My grandfather, who we called Pa, loved rabbit stew. He had been a rabbiter in the Great Depression. After losing his trucking business, this was how he fed his family. He took his rifles, his old truck, his ammo and his dogs and drove up into the hills to hunt rabbits. He sold the pelts to the tanners and divided the meat out amongst the families.
In those times you grew and hunted your own food if you wanted to eat. This is how it was. I have only seen the pictures of the Depression of the 30’s in black and white so that time seems to have been lived sepia. Try as I might I cannot add colour. The depression left my grandmother with the same feeling. She was often querulous and scathing about the plenty that we had in the 70’s, which she directly compared to the Depression and so was bound and determined to teach us how to live frugally. For her it was a proper treat to walk into town and buy a cup of tea and a custard square. For us it was just a long walk.
So it was important to Pa and Grandma that we were all able to grow our own food, or hunt for it. That we could ‘make do’. As far as I know Pa only hunted rabbits, he never hunted anything else. He was not interested in an entire deer, he did not hunt for glory or antlers. He just wanted dinner. And My grandma cooked a mean rabbit stew. When I say mean that is exactly how it was. It was mean as in awful. My grandmother never grew out of her frugal use of ingredients and her overuse of salt as the only flavouring to a meal. I know it is fashionable to wax lyrical abut your grandmothers cooking but most of my grandmothers food turned me into a secretive hider of food. I could apparently put food into my mouth appear to chew and swallow, then put my hand to my mouth for a discreet cough and down the lump of inedible meat went to join the little freight train of childrens hands that were passing food under the table and dumping it into her pot plants, under cushions, behind chairs or into our mothers serviette for collecting later and feeding to the chooks when Grandma was not looking.
My Great-Aunts were the cooks of wonderful meals. My Grandma was the beautiful one. She really was a beautiful looking woman. She was dainty with the smoothest skin and wore her hair short and crimped and set in a twenties style all her long life. Her fingernails were always clean and well shaped, her hands slim and pale. As a young woman she was a millener. She had been raised for a modern life of music and books and sewing the tiniest of stitches. Her father was an editor of a newspaper. She and her sisters were educated and wore the latest fashions. They made their own clothes and they were beautiful. She was quiet, demure and fiery when raised. As a young girl she fell in love with and married this extraordinarily good looking, gregarious, young, strong, blue eyed charmer with the gift of the gab, and not a penny to his name. Our Pa. He would try his hand at anything and did, he would strike up a conversation with anyone at all and yarn for hours and did. And so her life took a wild, adventurous, sometimes dangerous and sometimes desperate turn. For soon after her marriage the Depression came. A real Depression.
But we will not stay in the depression with Grandma today, (though I would like to return as there are some fantastic stories from that time) for today we are going to fast forward to her granddaughter. Her little tiny, all knees and elbows granddaughter who was the apple of her grandma’s eye. The daughter of her daughter. Her first granddaughter. Me.
Pa and Grandma had another holiday home in a place way out in sheep country. Very different from Kumara and the cows. Huge open hills and shallow rivers lined in huge old willow trees. This place was all light. It had a bach, big, very basic, no electricity and an out-door dunny and a collection of odd little buildings surrounding it. We will return here another day as this place is not our ramble for today either.
Anyway Pa, who ruled with an iron rod or whatever stick was closest, chose this summer to teach me to shoot rabbits. Why I do not know. I was tiny and scrawny with this wild long curly hair that no-one but my grandma could get a brush through without a screaming fight. I was Grandma’s child. Grandma and I had one of those special bonds that sometimes blow up between a small girl and her grandmother. Pa was a towering terror to me. I was about ten or eleven years old the summer I was handed my first rifle and told I was to go out rabbiting with Pa. My stomach was roiling with nerves.
But as we walked up into the gently rolling scorched summer hills across farmland, my grandfather changed and softened and shape-shifted into a new grandfather. The crotchety short tempered old Grandad sitting on a tree stump grumbling in the yard sloughed off to reveal a long limbed, laughing, strong, old man. I was taught how to climb through a fence with a rifle and not shoot my foot off. I was taught how to hold a rifle -my hands manipulated into the correct positions, my trigger finger getting special instruction, the stock tucked into my bony shoulder and my legs knocked apart to get the proper stance. I was taught how to sight down the length of the barrel, lining up the two bits on top of the barrel that have to be dead on (no fancy stuff here). I was taught how to follow a running rabbit with the rifle, then run my eye and the barrel ahead of it at the same speed and shoot. I was taught never ever to let my head rise above the horizon. I was taught to breathe down and shoot. I was taught to be still and quiet for a very long time. I was taught that most importantly I had to kill the animal. I was shown where to shoot the rabbit so that it was instantly dead with no suffering. To wound was the most terrible thing. This could never happen. Pa was adamant about this.
I was placed just below a hilltop with a couple of dogs (to retrieve the rabbits) and a big view. Pa beside me with his rifle as back up and to my Pa’s absolute beaming delight I did not miss. I was evidently a natural. When I sighted down that barrel my nerves just disappeared. I hit everything I shot at. I was a star. My dogs brought in rabbit after rabbit. Day after day. All clean shots. Pa was so proud you would think he had given birth to me himself. For those few weeks of high summer I basked in the glory of this most unexpected talent and we were the hunters.
My brothers were appalled (they hated rabbit stew), my sisters giggled. My mother and grandmother were secretly proud. A girl who could shoot would never go hungry! Pa uncurled his spine and started telling stories and told anyone who came within shouting distance about the crack shot his eldest granddaughter had turned out to be.
And that summer my brothers and sisters and cousins and I pretended to eat a lot of rabbit stew!
The next summer that we came to this bach was terrible. I just could not make myself shoot the little rabbits any more than I could eat them. My Pa was heartbroken and went quite silent when he realised. He blamed puberty. he blamed the feminist movement. Heaving great sighs, he returned to his tree stump and mumbled about useless modern girls. I felt wretched with misery. But there was nothing for it. I had gone soft. Pa waited for my elder boy cousins to arrive with their own rifles, and I was consigned back into the rabble of laughing kids carrying huge heavy rocks into the deep river pools to see who could hold their breath the longest!
Grandma and Mum switched to cooking great legs of mutton that summer. My grandmother could stretch one roast of mutton into three or four meals. The roast was always good, then we waited through the next days of inevitable mutton stews and soups which were frankly horrible, until Grandma made rissoles out of the last of the mutton on the last day. We loved the rissoles.
I am going to share that rissole recipe with you tomorrow as we are running out of time today. And somewhere in my old recipe book is the original recipe written in there by my grandmother. I will find it for you.