I REMEMBER it well -- my father coming home after a day in the woods, his shotgun over one shoulder, a string of rabbits over the other. Such occasions were a joy to the family.
The time was late in the Depression. A plumber by trade but something of a farmer as well, my father was sometimes hard-pressed to provide what you might call a bountiful table for his wife and five growing boys. Plumbing jobs in Culpeper County were a rarity; no one was putting up housing developments in those days. And the tenantlike farm we lived on boasted very few acres -- enough for one milk cow, a fair-sized vegetable garden and room for a few chickens, the latter maintained more for their eggs than their meat. Our water came from a hand-dug well, the buckets raised and lowered by a chain-pulley arrangement. There was no electricity, only kerosene lamps. The huge cast-iron stove around which much of our family life centered was fired by wood.
Where our table was concerned, autumn provided the best of poverty's times. It spelled hunting season, which in turn meant (among other creatures) dove, quail, 'possum, squirrel and rabbit -- wild, brown-furred, cottontail rabbit, not the more timid farm-produced sort encountered in so many restaurants and markets of today.
There was -- and is -- a difference. Wild cottontail rabbit, bagged even today by hunters from Pennsylvania to Georgia, is everything market rabbit is not, or so it seems in recollections of my youth.
Admittedly gamey, it boasts a marvelous, heady essence that withstands the tinkerings of the most intrusive of seasonings. In terms of texture and color, and to a large extent flavor, it is similar to chicken. But it does not by any means need the likes of wine and garlic to turn it into a gustatory tour de force. It is a moist and tender meat that stands on its own, and that's what it was made to do in my childhood.
The family's rabbit ritual -- which, incidentally, was identical to our squirrel ritual -- involved much more than my father's mere return from the woods. Rabbits had to be skinned and cleaned, a task that fell to the boys. But it wasn't really a task. There was no squeamishness. Skinning rabbits was part of being a boy and living on a farm in Virginia. We had the procedure down pat, almost from the time we were old enough to sit at the table.
The cooking, of course, fell to my Pennsylvania-Dutch mother, who knew what to do with a rabbit from the start. She had not been reared in Pennsylvania's game-conscious Dutch country for nothing. If it was an older rabbit, she stewed it, just as she would a hen, cutting the carcass into parts and dropping them into a kettle of lightly salted water to which she added little more than a dab of butter, ground pepper, diced onion and a few sprigs of parsley, if the frost-nipped garden was still doing its part. As far as she was concerned, wild rabbit needed little help. It offered its own taste impact, and it maintained it, no matter what.
When the meat was done, she took it from the stew pot. The broth, pungent in both flavor and aroma, was left to simmer. Into it she dropped dumplings, the recipe for which was largely that of her biscuits. (Today, refrigerated biscuits could be substituted.) In eight minutes the dumplings -- light and fluffy -- were done. Along with the rabbit, she placed them on a large platter. Then she thickened the remaining broth with a touch of flour stirred into a few tablespoons of milk to make a light and amazingly savory sauce with the color and texture of chicken gravy. Finally, she poured this sauce over the meat and dumplings and brought the platter to the table.
Nothing in the world, we boys were convinced, could top that.
The accompanying dishes, as superbly autumnal as the woodsy main course, frequently amounted to the likes of fried apples and the last of the garden's lima beans, the latter cooked in a bit of salted water, drained and dressed with heated cream and melting, freshly churned butter.
If it was a young rabbit, my mother would fry it just as she would fry chicken: by salting and peppering the parts, dusting them with flour and placing them in a skillet on top of the stove, the cooking agent being lard -- always lard. No fried chicken could have come off better. The complements were apt to be mashed buttered turnips (prepared precisely like mashed potatoes) and the last of the garden's tomatoes, which she also fried.
A third and final treatment involved baking. Occasionally she made a dressing (much as she would for the Christmas turkey) and stuffed the rabbit. Cooking time in her spacious oven was equivalent to that of baking a young rooster. She used the pan drippings to make a simple but delicious, light-brown milk gravy, which not only napped the rabbit but made her mashed potatoes more lip-smacking than ever.
Boys will be boys, of course, and the five Rosson siblings were no exceptions. Each professed a favorite cut of rabbit, and depending on the number of cottontails my father had bagged on a given outing, each usually got his preference -- the back (or saddle), a hind leg, a foreleg and so forth. But one part invariably led to bickering, sometimes to the point where my father's voice grew stern. "You children came to the table to eat, not to argue," he would warn. And the ruling would be made: which of us would get the brain.
The flavor and delicacy of calf's brain has been lauded universally. Surely it is one of gastronomy's choicest treats. But it can't top rabbit's brain. Sweet and nutty, with the texture of the finest foie gras, where we boys were concerned the brain was the part of my mother's stewed rabbit to covet. Small as it was (about the size of a walnut), we always fought over it. In the end, it usually got doled out on a rotating basis.
It has been a long time since I've dined on true wild rabbit. About the only way to manage that would be to wait for hunting season and go out and shoot (or trap) my own. However, despite my upbringing, I do not find shooting animals an exciting prospect. We non-hunters, then, are left with the rabbits we find at the market, which may or may not be genuinely wild. Their origins are special farms in such states as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. Most marketplaces in the Washington area refer to them across the counter as "wild rabbit," and perhaps some of them are. But in most meat cases, they're labeled simply "rabbit," a tag my tastebuds tell me lies closer to the truth.
They arrive here either heavily iced or frozen. My most recent sighting was at the Eastern Market (North Carolina Avenue and 7th Street SE) on Capitol Hill. At one stall, I was told they were "your regular rabbit raised on a farm in Maryland"; at another I was told that they were the offspring of wild rabbits that had been trapped and bred.
Still, they proved delightfully good, and a welcome break from the too-familiar chicken. Most of those I took home over a period of several days, however (the going price was $1.79 per pound), were somewhat lacking when it came to the pungent, gamey flavor I fancied so much as a child, a factor that may please rather than disappoint some takers.
Nor did I come away with rabbit's brain. Invariably the heads had been removed.
The upshot was that on occasion I treated my rabbit not in my mother's simple chicken-style manner, but as though I were preparing coq au vin -- with wine, cognac, garlic, mushrooms, onions, bay leaf, parsley, thyme and bits of bacon. It ended up, then, a properly zesty dish.
RABBIT WITH WINE (6 servings) Two 2 1/2-pound to 3-pound rabbits, cut into serving pieces Flour for dredging 1/2 cup butter 3/4 cup diced, saute'ed bacon 12 small white onions, peeled and left whole 1 clove finely chopped garlic 1/4 teaspoon thyme 2 sprigs parsley 1 large bay leaf 10 whole mushrooms Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 1/4 cup warmed cognac 1 cup dry red wine
Dust rabbit parts thoroughly with flour, shaking off excess. Heat butter in skillet, brown rabbit on all sides. Transfer meat to an earthenware casserole and add bacon, onions, garlic, thyme, parsley, bay leaf, mushrooms, salt and pepper. Pour cognac over rabbit and ignite. When flame dies, add the wine. Cover and bake at 300 degrees until rabbit is tender, about 2 1/2 hours. FRIED APPLES (6 servings) 8 large red cooking apples (preferably winesap or stayman), cut in half and cored, but not pared 2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon sugar Pinch salt
Cut apple halves into medium-thick wedges, place in medium-hot skillet with butter. Fry (rather than simmer) until apples are soft and slightly browned, but not overly mushy. Sprinkle with sugar and pinch of salt, turning them over once more. Remove from skillet and serve hot. FRIED TOMATOES (6 servings) 8 firm, medium-to-large tomatoes with skins on, cut into medium-thick slices Salt and pepper Breadcrumbs Butter for frying plus 2 tablespoons for gravy 1 large green pepper, finely chopped 1 large onion, finely chopped 1 tablespoon flour Milk
Salt and pepper tomato slices to taste, dust them with breadcrumbs, place in hot skillet with enough butter to keep them from sticking. Sprinkle with green pepper and onion. Fry (rather then simmer) until soft and brown around the edges but not too mushy. Remove from skillet and place on serving platter. Add to residue in pan the 2 tablespoons of butter and a rounded tablespoon of flour. Stir mixture, scraping up bits clinging in pan, and simmer briefly until flour and butter turn a golden brown. Stir in enough milk to make a light cream gravy. Pour over tomatoes and serve hot.