Beagle hopped to it for rabbits
We always had dogs. Some of my first memories were of a dog named Preacher, who wandered off never to be seen again. My father suspected that the beagle mix, who was both cute and an expert scrounger, found greener pastures in someone else’s household. At least such fate for him was hoped for. Far more likely that he was run over by a car. It was also about the time that coyotes, migrating into the niche that wolves left behind after their 1890s extinction, began to show up and pets began to disappear.
Our dogs were prone to pick up a scent and go missing — to howl off into the wilderness, giving chase to god knows what — could be a deer or fox, sometimes a raccoon, but they would get disoriented in the thick woods and not be able to sense their way back home. Dogs are not really the homing champions of lore. They depend on scent.
My dad’s clever solution was to take one of his smelly t-shirts (as a farmer and gravedigger, he had no other kind) and leave it at the last place we’d seen the dogs. Inevitably, we’d return after a couple hours or so and the dog would be curled up on the shirt as a bird on a nest.
As a not-very-profitable side hustle, my dad raised several litters of beagle pups to sell them to rabbit hunters. A pack of beagles working a rabbit scent was a sight to behold, their snuffling and steady perseverance through all brushy obstacles.
Rabbits run in circles, and the slower they are pushed, the tighter the circles. It actually saves time to have slower beagles, those who do not run off in a blood lust, but deliberately sniff their way through each pocket of spoor, methodically working the trail until the bunny, barely pressured, thinks the coast is clear and returns to his home base. The hunter waits patiently just off where the scent was first picked up, as the dog circles its way back to the base. You could see the cottontails, barely perturbed, hopping desultorily until they met their maker in a blast of brimstone.
Boots the First was the beagle we kept; his fur was darker, almost a heeler blue with few of the liver-colored splotches that denoted the more prized puppies. He was an over-eager worker, pushing the rabbits too fast and too far. He also had the unfortunate tendency to crush the just-shot rabbits when he picked them up in his eager mouth. A good beagle will “soft mouth” the rabbits. When you skin them, you will see hardly a trace of the dog’s teeth, no internal bruising. Boots would crunch down on the bones as though afraid they’d escape.
The other puppies got sold off early as a pack, no more than two months old, barely weaned. We kept Boots because of his low market value (and underdog charm) and my dad worked with him to cure him of his unfortunate tendencies. Tried to get him slow down, tried to get him to ease up on the chewing of the bunnies.
It worked after a fashion, Boots turned into a reliable hunter, who would only occasionally, in his excitement, crunch down on the carcasses, leaving purplish bruises on the rib cages of the skinned rabbits.
We lived at the intersection of Route 39 and Walnut Creek Road, toward the bottom of Sheridan Hill, on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Ridge. It was not a particularly steep hill, but it was busy, a key farming supply road between counties, easing down off the ridge into Gowanda in Cattaraugus County.
What that meant was that cars descending the hill could not stop in time to avoid dogs roaming across the route to Valvo’s field and the second-growth woods that lay beyond. The first such tragedy occurred with Boots. It happened around dusk on a cool spring day, the driver thumped into Boots as he was sauntering along the road, oblivious to the two tons of Detroit steel bearing down on him. The driver, a portly man in his 50s, commuting home from Dunkirk, stopped and walked around the dog’s convulsing body with helpless sadness.
My mother and father heard the screeching and, looking around to spot Boots’ absence, knew what had happened. Boots was burbling blood bubbles from his mouth; it was clear that his lungs were punctured. He was otherwise unmarred, the driver had been able to apply the brakes but not soon enough.
Boots tried to bite my father as he tried to pick him up; it was only when my mom brought a blanket in which to wrap him that he acceded to being carried into the car and whisked off to the vet. My sister Beth and I were in anguish. Waiting, desperately waiting. My father, his salt-stained baseball cap in hand, looked us over with tenderness before telling us that Boots was too far gone and the vet had to put him down out of mercy. We wondered much in the months after if it was an economic decision, that no dog would be worth the hundreds of dollars for a surgery to stitch him up. Not even the beloved family pet, who was only the pet because he was an undisciplined hunter.
That night and many nights thereafter, Boots came into my dreams, his long tail beating a happy rhythm and his tongue lolling. He would lick my hand, I can to this moment summon up the feeling of his bristly tongue. He was so happy to be back together and we would set out into the forest as we had hundreds of times before. At some point I realized that either I was dreaming or that Boots was alive. Or both — a lucid dream in which hope outweighed my despair.
As much as I preferred the latter, I knew even at 8 years old that the former was more likely.
The way to keep the dream going was to keep moving, never stopping as we rambled through the hardwood forest and across the fields of goldenrod and asters, heading for our secret happy spot in a snug grove of hemlocks perched just below Sheridan Hill, sheltered against the sun, and yet in which I could easily climb the tree to catch a glimpse of Canada on the other side of the lake — a shimmering mirage of escape and freedom.
At some point I would take the lead and see Boots trotting jauntily in my wake. I’d look back and he’d be further behind, and I would stop and wait for him to catch up and he never would, always moving but never nearer. I knew the dream was coming to an end. I could feel the cool morning air in my bedroom and knew the dreaded new day was at hand. Time to get up and go to school or go to chores. At least for a few moments Boots and I were happy back together, and I would wait for him on the edge of sleep night after night, he came nearly every night at first, then fewer and fewer until I was back in that dream waiting for him to catch up and knowing he would never.
We had other dogs — my sister’s Irish setter, Hallie, a particularly spazzy dog who didn’t last long; again being struck by a car. Next up, a pair of beagles that my older sister Barbara gave us as gifts — Mac and Hallie II. I watched Mac being hit by a pickup truck, and I held his quivering body as his bowels released the rich dark stank of death. It was a lot for an 11-year-old boy to handle. I remember clearly my grandmother’s death the next year, also a victim of a vehicle, and wondering why I didn’t feel near the sadness for her as I did for our dogs. I wondered if something inside me wasn’t damaged, wasn’t warped by constant death, scorched in the fires of grief.
Delicious food is consolation for grief. As the terrors settle into muted despair, you still have to eat. We explain our obesity crisis as people often eating their feelings, of our despair fueling the hedonic excesses of appetite. But I think it’s more than that — that the closeness of death connects us to the vital forces of life, one of which is food.
Since we hunted rabbits pretty much two or three times a week all season, from October through to the new year, it seems a good time to offer up a rabbit recipe. They are mild and tender, but our squeamishness is related to them being so darn cute. But hey, pigs are kinda cute too, fat lot of good it does them.
Rabbit With Wine-based Pan Sauce
Make sure to use a good heavy skillet here, preferably cast iron and make sure it’s a big one — 12 inches at least. Cast iron will give that nice yellow-brown exterior on the rabbit as you sear it.
First, cut up the rabbit exactly as you would a chicken. Make sure your knife is sharp — get in the habit of having a whetstone handy and use it as part of your routine every time you get ready to slice, dice or chop. The task is made easier because rabbit bones are light and easy to cut than a chicken’s. No need for some fancy cleaver.
Sear the rabbit: I like to dredge everything in seasoned flour, as we’ve established earlier. I think it gives you an extra crispy exterior and also thickens the sauce as the rabbit renders. I prefer olive oil, not the extra virgin variety but the more neutral flavor. Or peanut oil. You want a high heating point before it starts to smoke. Heat the oil, then add the rabbit pieces. Brown them about five minutes each side. You can season them again with salt and pepper as you cook.
Deglaze the pan with white wine to get all the caramelized juices from the bottom. After the wine evaporates, you’ll be left with a sticky sauce, to which you add chicken stock. left with syrupy substance of the wine. Now add chicken stock.
Roast the rabbit
Put the pan with the rabbit pieces into the preheated oven and roast for about 30 minutes in 325 degree preheated oven until the internal temperature is between 140 to 145∂F. And always keep in mind that the meat will continue to cook while it is resting, and the internal temperature will reach the desired temperature of about 150∂F.
The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon – add a little arrowroot or cornstarch, first dissolved in cold water. Or if you are extra hungry, just add stock until you have enough for the rabbit and your mashed potatoes or polenta.
You’ll know it’s done just as you would a chicken – poke it with a fork and if the juices come out clear, it’s done. Ladle the wine sauce over the top and enjoy. Excellent with roast root vegetables or risotto or especially polenta.
Enjoy — I guarantee it will bring back memories of your favorite hunting dog and companion.
Bret Bradigan is the editor and publisher of the Ojai Quarterly & Ojai Monthly in California. He also produces a weekly podcast, “Ojai: Talk of the Town.”