July 14, 2011
This is a story about a stick, a fire and a dead rabbit. The stick was a willow about as long as your leg and as thick as your thumb, the fire was small and built of pine and sagebrush, and the dead rabbit was a cottontail that I'd killed with my bow while hunting in the Rockies.
There aren't many scenarios that could accommodate this cast of characters, so you've probably already guessed what happened when the three of them met. (If not, here's a hint: It involved cooking.) But this wasn't just any old casual run-in. Instead, this came together to decide a heated question that has challenged generations of hunters and threatened to divide us into two bitterly opposed camps: Is it really possible to cook small game on a stick over a fire and have it be edible?
Before delving into details, I should provide a little background on how I came to be involved with this question. Basically, it's Daniel Boone's fault. Or, rather, it's the fault of the guy who illustrated my favorite Daniel Boone book when I was a kid. One of the pictures shows him lying next to his fire while propped on an elbow and clad in fringed buckskins. In his hand is a sapling tipped with a skewered rabbit that dangles in the flames. Back then I dressed like Daniel Boone, from the moccasins on my feet to the coonskin cap on my head, so I figured that I'd better start cooking like him as well.
Nowadays we know that Boone didn't really wear a coonskin cap. And since he adopted many of his skills from the Indians he encountered, it's likely that he cooked a lot of his small game in the fashion that was common among area tribes: Throw the whole critter into the fire until the hair burns away, scrape it clean with the back of a knife, toss it into a kettle of boiling water, and eat it. Even though this drawing might have been a figment of some artist's imagination, I cannot overstate the effect it had on me. I wanted to be Daniel Boone, which meant I needed to cook like him.
I was eight years old when I made my first attempt. I skinned a chipmunk and poked it on a stick, then assumed Boone's elbow-leaning posture and impatiently thrust the rodent into a fire that would have been more suitable for an ox roast. While I'd like to tell you what the results tasted like, I was unable to locate the chipmunk's ashes among the bed of coals. I followed that experiment using ingredients ranging from an English sparrow to the back leg of a groundhog, but each attempt resulted in hunks of desiccated flesh that looked like those pieces of shredded tire you see along the highway.
I finally had a breakthrough, or at least thought I did, when I was introduced to the 1979 mountain man flick Jeremiah Johnson. Toward the movie's end, our hero sits comfortably in the snow wearing a bearskin hat. In front of him is the most gorgeous rabbit you've ever seen. It's as golden brown as a hot dog and so tender that he's able to tear off a rear leg with a simple twist. Most important, Johnson's rabbit isn't thrust into the heat of the flames. Instead, the rabbit is perched high above the flames and looks as though it might have been cooking (or dehydrating) there for years.
Inspired by the idea of extended, low-temp cooking times, my pal Ben and I skipped school on a sunny day and took our pellet rifles into a woodlot that had that rare combination of Christmas trees, brush piles and gutted auto bodies that makes for ideal Michigan rabbit cover. As soon as we had a bunny, we kindled a fire and pierced the gutted and skinned carcass on a sassafras skewer. Then I propped the skewer on a forked stick and let slow heat do its thing. Ben and I whittled sticks for a couple of hours while the rabbit cookedâ€¦and cooked. By the end, I figured that the meat should be falling off the bones. Instead, I found that the meat and the bones had welded together into a substance that would have performed nicely as an anvil.
In the following years, I ate a lot of small game boiled in pots over fires and plenty that was fried, but I'd forsaken my meat-on-a-stick quest. In fact, I suggested that any man who claimed success with the method should have his tongue skewered and roasted over flames as a punishment for lying.
And then, more than a decade later, I killed a cottontail with my bow. Usually, when that happens, I'll gut it and wrap it in a game bag to keep it clean until I get home. There, I'll marinate it with apple cider vinegar and turn it into hasenpfeffer. But this time I strapped the rabbit to my pack and carried it around for a day while it was exposed to the elements. It was September and quite warm. That night, when I finally got around to wrapping the rabbit, I discovered that the area around the gutting incision was hosting a few dozen fly eggs.
It takes more than that to scare me, but I could only imagine what it might look like after another couple more days in the heat. So I promptly skinned it and washed it in a creek. Then something unexplained happened--perhaps I started to feel nostalgic for the naivety of childhood--and I decided to do something I hadn't done for the length of time that separates newborns from legal drivers: I skewered it on a stick.
This time, rather than mimicking book illustrations or movies from the '70s, I applied a little common sense. I built a fire and began moving coals off to the side. When the bed was about as wide and deep as a pie pan, I began twirling the rabbit about 12 inches over the coals. I handled it about as delicately as you'd treat a marshmallow that you wanted to toast without burning it. I kept it at a cooking temperature, not just a dehydrating temperature. All the while, I tested for doneness by pricking the flesh with the tip of my knife. (Juices run almost clear on cooked meat; they're a little bloody on raw meat.) Whenever a patch seemed done, I tried to minimize its exposure to the heat while I concentrated on other parts.
About 40 minutes later, I bit into one of the best-tasting pieces of rabbit I've ever eaten--barely crisp on the outside, tender and juicy within. Since the attributes of fires, sticks and meat remain constant through time, I have to think that it was my own changes that had made the difference. By using a highly focused strategy, concentrating on portions of the animal rather than the entire thing and employing some basic cooking know-how, I was able to verify the truth of something that I had long ago written off as myth. Since then, I've used the strategy on everything from grouse to beaver tails, all with great success.
On a closing note, I should point out that Jeremiah Johnson ends with the line, "Some say he's up there still." Hopefully, he's figured out how to cook rabbit.