May 2010

Cat and Rabbit Crimes


I knocked on Anna Maria’s door to tell her we were leaving as Luciano stood at the ready, dressed to do his civic duty. Anna Maria and Giancarlo spilled out of the house and into their tiny garden and the warm afternoon sunlight to wave good bye. As we set off for downtown Mareno, they lingered there chatting. I could hear their voices as we strolled down our little lane hand in hand on our way to vote. Well, I was along for the ride, not yet able to have any say in how this country is run, but how could I stay home on a day filled with such beauty and political promise?

As we neared the end of our street we heard shouts coming from the neighbor’s yard. He was cleaning out the goat barn and his children’s enthusiastic soccer match was getting too close to his ramshackle collection of sheds and cages.

“Oh! Get out of here!” he bellowed at the children who screamed with delight. Behind him, lined up with faces pressed to the wires, all of his rabbits watched in horror at the commotion; their eyes in unblinking shock, unable to turn away.

“Where are the goats, Luciano?” I had just noticed that not only were the perpetually pregnant goats absent, the stinky, petulant ram was also gone.

“He sold them. I think I heard something about thieves taking one and he wanted to get rid of them all…”


I stood by in the basement of the 18th century villa as Luciano voted and pondered the absent goats and the remaining rabbits, all certainly destined for someone’s dinner table. In fact we do live in the countryside…and here obtaining food has often been difficult, leading to simple solutions: take from the land whatever and how one can.

As I was running along the Monticano last week I noticed women on the grassy banks collecting greens in a bag. For years I have been curious to know exactly what constitutes
erbette, or field greens as we might call them. So I jogged up and asked. Without hesitation they showed me an example of small green plants they were collecting.

“They are very good in
risotto or pasta bianca. A little butter and sage…”

As I ran home, I easily collected a handful of the plants, matching them to the one the ladies gave me, and cooked them up in a little butter. Luciano would have nothing to do with it. I’d like to report that they were delicious, delicate with a gentle bite, but they tasted like nothing, but they were green and collected wild on my way home. Anna Maria laughed with a memory.

“La Nonna loved dandelion greens. She was out there once collecting them and lost her equilibrium and fell over. She called out, ‘Giancarlo, come get me!’ Remember?”

Luciano taught me how to pronounce the name of the plants.


No, Serena. It is dialect. Try to say
s-chocolate. Then change the ocolate to pet.

S-chocolate…s-chopett. Is that right?”

“Not bad. We will work on it.”

He still would have none of it.

Post World War II in Italy was a tough time. Families lived in enormous group houses sharing food, clothes and body heat. Giancarlo grew up in a house of 40 where they ate meals in shifts and as he likes to tell it, stretched 40 meals out one fish by hanging it on a string above the polenta in order to flavor it. Greens collected in the fields were an important source of vegetables and knowing which ones to eat, a good survival skill.

Protein was another thing.

The citizens of Vicenza have long been teased by the story that, during and after the war, the residents resorted to eating cats. After all, rabbits dressed out in the butcher, look very much cats. It is disturbing enough that we don’t eat rabbit in our house. But the fact remains that in desperate times, some people took some pretty grim steps. No one will admit to it now, but I learned that there are ways to be sure you are being served rabbit for dinner and not a former pet in a less than reputable restaurant…I don’t need to go into it now, but apparently it used to be common knowledge, like knowing that one should never eat oysters in an “r-less” month.

Recently there was a bit of a television scandal on a popular network cooking show when the co-host, a know-it-all of a certain age in a moment of nostalgia, reminisced on the proper way to prepare a cat for cooking. His co-host, Elisa reacted with appropriate shock:

The co-host disappeared from the show immediately, starting his retirement early. There was a bit of a buzz in which the veracity of the legend was disputed, but everyone knows that during the
dopoguerra (after the Great War) you did what you had to do.


Late in the night of Good Friday two men pulled a van up to the fence of our neighbor’s clutch of rabbits and chickens and stole every single one. The local papers reported, with headlines that read, “Stolen for Hunger”. They also reported that the month prior a man on a bicycle stole a chicken from another nearby house, but was so startled by a passing police car that he dropped the bag of struggling hen and thus was nabbed red handed.

I walked down to commiserate with our neighbor and found him scrubbing out the empty cages.

“I heard the news.”

“Can you believe it? It is disgusting. They took the babies, the adults; they even took my old hen. I had her for five years. Who is going to eat a five-year-old hen?”

“That is terrible.” I wondered if she was the same hen who had been hiding in the grass waiting for him two years ago. He seemed really hurt. I had no idea he was so attached.

“I read that the paper said they were stolen for hunger but I think if you are hungry you steal one rabbit, not thirty.”

“Yeah…and the babies? No meat on them yet.”

I wished him well and headed back home. I shared what I found out with the family.

“They even took the old hen. Why would they do that? She was too old to eat. I bet she wasn’t even laying any more.

“Serena, I don’t think they were checking ID. How would they know she was five years old? Would you know?”

Suddenly it hit me…here I was a girl from Berkeley, thinking like a farmer…egg productivity, rabbit stew, the toughness of an old chicken. I concentrated a moment, trying to conjure up my Northern California indoctrination. Wait a minute!

“Ciano! Maybe they set them all free. They pulled a van up to the fence and took all those rabbits and set them free.”

“Some kind of Mareno eco-terrorists you mean?”

“It could happen!”

“No, Serena. They have suspects. The robbers are brushing feathers and fur from their chin and they just don’t know they will be caught.”

These are tough times too. And while I feel sorry for the neighbor and his loss, I guess we can be happy that they were not stealing cats for hunger. Although there is no love lost between me and neighborhood cats as I dig yet another turd out of my garden, I would not wish the roasting pan on any of them. No, really.