My mother-in-law, like many women of her generation, has done a fair bit of kitchen patrol during her 88 years. After a lifetime of preparing meals from soup to dessert for family and friends, she has mastered all the nuances of food preparation and cooking science. And, although not a hunter herself, she is an excellent conduit to some of the best wild game and fish available in Newfoundland and Labrador. Rita is part of a thriving rural network that deals in delicacies such as moose, rabbit, cod, caplin, ducks’ eggs, trout, scallops, and the fresh tasty vegetables and wild berries from the area around Bloomfield, Bonavista Bay.
In addition to hosting countless feasts, she regularly loads us up with goodies from her deep freeze and larder complete with instructions on how to make a fine meal. Recently she gifted me with two meticulously cleaned and skinned rabbits she had procured — cleaned and skinned is important, because as much as I love wild game flavour, I don’t have the skill set or the stomach to hunt, or to hang a rabbit on a hook, peel off the fur and deal with bunny viscera.
So, before going out on a Sunday morning, I pulled the bunnies out of the freezer and, still frozen, tucked them in a roaster with a couple of onions, setting the oven for a slow bake, intending to add veggies later. Upon returning to a kitchen rich with the smell of cooking game, I whipped off the cover only to find two little heads leering up at me. Rita had neglected to mention that she had chosen to have the rabbit heads included in the deal.
It is difficult for me to describe the sensations brought on by the sight of those pointed leporid heads bared of their usual fur covering and lacking the trademark long rabbit ears — the divided upper lip appeared feline except for the long white teeth. Even the dark unseeing eyes didn’t put me off as much as those unmistakable bunny teeth — now locked forever in a grimace.
Even though Rita later assured me there was “real good eating on the cheeks,” it was no use. I discarded the severed heads, transferred the cooked bodies into a covered bowl and stored them in the fridge, thinking at the time, I could face them later after the shock abated. I went back to the freezer for boneless chicken thighs.
The irony of it is: the leering dead rabbits led a wild and free life in the woods of the Bonavista Peninsula until they were quickly killed, whereas the familiar chicken I retreated to, most likely was bred in captivity in a crowded nightmare of force-feeding and fear until it reached optimum weight, was hung upside down, slaughtered and eviscerated. But all that is hidden from us, and when Mr. Chicken is presented on a Styrofoam tray, it is a welcome sight.
I have had some experience killing chickens. My father once returned from on auction with a box of 50 live chickens that had to be prepared for the freezer. We dispatched them with a sharp axe. They didn’t make it easy by continually lifting their heads from the chopping block to look around. Although they were tasty, I wouldn’t want to go through that trauma again.
I, in turn, once traumatized my own children causing them to run from the kitchen in horror upon discovering an unfamiliar cooking odour, or “stink” as they called it, was emanating from a pot pie featuring the hand-like flippers of a seal. A seal, they were certain, that once had cute whiskers like the one we had seen frolicking at MUN Marine Lab. They were not amused when I assured them I always pulled out the whiskers before I put the seal in the pot.
And here I am, at my great age, put off a delicious “free range” meat meal by the sudden and unexpected appearance of a couple of bunny heads. In two generations our family has gone from killing creatures for food to seeking out unidentifiable bits and bites at the supermarket.
Perhaps some of this squeamishness comes from Hollywood’s relentless anthropomorphism of the creatures that go on our plate. In 1940, Rita was already skinning rabbits and eating their cheeks when Bugs Bunny crawled out from under the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York, and started talking — he hasn’t shut up since. It’s hard enough to eat creatures that are cute and furry — it’s even more difficult when they are one of the top 10 film personalities of all time. And, other life-like screen stars from Brigitte Bardot to Pamela Anderson to Leonardo DiCaprio keep popping up to tell us we shouldn’t hit seals over the head — because of the whiskers, I suppose.
Bugs was only the beginning. We’ve been assaulted by an endless parade of lovable bears, bulls, bats, lions, a flatulent warthog, a meerkat that walks upright, a sexy hippopotamus, and even penguins and fish are singing, dancing and talking to us. These days, there’s no creature we can kill and eat and not feel troubled about it. I even feel compassion for the homely lobsters kept alive in vendors’ tanks waiting to be flung into a vat of boiling water.
Years ago, mainlanders joked about Newfoundlanders who eschewed lobster for Spam, but who could blame fishing families for wanting a bit of protein for their Sunday plate that didn’t have to be shot, plucked, gutted or shucked. As comedian Chris Lorne Elliott once said, “The first person to eat a lobster must have been some geezez hungry. Look at that green thing crawling on the bottom — I think I’ll eat that!”