Look, he tastes so good he's eating himself
It took precisely one-millionth of a second for the news to travel to even the most remote corner of the web: Italian TV Chef Fired for "Cat Stew" Remark, Italian TV Chef Axed After Recommending Cat Stew. I saw it for the first time in the Times Online Life & Style section this afternoon, and then everywhere else soon after.
Look, he tastes so good he's eating himself
The details are this: Beppe Bigazzi, a 77-year-old food writer and ten-year veteran guest on the Italian cooking show La Prova del Cuoco, was dropped from the show after offering up a recipe (kinda) for stewed cat--a "succulent dish," in his words, and a classic preparation from his home in Valdarno, Tuscany.
Actually, that's not entirely true. He was dropped, actually, after the station was "inundated" with phone calls and complaints from viewers and animal rights groups and after Bigazzi himself refused to apologize after coming back from a commercial break.
Here's the thing, though. Why should the guy apologize? He said that he'd eaten cat before--had enjoyed it quite a bit, as a matter of fact, saying it was better than chicken, rabbit or pigeon--and that "in the 1930s and 1940s, when I was a boy, people certainly did eat cat in the countryside around Arezzo." This was obviously a dish that, historically, had been eaten, and one that he was fond of. And even if the vast majority of people out there think that cats are noble, regal, insanely cute little critters, they're also made of meat which, culinarily speaking, makes them fair game in my book.
What's more, Bigazzi even offered some tips on preparation (namely, something about soaking the cat for three days in a cold, clear-running stream before cooking) which I found fascinating because finding a good recipe for cat stew is just not that easy. And I know, because I looked.
At foodhistory.com, I found this mention in a letter dating back to the Civil War:
"One day one of the negro guards asked if there were any Caroline County, Virginia, men in our party. My comrade called me up to see the negro. I recognized him as a former slave belonging to my friend and neighbor, Mr. Will Lightfoot, of Port Royal. The darky was very polite and after some conversation he said, "'Deed, Marse Tom, wish I could help you, but de boss men dey watchin' close." I said: "You can help us if you want to and no one will find you out." "How's dat, Boss?" "Well," I said,"I see over there at the officers quarters a large fat cat. I want you to get that cat, kill and dress it and bring it to me when you come on guard, and I will give you $5." I knew, as our quarters were small, it would be impossible for me to kill and dress the cat without being caught by the guard officers, so I got the darky to do the work. A few days after this interview this negro was on guard, and sure enough he brought me the cat all ready for cooking, and I do tell you that cat was no kitten. It was not too large to boil in our old tin coffee boiler we had brought from Fort Delaware with us, and I want right here, comrade, to add my testimony to yours, that cat meat to starving men is a delicious delicacy. Yet I would not care for it now. Well, comrades McGrady, Akers, Rowlett, Captain Frazier and myself did enjoy that cat stew. I remember how our men would purchase rats from whose we could catch them, and I always envied the millionaires of our party who had green backs and could indulge in luxuries of dainty rat stews and fries. I expended my green back fortune, $5, on the cat purchase from the negro guard. People who read this letter, comrade, will no doubt say it is exaggeration, but God knows I tell the truth."
Wikipedia (a paragon of truth and accuracy if ever there was one) insists that "Swiss culinary traditions include puppies and kittens. Private consumption of cat and dog is permissible. Swiss animal welfare groups say it is hard to estimate how many pets end up salted and smoked or in a Swiss frying pan each year." The entry for "cat meat" attributes this quote to a 2004 Reuters article that I was able to find precisely nowhere, but it also says that cat stews and "cat in sauce" are found in Basque cookery, that cats are regularly shipped to Guandong province, China to be used as food and that cat stew is eaten in Australia as a way to keep down the feral cat population--and at least two of these three things are actually true.
Still, I was having difficulty finding actual recipes for cat stew. That is, until I ran across this random page which appears to be some sort of scholarly digression on the cooking and eating of cats worldwide. Lucky me, it included a proper recipe for "Roast Cat as It Should Be Prepared" from Ruperto de Nola, Libro de Cozina, 1529:
Take a cat that should be plump: and cut its throat, and once it is dead cut off its head, and throw it away for this is not to be eaten; for it is said that he who eats the brains will lose his own sense and judgement. Then skin it very cleanly, and open it and clean it well; and then wrap it in a clean linen cloth and bury it in the earth where it should remain for a day and a night; then take it out and put it on a spit; and roast it over the fire, and when beginning to roast, baste it with good garlic and oil, and when you are finished basting it, beat it well with a green branch; and this should be done until it is well roasted, basting and beating; and when it is roasted carve it as if it were rabbit or kid and put it on a large plate; and take the garlic with oil mixed with good broth so that it is coarse, and pour it over the cat and you can eat it for it is a good dish.
Well how else are you going to get the little fuckers in the pot?
Okay, that's not quite the worst recipe I've ever seen, but neither is it close to the best. To my mind, cat ought to be treated like any other tough, potentially gamey meat, and this means slow-cooking. Bigazzi, therefore, is right on when he speaks of a stew or a casserole. Both would be ideal methods for preparing cat. Letting the cleaned and skinned carcass wash in cold water for some amount of time before cooking? That's not a bad idea either (and is certainly better than leaving it buried in the dirt, as above). But then, a simple oil-and-garlic baste is probably a good plan for someone eating cat without the benefit of a fully stocked kitchen at his disposal.
So while I don't know for sure the exact preparation that Bigazzi was thinking about when he fondly recalled the eating of cats in his boyhood, this is what I have come up with after doing exhaustive (read: some) research on the topic. Should I ever be reduced to eating cat (whether as a Civil War prisoner or dotty Italian cooking show guest), this is certainly the recipe I would use.
Adapted from the French Lapin a la Cocotte
2 good-sized cats, quartered, ribs, shanks and heads discarded
6 slices of bacon, thick-cut, cut in thirds
4 cloves of garlic, 2 minced, two whole
2 cups sliced onions
3 tablespoons flour
1 cup beef broth (or cat broth, if you have it)
1/2 cup red wine
Fresh parsley (for color)
Salt and pepper to taste
In a large skillet, cook bacon until done. Remove bacon and reserve.
In the bacon fat, saute onions and minced garlic
Add quartered cat, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and saute over medium heat, turning once to get a good sear on both sides.
Sprinkle on the flour and continue cooking until cat browns, then add cat broth, red wine, fresh thyme (stripped from stem), garlic cloves and bay leaf.
Cover and simmer over low heat for two hours, adding more broth if necessary and drinking whatever wine is left in the bottle. Mount with heavy cream and add reserved bacon. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve over buttered noodles or potato cakes. Add parsley sprigs for color.