Remember a special couple, through tough times and rabbits
Making ends meet for the Wilmes family sometimes meant eating cottontails, which Mychal Wilmes remembers as tasting not unlike spring chicken when prepared properly.
A photograph of a young couple — he in his Sunday best and she in a white dress and holding a bouquet — has a special place in my heart.
Dad and his bride were married in the morning. The wedding afternoon was spent stacking marsh hay near the pasture’s edge. Their partnership would continue for more than 50 years through good times and bad.
Dad spoke often about the early days, when times were tough. He, who liked to ice fish when the sun promised spring, did his best to make ends meet. Labor involved cutting ice with horses, an occupation that was dangerous for both men and beast.
Dad also hunted rabbits, which were so numerous among the haystack that he could use a club to take them. The cottontails were a break from canned beef and chicken, and the pork preserved beneath a solid lard barrier in the Red Wing crock.
Rabbit and squirrel, if dipped in egg and rolled in flour and then fried in a cast-iron skillet, is equal in taste to spring chicken. I had that in mind when, to link our young children with the past, acquired a rabbit for supper. The recipe involved browning the rabbit in a skillet, onions, mushrooms, garlic, cooking wine, basic seasonings and oven baking.
One child refused to eat it and the other two said it was OK, but had little appetite for it. Sharing a little history was far more important than the reviews.
Before jackrabbits had all but disappeared in our area of southern Minnesota because of a loss of habitat and disease, my brothers hunted hares when they could easily be tracked in the snow. The jackrabbit population declined rapidly and Mother — like many others — warned that hares should not be eaten because health authorities said rabbits were infected with a liver disease that might strike humans.
Today’s domesticated and wild rabbit population is under assault by a virus discovered a couple decades ago in China and Europe. The virus has made it to the western United States. Wildlife experts fear the disease could wipeout rabbit populations and have a devastating impact on predators dependent on rabbits for survival.
Although Mother’s interest in serving rabbit waned, she used one as a teaching tool. Her boys, who had a habit of spreading dirty clothes on the floor like loose hay despite her complaints, found a baby rabbit and left it roam in upstair bedrooms. The rabbit — because it chewed on anything left on the floor — quickly broke them of the nasty habit.
That pet rabbit’s fate is forgotten, although it certainly never became a meal.
I had not seen a jackrabbit in these parts for more than a decade until we chased one during a long walk up our dead-end farmstead driveway. The children were startled by what they thought was a common cottontail with enormous ears and long legs.
On another walk not long after that, youngest daughter Rachel spotted what she thought was a cat leading her brood along the edge of the road. She caught up with the brood and tried to pick one up.
It was a skunk family, but no harm was done to her. Our dog was not so fortunate. We decided the best way to remove the stench was a mixture of tomato juice and warm water. It escapes me now as to why we thought the dog should be brought inside our home.
The smell was overwhelming and tomato juice did not remove the smell from the dog or the house. I decided to put a positive spin on the situation. You know, I said, some perfume makers produce some of the most expensive scents in the world by using skunk glands.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.