Monday, May 11, 2015

Food for the Million: Rabbit (1905)

I was tempted to call this story “When life gives you Rabbits, make Rabbit Curry,” but in the end I wanted to keep to the name of the theme which I seem to have developed over the last few days.

As most of you are probably aware, we have a rabbit problem here in Australia. The furry little critters cause millions and millions of dollars-worth of damage to farmland and the environment, and are apparently ineradicable. They get around fences, and have managed to resist being extinguished via the attempt at biological control with the myxoma virus in the 1950’s. Rabbits were brought to the continent along with the convicts, by the First Fleet in 1788. As was inevitable, by the second decade of the eighteenth century, it was already obvious – in Tasmania at any rate – that they were becoming a pest.

Rabbits are, at least, good eating, which cannot be said for cane toads (Rhinella marina) – an ugly, poisonous beast introduced from Hawaii in 1935 in an attempt to control the cane beetle which was doing too much harm to the lucrative sugar cane crop.

Anyway, one Australian had what he thought was a good idea in relation to the feral rabbit problem – use them to solve the other problem of the hungry Million.

From the Observer (Adelaide, South Australia) of 17 June 1905:

At a recent meeting of the Davenport Agricultural Bureau Mr. A. McDonald read a paper to the following effect:—Much has been said and written about the rabbit problem, and that it is a serious one nobody can deny, but the first problem to be solved is —"Is the rabbit a curse or a blessing?" It has occurred to me that we Australians began at the wrong end by hastily writing him down as a liability, instead of first using every means in our power to place him on the other side of the ledger as an asset. When it is proved beyond a doubt that he can only be regarded as an incubus we must get rid of him at all costs; - but if, on the other hand, it can be demonstrated that he is a valuable asset, - then his wanton destruction should at once cease.
I do not intend going into a lengthy description of the rabbit - the average Australian knows him on sight; His occupation of this country without contributing to his support signifies a great deal to the landholder, and to the State generally, and and as all efforts to permanently exterminate him have proved futile, there seems to be little doubt but that he has come to stay. It therefore behoves us to think seriously if we are not flying in the face of Providence by treating as vermin good wholesome food, which would be appreciated by the starving people of other continents. To turn the rabbit into food for the million – cheap, wholesome, and palatable food - food which will keep for any reasonable time, and be manufactured without the aid of expensive and intricate machinery, is the key to the problem of making him a "valuable national asset." How
to do it. First catch your rabbit alive - any trapper knows this part of the business, which needs no explanation. When caught, treat him gently; do not knock him about, or you will bruise the flesh. Kill him by a smart rap behind the ears with a short bludgeon. I have seen some people kill by beating the head on the ground, which is a slovenly way, besides being unnecessarily cruel. The killing, as well as every other part of the process, should be done neatly. Skin, dress, and open out perfectly flat by cutting through the ribs, then wash and cleanse thoroughly with clean water (salt water will do). Whilst quite fresh put into brine made strong enough to float an egg, and leave it there 10 hours; then remove, drain and dry, after which transfer to the smokehouse. Perhaps a few hints about the construction of a smokehouse for smoking the rabbit may be useful. Make an excavation in the ground, 3 or 4 ft. deep, from two sides of which excavate trenches to same depth, with a width of 18 in. and length of 4 ft.; cover your trenches with sheets of iron. Over the hole place a box 3 ft. high, having both top and bottom knocked out, with ordinary fencing wires fixed at each end, and running through it. Use the spare boards to make a secure cover. Hang the meat on the wires, put the lid on top of the box, light the fire at one end of each trench, and the smoke does the rest. The finished product you can inspect for yourselves and judge if it is, or is not, a wholessome and palatable article of food. Anyhow, there can be no two opinions as to its cheapness and the ease with which it is treated. It will also be evident to any body that the saving in carriage alone will be considerable, the weight of the smoked specimen being only 1¼ lb., against 2 lb. 2oz. of an average one in the green state. Further, trappers may utilize every carcase fresh, thus avoiding the loss of a very large percentage of their catch, which, under present conditions, are rejected as unfit for use when they reach the nearest market. But the principal advantage is that the industry can be manipulated and carried on by any
and every body in the far away back country where the rabbit abounds and no quick means of transit exists. Providing a market is found for the smoked article, the trapper may be sure of his produce reaching market in good condition, even though it takes months to get there. The number of rabbits sent to the Government Cool Stores, Victoria, for the month of January, 1905,
totalled over three-quarters of a million, of which 26 per cent were rejected as unfit for export. If such a number can be collected in a single month in a State such as Victoria, which has not large tracts of unoccupied country such as we have, then it does not require any very great stretch of imagination to suppose that a depot at Port Augusta could gather at least half a million smoked rabbits monthly, which, if worth only 2d. each carcase, would represent over £4,000 cash. I could suggest that squatters, farmers, and others co-operate with the branch of the Bureau, and forward a trial shipment to some good commercial firm in Great Britain, and thus test the practicability or otherwise of obtaining a market. The outlay in the event of failure would be small, and the possibilities of success great. Mr. McDonald tabled two rabbits treated in the way described, also a cooked sample, which was taster by members, and very highly praised.
In reply to questions, Mr. McDonald stated that all the plant required by two men to undertake this business would be the ordinary trapping appliances, a supply of salt (it must be good), a tub, and the box for smokehouse. The fire did not in any way touch the carcase, the smoke was practically cold, and he was satisfied the samples shown were thoroughly cured. He used deal sawdust for creating the smoke, but small chips would answer the purpose equally well. For transport the cured rabbits could be packed in the same way as salt fish. The methods of cooking were merely questions as to taste. The carcase should be cleaned as soon as possible after trapping the rabbits, though during the cold weather there was not the same necessity as in the summer for putting them immediately in the pickle. Members congratulated Mr. McDonald on the result of his work, and generally appeared to agree that the cured article was attractive and
tasty and likely to meet with favour. A hearty vote of thanks was accorded to Mr. McDonald.

Edward Abbott, author of Australia’s first cookbook The English and Australian Cookery Book: Cookery for the Many, as well as the Upper Ten Thousand (1864) had only this to say about rabbit.

“Rabbits are dry meat, only fit for pies or curries; and excellent served as the latter; indeed, lean meats always are best for this Indian dish.”

How do you like this very minimalist recipe for rabbit curry? I love the assumption that the reader/cook would know the ‘due proportions’ of seasoning, and how much stock would be a ‘sufficiency.’

Curried Rabbit.
Fry the pieces of rabbit in butter with a sliced onion, two apples, and two strips of bacon. When they begin to colour, add flour and curry in due proportions, with salt according to taste. Moisten with a sufficiency of stock, and let the whole simmer very gently for two hours. Before taking up, add a teaspoonful of sugar and a dessertspoonful of vinegar: then serve within a wall of plain, boiled rice, the pieces of rabbit piled high upon the dish, with the liquor in which they were boiled strained over them.

The Australasian (Melbourne, Victoria) 28 October, 1882

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Hungry Million" in the case of contemporary UK life might just be suburban gardeners, but at the end of this piece I did a cataloguing of rabbit recipes in my cookbooks which maybe might be interesting to a Hungry One looking for ideas?