As a kid, I was an avid reader of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and as an adult, I'm still impressed (although I am not so sure that "Pa" was the paragon I thought him then). These books are wonderful for their incredibly detailed depiction of daily existence among the prairie homesteaders in the period just after the civil war.
I find this kind of history of material life endlessly fascinating. You could make a rawhide door hinge or smoke meat, based on the accounts in these stories. There has been some debate about whether they were written by Mrs. Wilder, or as some have guessed, at least in part by her daughter Rose Wilder Lane, a journalist. I choose to believe the former, having checked out Ms. Lane's writings, and found them quite different. In any case, the books contain some of the most mouth-watering descriptions of food ever. The pioneer Ingalls family was often truly hungry. Indeed one winter they very nearly starved. "Ma" was a skilled cook, who made food for her family out of next to nothing, and they thought it was delicious, and that they were very lucky to be eating it.
In By the Shores of Silver Lake, the five Ingalls shared the single jack rabbit that "Pa" shot, with their friend the Boasts, who had appeared in the Christmas blizzard at their snowed in cabin. Bread, onions, mashed potatoes , gravy and a precious saved jar of dill pickles spread this meal to serve them all. A hoarded can of peaches in syrup was divided into seven parts, and set by each plate in the Ingall's best glass bowls. It was all followed by a rare and wonderful apple pie.
"The house was full of the good smells of roasting meat,hot breads, and coffee...Before Pa,the big platter, lay the huge roasted rabbit, with piles of bread-and-onion stuffing steaming around it. From a dish on one side stood up a mound of mashed potatoes, and on the other side stood a bowl of rich, brown gravy. There were plates of hot johnny cake and small hot biscuits. There was a dish of cucumber pickles...
'Seems to me this is the best rabbit I ever tasted,' said Mr. Boast.
'Hunger is the best sauce,' Ma replied modestly."
Laura Ingalls Wilder's descriptions of this meal and many others vividly evoke both the very real and extreme hunger she experienced and her pleasure in Ma's lovingly prepared food. Much of the actual food they ate would seem very heavy now. There was a lot of fat -especially salt pork, and flour, with fresh salads and vegetables added only in the few months when they could be grown on their claim. Sometimes they had a cow, and thus butter , milk, and even cheese. There was fresh meat only when the hunting was good, or when they had managed to raise, and just slaughtered, a pig. With the endless and physical work they all did, they were probably better able to metabolize this leaden diet than we would be.
In any event, when I acquired some rabbit at Wholey's, my thoughts turned to bistro type recipes for rabbit in a mustard sauce, and I went looking for a frenchified recipe, instead of some salt pork to drape over it, ala Ma Ingalls. But my conviction that I was going to enjoy some well prepared rabbit (I'd never had rabbit before) came straight from Mrs. Wilder. Though the Ingalls' situation was often dire, they made the most and best of what they had, prepared it with care and respect for the ingredients, feasted when they could, and shared the pleasure with their friends.
In the end, I found a recipe in The Cooking of Southwest France (my newest cookbook and already a favorite) for rabbit in a mustard sauce, to be served with pears cooked with ginger. This rabbit dish is not all that different from a number of similar and no doubt excellent recipes for rabbit in a mustard sauce. It is finished with cream,eggs and nutmeg and sprinkled with chives. It is certainly not the food of deprivation. The accompanying "preserved" pears are a clever compliment.
I thought the whole thing was really delicious, and tasted special. But wasn't until I reached for my own little glass bowls to serve the pears that I realized why the syrupy fruit and rabbit combination had so appealed to me. And it was food for feasting. We mopped up the juices with plenty of crusty bread.
This is how you make the pears, as adapted from Paula Wolfert, inspired by a recipe from Lucien Vanel.
Preserved Pears (make up to, but no more than 8 hrs ahead. Don't refrigerate.*)
fresh ginger, grated 2 tbsps
sugar 1/4 cup
dry white wine 3/4 cup
chicken stock 1 cup
pears 1 1/2lbs- peeled, halved and cored
1 tbsp unsalted butter
lemon juice 3 tbsps
Preheat oven to 350F. Combine ginger, sugar, wine. Boil to reduce to 3 tbsps. Add stock, and boil. Butter a baking dish and set the pears in it, cut sides down. Sprinkle with lemon juice, and pour syrup over. Bake 45 minutes, bastingfrom time to time. When golden and glazed, remove from oven, to serve with the rabbit.
*I don't actually understand in what way these are "preserved" as they last all of 8 hrs. max. But PW is right about most things, so I won't second guess her.