Tag Archives: Thomas Keller

Why I wrote, ‘The fox, the hare and the chef.’

As benchmarks go, I have one coming up.  My blog will surpass 100,000 hits sometime today or early this evening.  That’s not like a seventieth birthday or turning twenty-one, and it will not be chiseled on some rock for passersby to see on the road to Samarkand.  It’s a blog thing, don’t you know?

Whether many or most people have read entire posts or have glanced and surfed on, I have no way of knowing.  What I do know is that one of my posts, ‘The fox, the hare and the chef,’ March 30, 2011, has continued to rack up over 1,000 hits a week for several months.  If I am to be known by one piece of writing in my life, this is the composition I desire that to be.

I want it remembered because with beauty comes violence, and, as human beings, we attend that performance in reverence — or at least we should.

‘The fox, the hare and the chef,’ was written in one, long sitting, but I had thought about the content and structure for a long time.  To be quick about it, I had wanted to write about Thomas Keller, the chef of the French Laundry in California, not because of his fine cuisine, but because of his full experience with preparing a rabbit dish, from slaughter to the pan.  He vowed not to waste that rabbit he had personally slaughtered.  This young man in learning the skills of his trade, to become one the world’s most heralded chefs, had insight of  a Socrates in the backyard of a restaurant.  He would not waste the life he had taken.

I nearly always seek humor in writing about nature and our relationship to our good earth.  That’s hard to find these days in the midst of waste, tar pit oil and needless consumerism, but it is there to alleviate the anguish of what we see and read about.  My post, ‘The fox, the hare and the chef,’ however, had no humor, no comedy and it just, frankly, turned out that way.

The humor in ‘The fox, the hare and the chef,’ is not evident, but it is there.  When I started to raise a beautiful herd of Angus cattle in 2007, I was going to be an impersonal cattleman — no affection or emotion for the heifers and steers, all business, no silliness or attachment.  Well, was I ever caught asleep.  In caretaking the Angus, I was shot twenty-seven times by cupid; for in each of the twenty-seven cows I raised, I found myself seeing personality, behavior patterns and sociability I never thought existed.  I walked among the creatures, just to be with them.  Go figure, I fell in love with a herd of cloven-hoofed beasts!  Impersonal?  Heavens no!  I took care of those cattle like they were my own offspring.  Funny, but also quite serious.

So, when I loaded the twenty-seven Angus in the stock trailer to take them to Carter Cattle Company for transport to Perryton, Texas, the cleanest feedlot in the state, a part of me went with them, and I knew that their rearing to that point had been the best around.  Whatever table they came to, I wanted people sustained with a healthy product and a sense that the great chain of being continue with a reverence for the gift of life on their plate — like Keller’s little bunnies.  Don’t waste the cattle I tended with love, and don’t waste your own life in boundless folly, for that does not honor the life in front of you — or on your plate.

With beauty comes violence, and, as human beings, we should attend that performance in reverence.  That is why I wrote, ‘The fox, the hare and the chef.’

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Notes, corrections and additions:

Thomas Keller, The Importance of Rabbits,‘ The French Laundry Cookbook, New York: Artisan, 1999.  See page 205 for the essay, recipe on page 207.

The fox is beautiful to behold, but it will take its cut in the barnyard and in the field — beauty and violence.

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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.

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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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