Each week I’d arrive at the family farm in Pennsylvania to find less and less lettuce. It was as if the greens were growing backwards. One week they were there, the next week, they were not. When the beet tops and cauliflower disappeared I realized that in order to eat any salad this summer, I’d need a rifle.
I am not the vengeful type. I let bygones be bygones. But this was late May, and I had been looking forward to home-grown lettuce for a solid month. If you’ve ever eaten fresh baby lettuce, you’ll know just how awesome it tastes. The fence around the garden discourages the deer to move on to easier dinners, but something had tunneled underneath the fence like Charles Bronson in The Great Escape. That something was a groundhog.
I never gave much thought to how the groundhog got his name. Ground. Hog. You’d think maybe he was a relation of the pig. But no, the groundhogs that live in Pennsylvania, where I keep a large garden, are closer to rabbits than pigs. Still, they’re hogs when it comes to sharing the lettuce.
The groundhog I’m referring to, the one this story is about, had a penchant for baby lettuces. Baby lettuce is something I look forward to all year. There is nothing that tastes more like, well, lettuce, than the greens I pick from the garden. I absolutely love the stuff. I filled the hole in with stones, but it did little good. It wasn’t just the lettuce that vegetarian thief liked. A week later and three feet to the left was another tunnel leading to the baby cauliflower, which was gone, in addition to half the arugula. I walked back into the farmhouse and loaded the rifle, which is usually reserved for deer.
I did not have to wait too long for restitution. That evening, as the sun was just retreating, I glanced gardenside and saw the fat little bastard waltzing his way toward the rest of the arugula.
My rifle is a .270, which some of you will know as a big gun, and it’s very accurate. So I propped open the window of the kitchen, made sure the dog was in the house and took steady aim. The round was so large, he nearly blew to bits. It felt good to kill him. “If anyone deserved to die,” I thought, “it was this groundhog.”
But then, as I walked up into the field to find the body, something strange happened. I started feeling a little guilty. I mean, he was kinda cute, and clearly he had great taste in greens. And those deer I hunt are for food—not for sport. The thought of this fluffy little guy just rotting away started to make me feel a bit like a monster.
So instead of leaving him for the buzzards, I decided to eat him. After all, he was an organic, free-range, baby-lettuce-fed groundhog. No one should let one of those go to waste. I field-dressed him (got rid of his guts) and skinned him (removed the pelt with a sharp knife) and cut the meat into serving-sized pieces (about the size of chicken legs, in case you were wondering). Then, figuring that groundhogs are rodents, I looked up rabbit recipes and got to work in the kitchen.
I have this old cookbook called Game Cooking by Theodora FitzGibbon. In it, there are all sorts of game recipes (including one entitled Hare Forcemeat Balls, something like rabbit meatballs with an unfortunate title). One of my favorite rodent recipes is a mustard and white wine-based braise that works perfectly with rodents, like rabbits, squirrel, and as it turns out, groundhogs.
Groundhog meat is subtle, like rabbit, but dark and mildly gamey like wild boar, and it takes particularly well to a braise. After it’s cooked in liquid for about 2 hours, the meat becomes very tender and falls off the bones. I served my little friend with a dry, crisp Riesling and, of course, a bed of arugula.