Tag Archives: The French Laundry

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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