My father, brother, and I left Ethiopia for our final return to America in 1966. Although we typically flew across the Atlantic on our travels, our final big move came with baggage. You see, my father had grown quite attached to his rickety old brown Rambler station wagon. Whether puttering up and down mountainside roads on weekend trips to the Red Sea or driving around our secluded walled-in army base, the Rambler served my father well. He loved that old car, so when it was time to leave Africa, he booked all of us (including the car) on a one way trans-Atlantic crossing aboard the SS Independence departing from Naples, Italy bound for New York City Harbor.
After transporting the car to Italy beforehand, we boarded the ship for a nine day voyage across the Atlantic ocean. Back in the day, cruising wasn’t a thing. Ocean liners were built for speed and transportation. They took passengers from point A to point B. The luxuries of sailing varied from ship to ship. The SS Independence, launched in 1951, was a small modest ship. That said, divided by a very rigid class system, well-heeled travelers paid top dollar to enjoy the fancier side of sailing. We weren’t well-heeled or fancy (much to my dismay) , so we enjoyed the perk-less joys of Cabin Class. Cabin Class, a wee step up from Tourist Class, was bare-bones stark. Amenities? Hardly. Our beds pulled down from the walls after the lone table folded up into the wall. Windows? Not on your life. There was a small movie theater on board, a dank swimming pool, and what seemed like miles and miles of wet wooden deck chairs interspersed with occasional painted shuffle board courts. Any preconceived notion of boyish adventure slowly morphed into nine monotonous days of relentless high seas playing endless games of shuffle board. Shuffle bored. I ached for the quiet throbbing heat of Africa.
On a cold Spring morning, the Statue of Liberty floated by our ship as we neared New York Harbor. I wanted fanfare, ticker tape, and cascading melodic music to greet our arrival. Was that too much to ask? With zero hoopla, we docked in New York City the day before Easter. When the ship was secured, the gangway slowly lowered onto a cold concrete pier dwarfed by cavernous dimly lit warehouses peppered with busy deckhands and dock workers. There wasn’t a shred of glamor to ease my pallid sea-born boredom.
While our fellow travelers gathered their belongings and tumbled into taxi cabs or shuttles, we waited for our car to be lifted out and unloaded from the cargo area of the ship. Eventually, we piled into my father’s beloved Rambler for the 6 1/2 hour drive to Buffalo, New York to spend Easter with family members. The next morning, amid their Easter flurry, I was handed a cellophane-wrapped solid white chocolate Easter bunny. Solid. White. Chocolate. Luxury. I was undone. Nine days of shuffle board was worth every excruciating pretense of fun to behold a solid white chocolate rabbit. Heavy, dense, and perfectly molded, the white chocolate bunny rocked my world. After scarfing down the ears, devouring the head, and nipping off the tail, I stashed the headless hare into my suitcase for the long drive to Kentucky. And with that, I closed the book on my bittersweet return to America.
Down the rabbit hole. Easter Rabbit.
Buttermilk Fried Rabbit with Tarragon Dijon Cream Sauce.
The other other white meat. Without skin to hinder the process, breaking down a rabbit was somewhat easier than breaking down a chicken. I splayed a dressed 2 1/2 pound Kentucky Proud Blue Moon Farm rabbit on its back and used a boning knife to easily removed the arms with quick slices. After slicing around the leg joints, I popped the bones from the hip and separated the legs from the body before setting them aside. After trimming off the belly flaps. I used a cleaver to remove the saddle, located just below the rib cage, and chopped it into 4 pieces. I tossed the rabbit meat into a bowl and wrapped the remaining bits in plastic wrap to freeze for future shenanigans.
Giving the rabbit a southern spin, I marinated the meat overnight in 3 cups full-fat buttermilk, 1 tablespoon granulated garlic, 2 tablespoons onion powder, 3 tablespoons paprika, 2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper, lemon juice, and a few dashes hot sauce.
I brought the marinated rabbit to room temperature, set it aside, and heated vegetable oil (about 3/4” deep) in a large cast iron skillet until it reached 325 degrees. To give the rabbit hefty crunch, I double dredged the meat in seasoned flour and buttermilk before carefully lowering it into the hot oil. Working in batches, I browned the meat on both sides (about 6 minutes per side for an internal temperature of 165 degrees), placed it onto a wire rack set over a sheet pan, and slid it into a preheated 200 degree to keep warm.
After removing the oil from the skillet, I placed it over medium heat before adding 2 tablespoons minced shallots and 1 clove minced garlic. When the shallots turned translucent, I deglazed the skillet with 1/2 cup white wine to release the tasty bits from the bottom of the skillet. After reducing the wine by half, I added a splash of tarragon vinegar, 3 tablespoons Maille Dijon mustard, flaked sea salt, a dash of ground white pepper, and 2 cups heavy cream. When the cream reduced and thickened, I feathered 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon into the cream and pulled it from the heat.
I tumbled the rabbit onto brown butcher paper and showered it with flash fried fresh tarragon before nestling it alongside the tangy anise-infused cream sauce, country ham-flecked deviled eggs, and whisper thin ribbons of bread and butter pickles.
Fried rabbit with gussied up white pan sauce, old fashioned sweet pickles, and creamy deviled eggs.
Perfect finger food.