The fox, the hare and the chef

I think we should leave our boxes of house, classroom and boardroom and integrate with the natural world of fresh air, sun and terrain, if only for a vacation.  Venturing into the field, the park, even a backyard, nature comes upon you with sight, sound and scent that carries you away from asphalt and brick.

It’s not all pleasant, this leaving the box.  With the flower comes the wasp.  The fox is beautiful, but rabbits will die.

I have seen three wild foxes in my lifetime — that’s all, and I have looked.  In 1956, the first was along Pompey Creek in Mills County, Texas, on the lease of my step-father.  I was sitting on one side of the creek and along the other bank, a fox trotted along the stream, looked once at me and continued on.  I was impressed at its gait that was leisurely, self-assured.  The fox was plump, its coat deep-red and shiny.  I wanted to follow it and see where it went and if it had a mate and kits and where its burrow was.  I wanted to live with the fox and see it again and again and again in the forest and along Pompey Creek.  I never saw it again, although I looked for months and years thereafter for red fur coats in the central Texas brush.

The second time I saw a wild fox was in 2005 when Brenda and I were sitting out on the back porch.  We can look far into the pasture that is twenty-feet below, as we are on a hill above the grasses.  In the late spring evening, a fox came trotting along a pasture road, heading north into the brush of Blue’s farm to the east of us.  This fox’s coat was darker than the one at Pompey Creek, but the same focused gait carried him farther into the brush and away from the cleared field of buffalo grass.  Brenda and I spoke in whispers as it trotted away.  That same year, 2005, fifteen deer moved daily from Blue’s farm, across our pasture and into the grove.

Two years later in 2007, I was standing on the bank of Salt Creek in our oak tree grove when along the dry creek bed the third fox trotted, headed upstream towards the Dooley place on the west side of our ranch.  I was about fifteen feet above the creek bed and stood still as the fox passed by.  That was four years ago and I have seen none since.  A solitary deer occasionally drinks from the pond and I see track that may be fox.

* * *

The fox hunts and in the end, rabbits scream and chickens cluck and run.  The farmer brings the shotgun to the shoulder and fires once, twice, thrice.  The Dooleys to our west have chickens and they pen them for safety, but fox and coyote still take their cut.  The Dooleys count their losses.  I hear no gunfire.  The fox must eat.

It is a cycle of birth and death, the preyed upon and the predator.  You know the story, you’ve even been a part of it.  To describe the cycle is easy, but to understand it and live with it, to go on despite the tooth and claw is very difficult, for we like to deny the cycle happens or we put it away over there, behind the fence, beyond the hedge.  When I taught anthropology, my first lesson and repeated lesson through the semester was “Food — Where is it?  And, how do we get it? Who provides it for you?”  We buy food at the supermarket, but that’s not where it comes from, and it is not wrapped in cellophane when the middleman harvests the animal or plant.

Thomas Keller owns the most famous restaurant in America today, The French Laundry in California.  When he was young and honing his skills at the restaurant of Rene and Paulette Macary, near Catskill, New York,  he approached the purveyor of rabbit:

Thomas Keller

One day, I asked my purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit.  I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then the cooking.  The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.  He hit one over the head with a club, knocked it out, slit its throat, pinned it to a board, skinned it — the whole bit.  Then he left.

I don’t know what else I expected, but there I was out in the grass behind the restaurant, just me and eleven cute little bunnies, all of which were on the menu that week and had to find their way into the braising pan.  I clutched the first rabbit.  I had a hard time killing it.  It screamed.  Rabbits scream and this one screamed loudly.  Then it broke its leg trying to get away.  It was terrible.

The next ten rabbits didn’t scream and I was quick with the kill, but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste.  Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them.  I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful.  It’s very easy to go to a grocery store and buy meat, then accidentally overcook it and throw it away.  A cook sauteing a rabbit loin, working the line on a Saturday night, a million pans going, plates going out the door, who took that loin a little too far, doesn’t hesitate, just dumps it in the garbage and fires another.  Would that cook, I wonder, have his attention stray from that loin had he killed the rabbit himself?  No.  Should a cook squander anything, ever?

It was a simple lesson.

— Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook, New York: Artisan, 1999, p. 205, “The Importance of Rabbits.”

In too many of my hunts when young I squandered wildlife.  I still pay for that everyday.  I don’t hunt anymore, but I would if I had to.  My last hunt was deer and that was many years ago when I went with two of my closest friends to Van Horn, Texas.  I dressed my kill in the field and brought the deer back for my family.  I did not need to hunt for I garnered a paycheck every month and bought groceries at the supermarket.  I never hunted after Van Horn.  We ate what I shot.

In 2008, Brenda and I brought to market twenty-seven head of Angus stocker cattle after feeding them several months on our native grass pastures.  I made sure that when I transported them to the feed yard that they went to the cleanest and healthiest feed yard in Texas.  They did go to Perryton, Texas, a place of little stress and fine management with no HotShots (paddles to strike the calf) and plenty of room to move and breathe.

As I loaded the twenty-seven Angus into the stock trailer, I said under my breath and to no one in particular:  You go now!  You fatten yourselves!  I’ve done the best by you I could!  You better go to the table of someone that finds a cure for cancer for I will think of you the rest of my years!

I made no profit on the cattle, but I prepared them the best I could.  I did not squander resources in tending them as their steward.

And they were beautiful, like the fox, for some of them had a red hue about their coats as the sun went down.

______________________________

Notes:

One of my first blogs was called, “The 27th Heart,” named after Unit 27 Angus stocker calf that fell sick.  I tended him and took him to the vet.  He recovered.

I cook from Keller’s cookbook and always remember that story he wrote.  It is deep and connected with the American Indian.  Parallels can be drawn.

The italics in the quote of Keller’s are mine.


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28 Comments

Filed under Life in Balance

28 responses to “The fox, the hare and the chef

  1. My lord, this is a beautiful post. Everything about it. What a fascinating mixture of nature and food and all that’s good in life. Love your descriptions of seeing fox. I saw one this winter as it came through my back yard, behind nine deer under a Norway and four wild turkeys off in the woods beyond.

    This reminds me of Jim Harrison’s writing for Esquire, back when he did a food column that brought several elements together in harmony, the natural world and the not-so-natural Really fine writing. Thank you, Jack.

    • Thank you, Teresa. I so glad you feel moved by it. Jim Harrison’s work sits on my shelf. I first read him in Esquire years ago when he published “Legends of the Fall.” Your paragraph on the sheep jumping over you in your post is just terrific. Great piece and I noticed other people noticed it too.

  2. Your description of your encounters with foxes reminds me of my own, which I, like you, can count on the fingers of one hand. The most recent was a year ago, walking up the gravel driveway of the nature preserve I worked in at the time at dusk – out of nowhere a red fox darted across the drive in front of me and disappeared into the woods, leaving me stunned breathless for several moments. Thanks for bringing back this memory.

  3. As I read your post the phrase “We buy food at the supermarket…” kept running through my mind. There are so many folks in the country today who have little or no experience at all with food that doesn’t come from the supermarket, and that’s not good at all for the well being of the natural world. Understanding the life and death cycles that constitute life on our planet leads to respect for it and promotes stewardship of life and the land. It’s very bad that so much of that knowledge and understanding is now lacking.

    • No, that’s not good at all for the well being of the natural world. I believe, like you, that knowing the cycle leads to respect and promotes stewardship.

      I have an idea for a college course, something along the lines of a field course that entails looking at the cycle — at least. My best teaching came from teaching anthropology and reviewing the food, the family, the hierarchy and the funeral customs of culture.

  4. This post brought so many things to mind but most vivid was the summer that I butchered my first, and last chicken. I was probably sixteen or seventeen. As a young girl I had been around when my dad butchered rabbits, goats and sheep but had not laid my own hand on the process. I thought I knew what it took but until I did it myself I did not understand the highly emotional experience taking a life can be. It was an awful experience with the chicken suffering as much as I did. But being raised not to be wasteful, I did finish the process, including cooking the bird. And yes I ate the meal, fried chicken as I recall. The toughest fried chicken I have ever eaten.

    Being in touch with where your food comes from to me is being in touch with nature. They are one in the same.

    • Well said, Annie, your last sentence. I know for sure you and your love for farmers markets are acquainted with nature.

      I’ve never killed and dressed a chicken. In writing the post, I left off several incidences of my grandmother dressing chicken. Awful experience. Teachable moments like that never occur in the classroom. Again, you have a great closing sentence.

  5. Kittie Howard

    A truly elegant post, Jack. As Teresa commented, you’ve balanced so much that is good in life. I saw quite a few foxes growing up in Louisiana. Occasionally I see one here, in Virginia, – dead – killed by a fast car on a country road that too many people use to cut thru to the I-state. I don’t come from a family of hunters and can’t understand why people kill innocent animals when, as you said, there’s food in the supermarket. I don’t eat rabbit because the little critters were cute when I was a kid and have remained so. I also don’t eat venison – period! As the family unit and access to food have evolved, I think the general perception that hunting is ok must also evolve. Too many are stuck in another era, under the guise of so much, but all excuses, really.

    Thanks for stopping by, Jack. I’m not writing to make a living, hadn’t even thought about that. But, as I mentioned earlier, I want to get stories from another era Out There. I’m not too happy about certain things in today’s society – the greed, the selfishness, the me-first attitude – so thought stories that could be read by children of all ages might impact.

    • I’m glad you are getting those stories out there. I’m not happy with the ways things are going either. I think your stories from another era will help instruct and improve society today. Please continue to write, Kittie.

  6. Wonderful post, Jack. A few years back we had a pair of fox living under a shed down by the road. One winter afternoon, while I was in my studio, I happened to look up in time to see the female sauntering along the trail, pause to urinate where that trail merges with the one that leads to my studio, then amble on. But our neighbors raise chickens and turkeys, and do not take kindly to having fox around, so now we have a feral cat under the shed instead.

    We have chickens too now, and while no fox or ‘yote has bothered them, the neighbor’s dog killed one a few weeks back. Well, fatally injured her, actually, I had to kill her. We contemplated eating her–I did not have a problem with the idea of skinning and cleaning her, but I tried to picture myself eating her, and I couldn’t see it. This had been my favorite, and I just couldn’t bring myself to put her in the stew pot.

  7. I hope this isn’t too off topic. Every vet I’ve ever known rails against feeding your dogs table scraps. I do not understand this. Every single scrap of food in my house goes into the dogs’ meals. I will not allow any kind of food to be scraped into the garbage can.

    Many rescue dogs have known hunger, lived on garbage, come into shelters with their bones showing. And some expensive vet says you can’t give it table scraps? That I should buy their fancy-brand dog food? And people believe it because its been ingrained into them by their vets.

    We have six healthy happy mutts. They get bits of salad, pasta, chicken, bread, eggs, whatever we’re having, mixed in with their kibble. Carcasses get boiled and stripped. Nobody is going to tell me that’s bad for them.

    I could never work in a restaurant again because of the amount of meat thrown away. People didn’t even want doggie bags, so they just dump it. It broke my heart. I can barely stand to eat at someone’s house because I see them scraping food into the garbage even when they have dogs. Then I have to speak up, then I get in trouble, then everybody thinks I’m a pain in the…well you get the picture.

    I saw quite a few red foxes in CT. None here in AZ.

    Thanks for spreading the word about how our meat gets to the store or restaurant. It should be taught to parents everywhere, so they teach their kids not to be such spoiled brats. Imagine even dumping milk down the sink! Unthinkable! That article by the chef was hard to get through but should be made into flyers and distributed.

    • No, not off topic. I think the post I wrote can go in a lot of directions. Avoiding waste is one. The other is the attendance we all have toward the cycle of life and death and the harvesting of food — as well as my raising cattle for market. The cycle is there. I understand you on wasting food — should not be done. I feel so sorry for those that are starving. Fox seem more inclined towards the forest, not the desert.

    • Excellent point, and well taken. Most of our scraps go to the dog or the chickens. As a matter of fact, we usually give the chickens the carcass of a roasted chicken, which they pick absolutely clean. It never occurred to me that I could have cooked and given the chicken that our neighbor’s dog maimed to my dog. Will have to keep that in mind next time.

    • Find and Outlet – I agree with you. I also think the act of sharing what you are eating with your dog speaks to them that they are kin with you.

    • And need to add that our dog was a rescue pup and when she came to us she was eating cactus and catching bees to eat. That made me realize how her early life was. Thank you for bringing this reality to light!

  8. Still catching up on your posts Jack. This is one of the best I have read. It is raw, full of feeling and emotion, and it all ties together in the end like rawhide shoe laces.

    Fox are plentiful here. It is easy to see them if you take the time. I call them in by doing a wounded rabbit call by putting my wet lips to the back of my hand and making a loud squealing noise. They come running in thinking dinner is on the docket.

    I’ve raised cattle and beefalo , pigs, chickens, goats, and other live stock. It’s part of life in the country, but I never liked the killing part. I now find it too difficult to do. I get my meat from hunting and fishing. Maureen its almost no meat at all.

    A wonderful post. You are some writer Jack. Posts like this that come from the heart are hard to improve upon!

    • Ties like rawhide shoe laces — I really like that. I will try the call for the fox. I know I would find it difficult to kill and dress today. Never easy. I think that’s why many Indian tribes sent a prayer to the departed spirit of the animal they killed — to assuage guilt and extend appreciation for a life given that would sustain theirs. I think that’s what Keller did and does in his meal preparation. When I read that essay of his, I sobbed. To think America’s top chef — the world really — would have this sort of depth and transformation, well, it just affected me greatly. I have friend that is Apache and I have a story of a rabbit and the ritual of warriors that when I get his permission someday, I might write about it. I’ve not come across it in the anthropological literature yet.

      Thank you, Bill, for your comments. I consider you one of the finest writers I have ever read — stylistically and content. Don’t ever give up writing, if you can.

      I sometimes want to be in the same way as Maureen. Probably won’t, but it is always there.

      • Try calling the fox in and get some photos. That would make a terrific post.

        I would love, love, love to hear about warrior ritual and rabbits if you ever get permission to write it. This kind of thing really fascinates me.

        The prayer that is said upon taking an animal for sustenance is about respect for the animal, thanking the creator for joining you with the prey, and helping the sustenance of the animal better you and to make you wiser and stronger.

        As you know I only hunt and fish for food. Life is precious whether it is animal or plant. We are all part of the cycle and showing respect and appreciation is one way to be mindful of the process.

      • Yes, I do know you hunt and how mindful you are of the total dynamic, an attitude and behavior that I wish more would follow. I like that prayer. “Joining with the prey,” a powerful utterance.

        My friend that is Apache is one of the blood descendants and inner-circle warriors that was born in New Mexico and reared with the tribe and father that worked livestock for many years. If you and me and him got together for parley, much good would be done without many words. I hope that I can get his permission to put down in script: The Courage of the Rabbit.

        On my maternal side, although the documentation is sparse and questionable, I have 1/64ths blood to the Upper Creek tribe. The Irish is not questionable, it be there, fully-blown.

  9. “Black Angus” I learned about as a little girl on the drives from home to my grandma’s house and back on NE Oklahoma farm-to-ranch roads. “Black Angus” along with “corn crib” and “silo” and “oil pump” were all part of the journey, in the talk back and forth over the hump of the front seat to the back of the station wagon. I look at this photograph of your herd – they are familiar. I would bond with them if they were my animals, and so glad to hear you treated them well.

    I am grateful for your attitude here, Jack. Thank you for sharing the chef’s lesson with the rabbit’s scream, and your sitings of fox over the years, and the fact that you have a relationship with your Angus.

  10. Pingback: Fox « A fox in the box

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