When Rabbit Pie Helped Save a Nation

When my first wife and I packed our modest earthly acquisitions in 1948 to head halfway ‘round the world in search of a future with promise, food rationing was still being strictly enforced in the UK. It was one of the major factors in our family debate, “should we stay, or should we go.” A soon-to-be second mouth to feed tipped the scales when, one month, we gave up our meagre meat ration for a double ration of bottled orange juice for Joyce. We left with some heavy concerns for our future.

It was 1954 before rationing ended in the UK and we enjoyed everyone of them, but eased our guilt by sending modest food parcels home pre-Christmas.

While far from being gourmets or diet conscience diners, our income (read lack of) precluded over-indulgence. But we could, if we spent cautiously for a few days, afford a decent Sunday roast once in a while and pretend we were rich. And after a while we didn’t even miss what had been our faithful fill-in during those meat deprived war years – rabbit in pie or roasted, in stew or sliced and stuffed between two slices of unbuttered bread.

To ask a Victoria butcher if he ever got any rabbit was to invite a strange look, and a head shake. I understand it’s a little different these days, but not much. You can find rabbit if you can find a good butcher. But it’s easier to find lamb chops.

So, it was with a mild degree of surprise a few days ago to view my evening dinner menu at Berwick Royal Oak and read that “Rabbit Pie” was one of the two dinner choices. We live well at Berwick with a main dining room, a Bistro and an in-house “village pub” to feed us, each with a different menu. The main dining room is full service; the Bistro casual “build your own stir fry or pizza;” the Shield and Dragon pub is casual with fish and chips as good as you’ll get anywhere.

Rabbit Pie: If you are of British Islands birth and lived through the troubled years 1939-1954, when we survived on a tough government imposed and enforced diet, you may remember the old ditty the BBC used to play endlessly when imported meat supplies were diverted to the military – or were lost in transit by the shipload courtesy of the U-boats.

On the Net readers can find a painful and I think ridiculous explanation of the ditty made popular by The Crazy Gang and designed to boost British morale when we thought air raids would never end. The “jingo” interpretation has the farmer as a German, the rabbits as the English running away presumably to be able to fight again another day. I prefer my theory that it was an effort by people of goodwill who thought there were better ways to feed a hungry nation in dire distress than by killing rabbits.

I remember that on wartime Saturday afternoons I would spend two or three hours helping small farmer Bill Dellahay “harvest” rabbits, skin them, clean them and wrap them in a soft damp cloth to take home to my mother who had assisted the local midwife in the delivery of Bill’s firstborn son. Bill was convinced my mother’s post-natal care saved his wife and son.

When I got home on Saturday evening with a suitcase full of dirty laundry and clean, well-wrapped rabbits, my sister would be dispatched to bring three neighbouring wives around. Each would be presented with a plump rabbit leaving two for mother.

While today that might seem overly kind, my modern readers should understand our fridge was a walk-in pantry. Shelf life was short. A walk down Bottrill Street around 2 p.m. on a given Sunday would tantalizingly confirm that three rabbit pies or casseroles were approaching perfection in coal-fired ovens while a fourth simmered in what would eventually be rabbit stew.

And the Berwick Rabbit Pie? A little embarrassing, so let’s keep this to ourselves. Fighting an attack by my old enemy gout, I sat pre-dinner with the offending foot elevated watching depressing news and fell asleep. Dinner was long over. My home-made sandwich could not be described as great. And my friends tell me, gleefully, the rabbit pie was “pretty good.”

But I’ll wager they could never be as good as Bill Dellahay’s wartime treats when we briefly laughed at rationing.

3 comments

  1. I recall leaving a Belgian restaurant on an evening some 35 years ago and seeing a long flatbed trailer towed be a Mercedes-Benz sedan. The trailer was heaped with rabbits still in their coats and the driver was peddling them to the restaurants along the street.

    Occasionally a rabbit is offered in the meat department of our grocery but it’s costlier than a goose. Obviously eating rabbits is an Old Country custom that didn’t migrate. You’re lucky to have had it on your menu but I’m sorry you missed it.

  2. Never tasted Rabbit!! I was born on the Noonan farm in Borden PEI. We always had lots of Potatoes & Cows for milk which was separated in a machine by hand
    Cream was bought by the dairy Life was good. We ate Beef & Pork & grew all the veg. etables we need. They were then put in “the Cellar” which was cool & dry.
    My Mother raised Geese too sell & that was her income. No Bunnies👍

  3. When my younger brother and I were evacuated away from the Tyneside bombing, we were billeted with a great aunt who was custodian of the huge parish church, because her son, who had filled that role before her, was on active service with so many of the young men of the village. She maintained a huge vegetable garden plus around twenty hens and a multi-cage rabbit hutch that stood at the top of the yard, opposite the solitary outdoor loo. There was no bathroom in the house, so Sunday evening was soaker time in the large tin bath for us two lads in front of the kitchen fire. Our job each day was to feed the hens and the rabbits. The latter were all cute and tame, but they weren’t kept as pets. I got to know them well and was always upset when a familiar face went missing. That didn’t stop me though from digging into my share of the pies and casseroles which regularly appeared on the dinner table.

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