“You cook good rabbit, pilgrim.”Does anyone recognize that quote? It’s been playing on my mind for a while, and I finally got around to taking action just yesterday.
I love eating rabbit. Pan-fried is a favourite, along with slow roasting at about 300 F and served with dark, thick gravy, flowery white spuds, and pungent parsnips.
The latter was a staple weekly meal during my college years — not typical student fare, I know, but I hunted every weekend. I believe in eating what you kill, and I never did acquire much of a liking for Kraft Dinner.
I’m getting hungry just writing about hare cuisine. There are many ways to prepare rabbit from fine dining complexity to basic and primitive. My opening quote refers to primal open fire spit-roasting of fresh meat: simple, but sometimes as good as it gets. When you’ve walked miles on snowshoes or climbed steep valley walls, one needs little spicing to coax the palate.
Jeremiah Johnson sat high in the mountains slow-roasting a freshly killed rabbit on a stick when an old friend happened by. It was Chris Lapp, nicknamed Bear Claw, a rough-and-tumble, grizzly-bear-hunting mountain man. It was Bear Claw who had taught Jeremiah the ways of the wilderness: how to trap, hunt, and survive in an unforgiving land far from civilization. Without that initial guidance, Johnson would have been dead long ago, scalped, starved, or simple frozen.
These are both men of few words; complimenting one’s ability to cook rabbit is symbolic of many things. The men sit by the fire, share food, and cover vast acres of ground with short sentences.
Bear Claw comments, while chewing a succulent hind quarter, "You've come far, pilgrim."
Jeremiah replies, "Feels like far."
Since their last meeting, Jeremiah had spent years in the mountains, built a homestead from logs and stone, only to have it burnt, lost a wonderful wife and adopted son, killed many in revenge, and established quite a reputation for himself.
Bear Claw asks Johnson, "Were it worth the trouble?
Jeremiah’s reply, "Eh … what trouble?” over roasted rabbit, says everything. He would trade his life for nothing and would stay in the mountains.
If you have not watched this movie, look for it on Netflix, rent a copy, or whatever works for you. It is fantastic and suitable for the whole family. “Jeremiah Johnson” was released in 1972 when I was just a boy. Robert Redford plays the main character and Will Geer portrays Bear Claw, the grizzly old bear hunter. That’s Grandpa Walton, if you didn’t already recognize the name.
They don’t make many movies as good as this one. The plot is loosely based on two books, “Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson” by Raymond W. Thorp Jr. and Robert Bunker, and “Mountain Man” by Vardis Fisher. I’m going to read both of these when I get some spare time.
In his lifetime, the real Johnson was a sailor, scout, soldier, prospector, hunter, trapper, whiskey-peddler, guide, deputy, constable, builder of log cabins and more. There’s a bronze monument commemorating his, shall I say, rather colorful life, in Cody, Wyoming.
The film, by the way, is shot in Wyoming and the cinematography is outstanding, way ahead of its time.
So, all this inspired me to roast a rabbit over a fire on a simple stick, and eat it without benefit of forks or plates. Maybe I will learn how to say profound things with few words, like Jeremiah and Bear Claw.
In any event, yesterday was a grand experience. We had shot a rabbit on the hike to the cabin Friday evening. The Jeremiah Johnson story came up in the midst of the Friday night cabin yarn in a haze of dark rum and pipe smoke. Between an argument about stainless versus high carbon knife steel, and a dissertation on spey casting technique, the decision was cast to roast a rabbit the next day.
We set out around 10 a.m. on snowshoes for a walk-about. Finally, it has snowed again and temperatures are more seasonable. There’s not a lot of snow underfoot like we enjoyed over the Christmas holidays but at least you can strap on the racquets again.
In spite of a hearty breakfast of fried moose and eggs, by late afternoon Rob, Cameron and I were mighty hungry. Right where we had tent camped last winter, we hunkered down amidst tall trees to boil up some tea and roast the rabbit. Snowshoeing, searching for tracks, and a little photography certainly works up an appetite.
We all pitched in and gathered dry wood. There’s lots about; that’s why we winter camp in this spot. It’s also sheltered nicely from the wind.
A friendly argument ensued about the merits of my Swedish hand forged Gansfors axe against Robert’s American made Cold Steel wood chopper. Actually, both are fantastic, the Cold Steel being a wicked bang for buck purchase. Just never venture in the winter woods without an axe, one that can be swung with one hand or two, and fits nicely on your pack is my choice.
Roasting critters on an open flame is a bit more of an art than you might think. That’s why I appreciate Bear Claw’s comment to his onetime protégé in bushcraft ways. This was my first time roasting rabbit, but I’ve grilled plenty of salmon, moose, pork chops, bologna, grouse and more.
The magic is in slow cooking the meat without scorching or burning it coal black on the outside. This is best accomplished when you are not in a hurry, for instance, while camping overnight. All the wood is prepared for the night, tent set, and you’re just enjoying some rum, pipe smoke and conversation around the fire.
Last winter, Robert, Cameron and I cooked a couple of grouse this way; turned out golden brown on the outside and succulently tender inside.
We secured the rabbit whole on a stick with two strands of steel wire. There’s a neat way to affix the hare with small green sticks impaled through its ribs. I should have done it that way — wouldn’t have burned my finger on the wire.
Anyway, we seasoned our lunch with pepper and salt before situating it for roasting. It’s best to let the flames die down before grilling commences. That way the meat is seared nicely and cooked through without burning. Or you can grill to the side of the fire with radiant heat.
Most how-to photos depict the rabbit roasting process with two forked sticks to support the beast on a spit over the fire. I find this setup hardly versatile. With one forked stick and a very long spit you can raise and lower the rabbit to match the fire’s intensity. Anyway, that’s what works for me.
I have to say that we rushed this rabbit just a bit. It was getting late in the day and we had a long walk ahead of us.
Our bunny got singed a bit from the flames. To do a perfect rabbit you have to build a rousing fire and let it burn down to a glowing bed of coals. Then just feed the fire gradually until the meat is cooked through.
The hindquarters of a rabbit are typically the last to lose all redness. But a little burnt meat hasn’t killed anyone that I know of. The rabbit was delicious and we licked our fingers and chewed the grizzle off the bones and we didn’t leave much for the foxes and coyotes. Strong tea and bread rounded out the meal, followed by a full pipe.
Full bellies renewed our energy, and snow flicked in the air from our snowshoes all the way back to the cabin.
Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,
fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted