Animals were Grandpa Ferguson's passion, both killing and keeping them. A fur trader by profession, he sold the pelts of creatures he hunted and fed his family their meat. Deer, raccoon, squirrel, rabbit, opossum—it was impossible to guess what you might eat at his table—and just as hard to guess what might be living in his yard.
Behind the garage, a bobcat lazed in a big cage. Domesticated raccoons played on the patio. A skunk was treated like kin for many years. There was more predictable pets too, a beagle, maybe a cat or two. Some were injured when they joined his menagerie. Others I believe lost their parents. All needed love, and he gave it readily, which is puzzling—how one man can rear certain animals, naming them and cradling them like babies, while killing others without pause.
Maybe grandpa followed that verse in Genesis, the one that grants humans dominion over fish and birds and beasts. He was probably raised that way. Or maybe his perspective shifted over time. Before he was out of grade school he was hunting and fishing on his own. Perhaps living alongside animals for so long, he came to consider us beasts among beasts, killing and loving like all the others.
It's too late to ask. Cancer took him in 1992, and even before that, it would have been a strange conversation. Grandpa never involved me in hunting or animal rearing. He saw, I suspect, that I was more interested in comic books at that age than my own heritage.
My grandpa with his raccoons. From photo's back: "Holding Rascal and Mascal cause we couldn't keep them still. These on the camper have been sold but they were just as cuddly. Every one spoiled rotten. June 1975."
Years after his death, I began to explore my cultural roots and around the same time, question my responsibility to other animals. Do I have the right to eat them? How should livestock live, the billions of animals raised in U.S. factory farms each year? And what about wild ones, what does rampant human development do to them?
This summer, these questions of humanity and heritage collided around one dish—wild rabbit hash. I knew that Appalachian Appetite 2016, my food photo contest, would focus on family recipes, so I started digging for more of my own.
During an online chat, my father mentioned grandpa's rabbit recipe, one I don't remember eating, one that had never even been written down. He jotted it from memory, and I stared at his email a long time, realizing that if I featured this dish, I'd have to find a wild rabbit or, at least, one that was humanely raised.
Years ago, I decided to only eat meat from animals that lived decent lives. Sometimes that can be real work.
Bunny's had been grazing in my yard all spring, and I imagined trying to discretely yet swiftly kill one amid row houses. A gun was out of the question. An arrow promised to go horribly wrong. An air rifle maybe.
While pondering methods, I also began to imagine skinning and gutting the animal, and the more I thought about it, the more attractive simpler family recipes looked. Everyone loves potato salad, and cookies are always a hit, right?
Then I thought about my upcoming drive through the Shenandoah Valley. With a few clicks and calls, I discovered that the good folks at Polyface Farm sold rabbits that had lived well and were fully dressed. On my way South, I dragged my husband and our pup down gravel roads, miles out of our way, to pick up the animal, which was then hauled in an insulated bag to Roanoke for an overnight stay and on to Asheville, where we would spend a week with my niece and nephew.
City kids, they didn't know what to think about the dead bunny traveling with us. On cooking day, I sprawled it on a cutting board, cleaver in hand. My niece left the room. My nephew lingered at a distance while I quartered the rabbit and started soaking the pieces. Once it was cooked and shredded, looking more like meat they're accustomed to seeing, they both agreed to help. They chopped veggies while I fried the rabbit and thought of grandpa. What would he make of all this—me cooking a recipe he never thought would interest me alongside two grandkids he never met.
“When I make this dish, I experience something my grandpa experienced, taste what he tasted," I'd later write in a media release for the photo contest, "But not just him. He learned to hunt from his daddy, who learned to hunt from his. This goes a long way back.”
All that is true. I was thinking of forbearers as the ingredients came together, as I offered my husband and the kids a bowl of hash and they all refused, as I dug into one myself and tasted, for the first, a dish that was nearly lost between generations.
I'll never know who all made it. My grandpa likely learned the recipe from his parents down at our homeplace in Stewartsville, Virginia. Maybe one of them learned it from their parents and so on, perhaps back to Silas and Polly Dearing who established the farm in the 1820s. Whatever its origin, it tasted delicious with flavors of onion and pepper on top, the rabbit lending a gamey undercurrent, and it tasted important, like a heap of rediscovered heritage right there in my bowl.
H. K. Ferguson’s Wild Rabbit Hash
1 large rabbit (wild or humanely raised)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
2 tablespoons flour
Toast or biscuits
Seasonings: salt and pepper
STEP 1: Clean and quarter rabbit.
STEP 2: Soak meat in water with teaspoon of salt overnight.
STEP 3: Drain salt water, and then boil quarters in fresh water until meat will come off the bone—about five minutes.
STEP 4: Pull meat from bone and, in chunks or shredded according to your taste, fry in iron skillet with tablespoon of vegetable oil until cooked through and just starting to brown.
STEP 5: Remove meat and add cup of chopped onion and cup of chopped celery to skillet, sautéing them until tender.
STEP 6: Return meat to skillet and add two tablespoons of flour and two cups of water. Cover and simmer, stirring every few minutes untll the juices thicken to a gravy-like state.
STEP 7: Serve over toast or biscuits, adding salt and pepper to taste.