Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Rabbit Stew and Huguenots

Starting off the Day Right

Rabbit is one of those delicacies that I don't attend to often. In fact, it is one of the very few foods that I have a hard time eating, and I'm quite certainly sure that it all has to do with Walt Disney and the Bambification of children's culture in this country. Nonetheless, I'm a person with a fine, ample, and broad appetite, who has traveled the world to taste the likes of grilled gazelle, cooked crocodile, oiled ostrich, zangy zebra, and the raw insides of a Samburu goat on the western plains of Kenya, among other comestibles. So why the aversion to rabbit? Perhaps it would be the same with squirrel, though admittedly, that sounds even worse. And I once worked with a guy many years ago, who froze squirrel in his freezer, and would then stew it in a pot to make soup. But before I get too far off this beaten path, let me settle this: rabbit is not bad. It is good, and tasty, and presumably healthy (or, "healthful"). The last time I had it was at my grandmother's 70th birthday party, more than a decade ago, in a small Frech-style bistro, as a lump of buttered meat, with some green vegetable asking for forgiveness on the side. Of course, that's when I discovered the "Bambi effect."

Well, it came back, all too briefly this summer. But I managed to overcome the power of Bambi and Thumper and all the cute, furry rabbity images in the world (and in my mind). At the start of one of my quotidian bibliotours, I had wanted to try out the fineries of the Mountain Brauhaus German Restaurant in Gardiner, NY, just west of New Paltz. Located in the majestic foothills of the Shawangunk Mountains (affectionately called the "Gunks"--an unfortunate 'mucal' moniker), the Brauhaus is a mecca for those with Teutonic palate tendencies, like myself. So before I was out on the road searching for the next book or library, I thought that a bratwurst and sauerkraut would get my gullet in the right place and my mind in the correct frame, in order to function properly. And on the menu was, of course, this little bowl of rabbit stew. I had to try this little prelude of bunny and beans in broth. There was no question about it.

So I did, haltingly. It was stringy, but tasty. And in the end, it was the perfect preparation for hitting the trails of Huguenot country and the environs of New Paltz, NY. In fact, New Paltz is really the confluence of all things Huguenot. The town got its name from a reworking of the name Rheinpfalz in Germany, where the original French Huguenots were before coming to this country in the early 18th century. The dialect was Pfalzisch (usually with umlaut), and without the "f" you get "Paltz." Nonetheless, whether you use Neue Pfaltz or Nouveau Palatinat, you've got a town with a funky name and a cool history. Downtown New Paltz, like the street in old Hurley, boasts more than just relics of a distant past, but a rich history with architectural gems and curiosities. New Paltz, though, also offers us the claim of "the oldest street in America," which has its doubters, as well as believers. The claim has been qualified with "the longest continually active and inhabited street in America,"--all the way back to 1678!! You can be the judge. For those of you interested in this, though, you can go to the link of the society which now oversees the street and its historic buildings and museums:


As you will see there are some dozen or so homes in stately shape, which are incredibly well tended, each with its own historic marker, like the stone church, the Bevier House, and the Dubois Home. It is rather remarkable to walk around a place like this and see these homes still in formidable shape. This is a true time warp!

It was a dreadfully hot and humid day, when I visited New Paltz, so getting out of the air conditioned car was itself a task! But, getting over this laziness and cheeky attitude, I darted into the DuBois House--the home of the family of one of the original settlers back in 1678. It now served as a visitor's center and bookshop. Again, like the Maritime Museum, you will see some fine examples of Hudsoniana and Catskilliana (that sounds a little harder on the ear), including this fine book on the food, drink, and celebrations of the Hudson Valley Dutch.

The true curiosity of history, though, is how something becomes famous or even if it simply becomes part of the historical narrative itself. And the barometer of this, of course, is whether or not your historical event warrants a book and gift shop; each of these mark different levels of historical validity: gift shop = important; book shop = relatively important; add a museum and you get = super important. Add a light show and some cheesy music = the Mormon Welcome Center in Salt Lake City. The truth is, though, that if you want to do something "historic," make sure it's good, otherwise no one will remember your historic act, and forget ever getting a gift shop or book shop. Though, maybe in 200 years people will be dressing up like us and re-enacting state dinner gate-crashing.

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