Versatile hunting breeds are all the rage today and I have to tell you that I am more than just a little disappointed that the beagle is not recognized as one of them. No doubt, it has to do with the fact that many of the versatile uses of the beagle come in an accidental fashion. For instance, a beagle goes into the thickets looking for a rabbit and a squirrel runs up a tree. Next thing you know, the squirrel is in the game vest. Beagles are good at flushing birds too—doves, woodcock, grouse, and pheasant have all become part of my beagles’ repertoire. In fact, some of my hounds have circled stocked pheasant while tonguing on the scent trail. I got my limit (two) of stocked pheasant last year and never fired a shot—Duke ran them down in the brush and retrieved what I discovered to be previously wounded birds. Why do I mention the mixed bag approach to hunting with our canine companions? Thanksgiving is the reason, and if you start now you can prepare an alternative Thanksgiving like I do. Start freezing meat, by species, and you will be a big hit at Thanksgiving.
An alternative Thanksgiving is one where you have no prescribed meal time. It is an open graze and guests can come and go as they please. I make recipes that are crock pot friendly, and let people decide when they can make it to my house. Rabbit stew is always on the menu. Squirrel pot pie is a favorite (Pennsylvania Dutch potpie—egg noodles and gravy, not pie crust). Grouse noodle soup is my take on Chicken noodle soup. Venison steaks are sliced thin and chilling in a marinade at the back of the refrigerator to be cooked fresh on the grill when you arrive. The only menu items that demand your presence at the moment they are cooked are the Buffalo dove breasts and the bacon wrapped, saffron-rice-stuffed pheasants. Wild turkey is fairly tough, so if I get one it is cooked into turkey gravy and you can pour it over potatoes or gravy, whichever you prefer.
Why the alternative holiday? Stress. That’s why. People have relatives visit for this day. The in-laws and the outlaws appear in droves. Sometimes, you need a break. I learned this the hard way when my dad and I ran from our house on Thanksgiving morning like the Russians retreating before an invading army to let winter kill of the adversary.
“Where are we going?” I asked dad the first time it happened.
“Hunting,” he said, “Your mom and her mother are going to be cooking in the same kitchen. Two hens can’t cook one turkey.” I wasn’t sure how I felt about dad calling my mom and gram hens, but he was right—they disagreed on everything. Temperatures, spices, cooking times, and even pies were causes of friction. I can’t taste much difference between pumpkin and sweet potato pie, but they certainly had strong opinions on the matter. As a kid my dad and I would come home to the aftermath of war. Mom and gram were cranky. They spoke to each other in short, laconic phrases that revealed heated arguments in the recent past, but they were pleasant for the actual meal, even if it was a contrived peace that didn’t really exist.
My wife, Renee, and I decided that these sorts of conflicts are not for us. I wake up and go hunting, and she stays home and cooks the wild game that has been accumulating throughout autumn. She loves it. She even makes a ground venison and wild mushroom ravioli served with an Alfredo sauce. The sauce is kept warm and the frozen ravioli, made a week or more before, can be boiled in just a few minutes to give a guest an appetizer.
In other words, when your relatives drive you nuts, you go to our house for a brief respite. You can use any excuse you need—tell then you are going to the convenience store for milk or coffee creamer. I have a buddy that makes a trip to the local gas station to buy scratch-off lottery tickets for his father-in-law. “He loves them things, and it gives me an excuse to get away from him!” he says as he eats a bowl of rabbit stew every year.
Oh, we aren’t trying to spoil anyone’s family meal, and we make it clear that our feast is in addition to their own, not a substitute, although we sometimes have guests that have no family in the area that stay all day. It is a pretty good time, if I do say so myself. I hope you will consider doing the same. Serve the pheasant as the sit-down portion of your own meal around the table, and then just chit-chat with your hunting pals as they float in and out of your house. Hunting dogs are welcome, and they even get a few scraps. Well, if you will excuse me, I am off to take these beagles afield, and I am hoping that they will someday be recognized as a versatile hunting breed, even if their versatility comes as a byproduct of their passionate pursuit of bunnies.
For more stories like this one, check out Bob Fords Beagle Tales Series of books.