intend to roast and then eat, a situation quite different from sautéeing a pork chop, the location of which most would be unable to identify on a pig.
There is no doubt that in terms of culinary enjoyment, wild game can be a treat, and while I can still vividly remember watching my father gag as he would clean rabbits that he and my grandfather had shot, once those long-earred lupines were properly prepared, I can assure you that there was only delightful “mmmms” with no adverse intestinal reaction. The further we are removed from the process of reducing a living organism to a meal, the more comfortable we become even though the only difference between dining on wild game and supermarket meat is our own involvement in the process. The foam tray insulates not only the chicken breast, but also our own sensibilities. So, with candidate Huckabee’s comment firmly in mind, we travel down to Heinen’s or Giant Eagle patting ourselves on the back for our superiority because we do not dine on such backwoods hick concoctions as possum, grouse, venison or boar. Having never considered consuming the same, we are comfortable with our perception that somehow being further away from the actual process of producing the food makes us, in and of itself, superior.
And yet, in a time when we are becoming more and more concerned with the effects of industrialized farming, the ecology of globalized food supplies, and the cost of maintaining a supply system to feed our sophisticated perceptions and fill grocery store meat cases, we avoid consideration of the more responsible approach, which is, in fact, to look to foraging food products, be it a Lake Erie Walleye, a Wayne National Forest deer, or a wild woodland rabbit or squirrel, all of which are fed on renewable resources and are naturally free-ranging without the increased Belle & Evans price tag.
Without regard to the political side of the issue, I offer this delicious recipe (developed by Elmer Fudd himself) for wabbit stew. While I haven't tried to do so, I believe, in a pinch, it could be prepared in a popcorn popper.
2 fresh rabbits, cleaned and quartered
For the marinade:
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
juice of one lemon
sprig of fresh rosemary
2 tbsp. soy sauce
4 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
For the stew:
Flour to coat rabbit
3 potatoes, cut in 2 inch cubes, skin on
3 large carrots, sliced thick
3 stalks celery, sliced thick
large onion, sliced
1/4 lb. salt pork, minced (or 3 strips bacon)
2 bay leaves
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup white wine
3 tbsp. flour mixed with 1/2 cup water
salt and pepper
If using wild rabbit, marinate overnight; if domestic, 3 or 4 hours. In a large bowl combine all ingredients for the marinade. Add the rabbit, turning to coat. Refrigerate.
After marinating, pat the rabbit dry. Reserve the marinade. In a deep skillet, brown the salt pork and reserve. Dredge the rabbit in flour, shaking off the excess. Brown in the bacon grease, 5-7 minutes per side. Add the onion, stock, cup of wine, bay leaves and reserved marinade. Cover and simmer 45 minutes. Add the vegetables and continue to simmer another 45 minutes. Remove rabbit from skillet, wisk in the flour water mixture to thicken. Return rabbit to skillet, turning to coat. Serve with crusty whole grain bread and a hoppy ale.
Note: Domestic rabbit is available at the West Side Market