My taste palate, while perhaps not sophisticated, is fairly adventurous. Life in the multicultural city of Chicago has provided me with ample opportunities to sample cuisines from around the world which I was not previously familiar. I was not always so open-minded. It has been a little while since this has happened, but members of my nuclear family used to remind me quite often of the picky eater I had been as a young kid.
Those habits changed during my fourth grade year spent living in my paternal grandfather’s ancestral village in the equatorial, west African nation of Liberia. Over the course of those months, I had eaten (among other things) a monkey I had been playing with on our living room floor maybe just the day before that sad, unfortunate meal. (If any of the Curbside readership in the Chicagoland area would like a recommendation for a good therapist, I’d be glad to privately pass along contact information for an effective one.)
Not to diminish the many positives of my yearlong stay in Liberia, which was amazing, life-changing, and eye-opening, I was faced with a very important decision at that young age: to eat what was put on a plate or in a bowl and placed in front of me, or (quite literally) experience hunger, the kind of which I had never felt before, and without so much as even a cold can of Spam as a readily available alternative.
There was no pantry cupboard full of potato chips or cookies from which to secretly sneak a snack when Mom and Dad weren’t looking. And as a fourth grader, I was a growing boy. Let’s just say that from that point on, even after having returned to the United States, I was a lot more open to trying new things. I did grow to love Liberian food, and chicken, white rice, and cassava root and greens were regular dinner staples that make my mouth water when I think about them today as they were prepared then.
The other side of my family identifies as being primarily of German descent, and much sauerkraut was consumed in our household. In fact, besides western African fare, about as “exotic” as food ever got in our extended family (and Taco Bell does not count) were a few traditional German meals either prepared by my grandmother (passed-down family recipes, maybe?) or out at restaurants. (I can also say for a fact that I hadn’t eaten even Chinese food until as late as middle school.) It’s because of this that I often feel a bit nostalgic about German food. On business travel to Des Moines, Iowa, some years back, I had discovered the Hessen Haus and have made it a point to eat there once in a while when traveling.
Surprisingly (and I’m writing this on Easter Sunday), I have never eaten hasenpfeffer, which is a type of traditional German rabbit stew, if I’m not mistaken. When I was a kid, I had thought hasenpfeffer was a word made up by the writers and animators at Warner Brothers as part of a sound gag and means to place Yosemite Sam (yet again) in pursuit of Bugs Bunny. As illustrated in the above animated clip taken from “Shiskabugs” from 1962, Sam was employed as a chef for a king who was in the mood for some extra variety in his royal meal plan. How shocked I was to later discover that hasenpfeffer was a real dish, and made with rabbit or hare meat as the main ingredient. Quelle surprise!
I was back at the Hessen Haus this past November, and though there was no hasenpfeffer consumed during that particular meal, my knockwurst and bratwurst plate was delicious. Downtown Des Moines, like my neighborhood of Edgewater in the northeastern corner of Chicago, also seems to have a bizarrely high concentration of rabbits. There are a lot of rabbits in Edgewater. (Rabbits and rats.) Before the COVID-quarantine kicked in last month, I’d walk to my local health club early in the morning and could often spot up to four or five rabbits in that short, ten minute walk (and often as many rats).
In Des Moines and while making my usual walkabout with my camera after business hours, I have spotted a handful of both rabbits and Rabbits (the latter known as Mk I Golfs in much of the rest of the world). I confess that I had to let my “fingers do the walking” on my smartphone to try to find out exactly in what kinds of places, nooks and crannies these urban rabbits make their dwellings, but that has usually been my first question to myself when I have spotted one. It turns out that most rabbits live in interconnected burrows called warrens, with those of city-dwelling rabbits being smaller in size than those of rabbits in less densely populated areas. I also did not know, until now, that “warren” was anything other than a proper noun.
As for the featured Volkswagen Rabbits (the burgundy one technically being called a “Cabriolet” starting with model year 1985), I was just as shocked to see them downtown Des Moines as I was to spot a couple of the furry critters near a parking garage. I’d wager that Rabbit convertibles and Cabriolets had a longer shelf-life than other Rabbit / Golf variants (including the GTI), given that they were substantially more expensive than closed-roof models. They also were marketed primarily toward a buying demographic that was perhaps less likely to thrash their cars (see above). With that in mind, prior to my sighting of the burgundy vehicle, it had been a really long time since I had seen a drop-top Rabbit or Cabriolet of this generation with the metal bumpers.
The white hatchback was a curiosity to me for several reasons. First, it sported the face- and tail-lift introduced for ’81, which I had almost forgotten about. (When’s the last time that you saw one?) Rabbits were built in the U.S., in the Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania plant, starting in 1979. The second notable thing about this Rabbit was that it had a little ball-hitch affixed to its rear. “What could this thing possibly be towing?”, I had asked myself before I remembered that Lake Okoboji, which is about 200 miles and about three and a half hours northwest of Des Moines, is a popular destination for boaters and jet-skiers, alike. I could see the white Rabbit towing a small trailer with a Sea-Doo on it, but not much else. This car also looked like it was roadworthy enough at the time to venture that kind of distance, though I’ll bet there’s a more logical explanation for the presence of the ball-hitch.
I suppose there’s no deep, profound subtext to this essay related to urban wildlife, old Volkswagens, or otherwise. Perhaps the ultimate connection here is that with the day of my writing this piece being Easter, and with my social media news feeds having been inundated with an assortment of Easter Bunny-related things, it was probably inevitable that I would choose a topic to write about that was related to rabbits. It’s highly unlikely that any of this simply bubbled up from the inky depths of my inner psyche (except for reliving the horror of having eaten that adorable monkey). Regardless, once access to some of my favorite local restaurants has been restored, I’d love to venture to nearby Laschet’s Inn or Resi’s Bierstube and finally try hasenpfeffer. That sounds like a reasonable goal for me to set for myself for the end of 2020.
Downtown, Des Moines, Iowa.
The white c. 1981 Rabbit and the Hessen Haus were photographed on Thursday, October 11, 2012.
The burgundy c. 1985 Cabriolet was photographed on Monday, October 26, 2015.