Rabbits Run in Circles
Just last week my wife, Adrienne, asked me to have the "birds and bees" talk with our eleven-year-old, Charlie. I, of course, kept putting it off, while Charlie pestered me every night to sit down and answer all his questions about relations with the opposite sex. So, after a full week of delays, he and I did, in fact, retire to the library for the great discussion. I posed like a wise and thoughtful Harvard don; Charlie sat eagerly on the edge of a footstool. What followed was blessedly unexpected. He asked only two questions, both of which had little to do with the core issues at hand. I quickly satisfied his need for information and then pretended I had done a marvelous job. When informed of the content of our discussion, my wife was not pleased—I had (thankfully) shirked my paternal duty.
Tom, our former neighbor and President Emeritus of the Old Rabbit Hunters' Association, has had similar conversations with me over the last 20 years, albeit on the topics of dogs and rabbits. My first lesson was that rabbits tend to run in circles, so a good hunter, instead of hotfooting it through the woods after an energetic bunny, will simply stay put and allow the dog to do his job. The rabbit, unless it holes up somewhere, always comes back around. (The amusing part, from Tom's perspective, was that he did not inform me of this well-known rabbit-hunting strategy for a couple of years, during which time I tried to run down a couple dozen "browns" on foot, which resulted in a display of ineptitude that Tom, I am told, enjoyed immensely.)
Then I learned the difference between a rabbit and a hare, how to train a rabbit dog to not chase deer, where rabbits are likely to sit, the fact that rabbits do not dig holes-they use natural cover or lairs abandoned by other animals (most of my rabbit expertise had come from old Bugs Bunny cartoons in which Bugs had done a lot of digging)-the difference between 12-, 16- and 20-gauge shotguns, how a semiautomatic gun works, what a choke is and how to adjust it, how to skin an animal, and then, through my own trials and tests, how to cook one. He also taught me to not rush a shot (his infamous comment after I discharged three wide shots in a row still stings: "Need more ammo?"), the difference between a 13-inch and a 15-inch rabbit dog, and why you should leave your hunting jacket by the side of the road in the event your dog gets lost. (He will find the coat and sit on it until you return.)
In cooking, there are folks who are fundamentally curious as to process—why bad things happen to good recipes—and sympathetic toward the notion of culinary education. Readers of this publication fall into that category. Others are content to believe that cooking is about no more than positive attitude—anyone with sufficient enthusiasm can cook a great meal. This golden age of the American amateur has been a long time coming. In the 1959 movie Some Like It Hot, Jack Lemmon joined an all-girl band and ended up in a sleeper car with pajama-clad Marilyn Monroe all through sheer bluster, boundless comic energy, and a borrowed dress. Now there is a guy who could have had a successful cooking show!
I am proud to say that my Vermont neighbors are of a different persuasion—they actually know a lot more then they let on. I remember a visit last summer with our demure neighbor Jack. Jack can be found every Sunday afternoon taking in the sun on a homemade wooden bench outside Jean's roadside sauna. But, as it turns out, Jack spent World War II flying P-40s, chasing Rommel out of Africa.
One day last summer, he told me a war story about developing a mechanical problem that sprayed oil all over the windshield of his plane. He had to roll back the canopy and make an emergency landing while flying the plane pretty much blind, looking out sideways. He bellied in, the plane digging a long trench, and then jumped out onto the wing brandishing his .45, not knowing if he was behind enemy lines. A dozen friendly locals showed up, made him a good hot lunch, and sent a messenger to the nearby British airfield. He was back at work the next day. Other neighbors, often spurred on by large quantities of dandelion wine, have related that they had wartime careers reminiscent of The Big Red One, including fighting at Anzio and Sicily.
Much like our son, Charlie, many folks have enthusiasms that don't reach beneath the surface. But with no more than an extra spoonful of curiosity, we soon discover that rabbits run in circles, why stew meat often cooks up tough and dry (and what to do about it), and that your unassuming neighbor-the guy who is particularly fond of a big slice of pie-landed on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. As Calvin Coolidge said, "No man has ever listened himself out of a job." Pretty good advice, even in the kitchen.