Friday, July 24, 2009

The Great White Hunter and the Groundhog Basketball

Many years ago, my father moved our family from Cleveland to a farm out in Ashtabula County, and we became misplaced city folk. I managed to slip the surly bonds of the farm and move back to the city after I returned from OSU, and there in the big city I met my future husband, Jim.

Now you must understand that Jim was a born and bred city boy, who longed for the country air. He became a Boy Scout early on and was still scouting as an assistant when we met. He also envisioned himself to be a great white hunter...one who traveled with friends to the dark and dangerous jungles of Western Pennsylvania on an annual hunt for the sacred Bambi each fall. This was something to which I objected vehemently. I didn't mind that he wanted to hunt deer, only that he wanted to go to Pennsylvania to do so. Pennsylvania in deer season is rather like walking through a firing range. Gung-ho idiots from every nearby state go there, hunker in, and shoot anything that moves in their quest for a 12-point buck. I had a lost a friend and classmate a few years earlier in a deer-hunting accident (fellow St. John attendee, Chuck Cott), so I suggested, quite strongly, that Jim drive out to my parents' farm and hunt deer there.

This suggestion was taken well, as it gave him carte blanche on 100 acres of private property. He packed up his trusty weapons and headed out to the farm. I sat smugly in my apartment figuring I had won the round. I'd seen him shoot and was fairly certain he wasn't likely to hit anything anyway, but at least he would be out of harm's way while doing his bit. That was important, since our wedding was only a few weeks away, and I wanted to be make sure he would still be alive for the event. If I had known what was to come, I might have sent him to PA with my blessing!

Late that afternoon, there was a knock on the door. It was Jim with a mile-wide smile on his face, but he was straining to hold his hunting duds away from the front of his neck. I gave him a puzzled look. He walked in, set down his weaponry and, looking like a cat bringing home an offering of a dead bird, said, "Look what I got!" In the game pouch hanging on the back of his hunting vest, and strangling him due to the sheer weight of it, was the largest ground hog I had ever seen. This critter tipped the scales at around 40 lbs.

"I take it you didn't get a deer?" I asked innocently, secretly happy I wouldn't have to deal with a "venison" situation.

"Nope," he replied, "but I got this ground hog and here's a recipe to cook it."

"Cook it??? You want me to cook it? I don't have a pot or pan large enough to cook it!" I was mortified.

"Don't worry," he said. "It will be a lot smaller when I'm done dressing it!"

With an acute sense of dread, I put on a coat and headed to the local hardware store where I purchased a 5-gallon soup pot and a huge, blue enamel, roasting pan with a lid. They were the biggest I could find, but they would have to do.

By the time I got back to the apartment, the deed had been done. There on my kitchen counter on a cookie sheet sat the "hog." It was marginally larger than a fully dressed 20-lb turkey! Jim left for his place, fully intending to come back for a wonderful dinner compliments of his hunting prowess.

I looked at the thing with resignation, picked up the recipe and began to read. The process involved boiling the "hog" in vinegar water for three hours to remove the gamey taste and smell. Then roasting it with herbs and marinade for a couple more hours.
I put the soup pot in the sink, forced the "hog" into the pot and covered it with water. But, with the added weight of the water, I couldn't lift it out of the sink. I grabbed a measuring cup and began bailing the water out of the soup pot until I lowered the level enough to drag the soup pot from its confines. How I managed to get the thing over to the stove is beyond my remembrance.

Once more I covered the "hog" with water by filling my juice pitcher several times and pouring it into the pot. I added the prescribed quart of apple cider vinegar, turned on the burner and went into the living room to watch TV.

Within half an hour, the apartment was inundated with a hideous odor! Ewwww! I raced to open all the windows. I was sure that the odor would dissipate, after all, that was one of the reasons to boil it, right? I wrapped up in a blanket and went back to watching TV.

The first knock came shortly.

Mrs. McInnes stood at my door: 73 years old, feisty, a lace-edged hankie over her nose. "Do you mind telling me what in heaven's name you're cooking down here?" I attempted to explain my predicament, but she was neither amused nor the least bit understanding. She headed back up the stairs in as much of a huff as one might expect from a 73-year-old woman. But she was only the first.

They came in a steady stream for the next two hours. Every last one of my neighbors in the apartment building came down to inquire as to what I was cooking that smelled so horrible! The odor of cooked ground hog filled the halls, permeated three stories of the complex and hung in a cloud-like stench around the outside of the building! Needless to say, they all pretty much reacted in exactly the same way as Mrs. McInnes!

As the end of the third hour approached, I bailed some of the odiferous fluid off the "hog" and struggled with the pot back to the counter. I promptly dumped the mess down the drain, leaving this rather strange-looking thing lying ominously in the sink. I proceeded to step two, mixing the herbs and marinade, hoping with all my heart that this part of the process would negate the smell of the first part. I managed to lift the "hog" into the roasting pan, doused it with the herb mix, and put it in the oven. I then went in the bathroom and bleached my hands, as the hand soap had not removed the odor acquired in the handling of the "hog" itself. It never occurred to me that things might get worse.

I went back into the living room and resumed watching TV. An hour later, the phone calls began. Once again the neighbors were complaining, and begging me to stop what I was doing. I explained that it only had an hour or so left to cook so it would all be over soon. They were still not amused. Mrs. McInnes threatened to call the police. I suppose she intended to have me arrested for endangering the public nostrils!

When the timer finally buzzed, indicating completion, I gave a hearty "Thank goodness!" and leaped up to take the critter out of the oven. I opened the roaster lid. There it sat; the bizarre delicacy. It was dark brown, perfectly round and looked almost good enough to eat. It still smelled pretty gamey to me, but, I had followed the recipe exactly. I got on the phone and called Jim at his apartment across the parking lot.

"Dinner's ready," I said sweetly.

"Great! I'll be right over," he replied.

The knock on the door seemed a bit hesitant. I opened it and found Jim standing there looking as though he had swallowed something extremely foul!

"What's that awful smell?"

"That's your dinner!" piped up Mrs. Delaney from across the hall.
"And I hope you choke on it." She slammed her door.

I rushed Jim inside and closed the door. I had visions of an apartment riot and things didn't seem to be improving. Jim held back a bit as I brought the offering to the table.

"Well, it looks good," he said.

I handed him the big carving knife and fork. He stood up and tried to carve, but the fork bounced off the roasted ground hog ball. No matter how he poked and prodded he could not get the sharpened fork tines to pierce the rubbery thing. Finally he put the fork down and tried to hold it with his hand while attempting to carve, but the knife found no more purchase than did the fork!

"You ruined it!" he said.

"I did no such thing. I followed the recipe exactly!" I replied.

I grabbed the recipe pamphlet off the counter and began to read. "Oh, I see what the problem is."

"Yeah, you ruined it," he repeated.

"No, I followed the recipe as written, all except for the most important part. It says use a tender young ground hog and you brought me a geriatric case! Did you actually shoot this thing? Or did it drop dead from a heart attack when the bullet whizzed over its head?"

Jim sat there sulking and hungry. I picked up the "hog" and tossed it in the sink. I rinsed the goop off of it as best I could and tried to pat it dry with paper towels to prevent dripping.

"There is only one place for this," I said.

It slipped from my hands, hit the counter, and bounced about an inch. Jim snarled a bit as I laughed and bounced it again, a bit harder this time.

"It's a basketball!" I said as I headed for the incinerator room.

The "hog" felt rubbery in my hands. I had to try it. I reached the incinerator room with its concrete floor. I gently dropped the hog. It bounced up almost to my knees! Pretty neat. So I bounced it down again, this time hard.

Bits of "hog" flew everywhere as it exploded on impact. I scrambled around corralling the horrible, smelly parts and shoving them in the incinerator as fast as I could, a process that was greatly inhibited because I was howling with laughter as I imagined the entire east side of Cleveland reeking of roasted ground hog! After tossing the last of it into the burner, I went back to my apartment, bleached my hands, put all my pans and utensils to soak in bleach and informed Jim that we were going shopping.

We found a convenient market that was still open and bought massive numbers of air fresheners, which we apologetically dispersed to the other apartment dwellers in the building. They were hardly mollified by the gesture, but at least they tolerated me for the duration of my time there.

That night, we ended up eating at McDonald's. I forgave Jim, and married him anyway. I moved out of the apartment very soon after the wedding (the neighbors seemed quite happy to see me go, if you can imagine that).

Needless to say, the great white hunter pretty much retired from the profession, and, although he still shoots targets (he's actually gotten better at hitting them, too), he never brought home another "fresh-killed offering" for dinner (one of the main reasons we're still married).

I'm still amazed at the stupid things a woman in love will do (ground hog indeed!). My advice to any woman, in love with her very own Great White Hunter, is to always remember that both you and the groundhog are much better off if Punxsutawney Phil remains a fur-ball predicting spring and doesn't become a rubbery basket-ball type of thing!