To the Table!

By Cecilia Nasti

In the cool early summer of my tender eighth year, a quartet of rabbits from a nearby field ended up invited to supper. The hapless hares wouldn’t have found their way onto the menu had my maternal grandparents remained in California instead of traveling to Batavia, Illinois, for a monthlong stay. Eating from the land—including the occasional harvest of game for the table—was very much the norm for my mother’s people. Not so for me.

Great-Uncle Mike and his family arrived from the neighboring town of Geneva one late afternoon. Before long, my father and grandfather had joined my uncle in the driveway where they stood over the open trunk of his shiny black Buick. The three men, wearing sleeveless white undershirts and chinos, spoke to one another in Italian, gestured toward the trunk and then out to the acres of open fields across the street from our home. My curiosity afire, I ran to the vehicle and squeezed past the men to get a look inside. To my surprise, I saw two shotguns, but before I could ask the reason, Dad dispatched me to the house to tell my mother that the men were going out to do what he and Mom had discussed earlier…something he did not share with me.

It was nearly dusk when the Buick returned to the driveway. Uncle Mike opened the trunk and removed what looked like a large bunch of stained, crumpled newspapers. Loosely wrapped in the headlines of the Chicago Tribune were the rabbits.

Alerted by the chorus of children’s voices announcing the return of the intrepid trio, the women spilled out of the house and congratulated their husbands on such a successful expedition. My heart sank, and my stomach churned, when I finally realized what lay ahead for the rabbits…and for me.

Nana, Mom and Aunt Betty made a huge fuss when the menfolk began to dress the animals in the backyard, surrounded by curious youthful onlookers. The sense of expectation was palpable, and, although I didn’t want to look, I was powerless to avert my attention.

Relief and regret took hold when the men begrudgingly moved to the basement (directly below the room where I slept) to carry out the unmentionable. Finally emerging from the darkness, they held four glistening carcasses.

Like relay runners, they handed off the bunny batons to the women, who confidently grabbed them and dashed for the finish line. If you’ve never been in a kitchen full of Italian women preparing a big family meal, it is definitely worth the price of admission. Working as a team, they efficiently butchered, seasoned, dredged and browned the game in a heavy cast-iron skillet, then deposited the pieces into a huge pot of thick, homemade tomato sauce bubbling on the stove since morning. As the savory aromas permeated every molecule of air in the house, my anxiety grew. I knew I would have to eat rabbit if I wanted to eat at all (and I always did).

Then the announcement: “Tutti a tavola a mangiare!” came my grandmother’s raspy proclamation. “Everyone to the table to eat!”

Tangled ribbons of handmade pasta gently cradled the fragrant red sauce laden with chunks of homegrown tomatoes, peppers, onions and juicy rabbit meat. Using a well-worn, slotted spoon, Grandpa scooped out pieces of meat, and, with immense pride, placed a piece of the succulent wild game onto everyone’s plate to the chorus of appreciative oohing and ahhing.

I breathed in the seductive perfume wafting from the food in front of me and felt guilty when my mouth began to water uncontrollably. I kept staring at my plate, now covered with the remains of the day, then decided that eating the meal for which so many had worked so hard was the least I could do in appreciation of their efforts.

Grace that night included a prayer of gratitude for nature’s bounty, and a special nod of thanks to the rabbits for giving their lives so that we could eat. I think in that moment I began to better understand the circle of life.

It was delicious.