I always cooked with Mom, who cooked from scratch, not from boxes or the frozen aisle like many of my friends’ moms. There was no Rice-a-Roni on our table. I remember a time when Bisquick became an acceptable substitute for the Betty Crocker recipe for pancakes. It didn’t last long. She claimed to have ousted it from our cabinets based on salt content, but I suspect she decided Betty made cheaper and yummier pancakes. My mother’s food philosophy at the time was simply a balance of frugality, practicality, and taste.
Either way, it all stuck with me, and by age ten my quest for culinary adventure had begun. In elementary school, I had a frivolous herb garden to complement Mom’s practical vegetable gar- den. I once kept a sourdough starter for longer than I could a goldfish. And I read Grandma’s Bon Appetites more than I did Beverly Cleary books. Even then I loved to cook and create food that others could not, or at least did not put forth the effort to create. I didn’t realize that wasn’t normal then, and I haven’t changed.
My best friend in elementary school lived on a 60-acre farm, and everyone in her family hunted. One Saturday morning we decided we should cook. Her little brother, trying to impress me, had bragged about the rabbit he bagged that now rested in the deep freeze. My mother called say- ing it was time to come home just as we dug up his kill in the bottom of the freezer big enough to store a few of their Herefords. Tina came home with us.
Imagine the look on Mom’s face when we got in the car with a skinned, gutted and frosty rabbit in a zip-lock bag.
Never one to discourage curiosity or anything that kept any child from complaining of boredom, she set out to help us figure out how to cook a rabbit. Before the days of Google searches and Epicurious all we had were cookbooks-a whole shelf of them, none of which had any recipes for Ohio wild rabbit stew. We found Welsh rarebit, got excited, and then promptly became disap- pointed at the idea that it had nothing to do with rabbit cookery.
Sitting on the floor deflated, surrounded by books full of recipes and about to give up, I consult- ed my absolute favorite cookbook knowing full well there was no direction on rabbit cooking. The child’s cookbook my favorite Aunt had given me was titled something like “Cooking the Al- phabet” and had a recipe for every letter, including "C", for chicken nuggets.
Inspiration hit. I’m certain it was my first real taste of a culinary determination that has given me both immeasurable joy and haunted me ever since. We would not be defeated. We would make rabbit nuggets.
Mom wore the same expression as when we proudly showed her the frozen bunny carcass in the car. But, never discouraging, she told us we were on our own at this point and retreated to her sanctuary, the garden. What ensued at this point was an epic adventure that might trouble some, but somehow in our ten-year-old innocence it just all seemed like any other new and ex- citing cooking project. With Mom’s dull knives, two sweet little girls proceeded to butcher a whole rabbit that had been thawing in the cool water of our stainless-steel kitchen sink.
Our yield wasn’t much, but we got enough bite-sized chunks of the scrawny game to make us happy. Looking back, I wish that carcass was in a stock pot on my stove right now, simmering for a ragout for a Sunday dinner.
Years later in culinary school as a pretentious chef taught a class of wide-eyed aspiring culinari- ans the three-step breading process I recalled the Alphabet Cookbook method. Wet. Dry. Wet. Dry. Wet product (rabbit meat). Seasoned Flour. Egg. Breading. The directions were impecca- ble, and we followed them to a tee. We wouldn’t have earned any points for cleanliness from that future chef-instructor of mine, but our technique would have passed.
The weird little breaded balls of bunny were plopped nervously into a shallow fry of all the canola oil we could find to sizzle on our old electric stove. (And yes, my Mom let me use knives and fry things when I was much too young to know how to do so safely. I learned quickly.)
We hovered over the pot watching with wide eyes every crackle of the oil and debating on the exact color of golden brown. Once fried, we scooped them up with a slotted spoon, and they went on a dented cookie sheet and into the oven to finish. We giggled at the idea that it smelled like McDonald’s in my kitchen. I scurried outside, screen door slamming behind me and covered in flour, to gather Mom and my older brother to taste our glory.
Everyone came to the table. We placed the handful of hot and crispy fried rabbit nuggets on our everyday cream and green dinner plate and onto the big oak table Grandpa had built us. It wasn’t much of a plating presentation, but it made a statement.
We were overwhelmed with pride. My brother wouldn’t touch them and got expelled from the kitchen back outside to his mud hole by Mom to prevent any conflict. Mom looked skeptical but smiled because we followed through. She didn’t eat a nugget.
Tina and I each took a bite of a nugget. It took some work. There was a lot of chewing. A clear consensus that honey mustard would not help at all, but ketchup would solve all the problems of the world. We may have eaten a nugget or two each. We ate a lot of ketchup and all the bread- ing. My mom chuckled under her breath and began yet another lesson in cleaning up after your- self.
This may not have been my highest of culinary accomplishments, certainly not food I would want on my table for dinner tonight. But to two ten-year-old girls those chewy gamey weird rab- bit nuggets were a victory because we cooked them. And I didn’t know it then, but those rabbit nuggets were the beginning of finding what defines me as a cook and probably as a person. I recall this adventure often when worrying if an aging wheel of my homemade cheese will turn out creamy enough or a recipe that’s swirling in my mind will follow through on the plate. I learned to embrace the curiosity, to follow inspiration, and to find joy in the process. And above all I learned that sometimes it is not all about the result - sometimes cooking (and life) are all about what you learn from the adventure along the way. And you just never know, you might create something brilliant to put on your table.