A dog, a rat, and Thanksgiving.

Perhaps to keep us from falling into the abyss that is pre-Christmas commercial madness, here is a story about Thanksgiving that includes a dog, a rat and the frivolity of Starbucks. You should know up front that the dog dies and the rat escapes, but it’s really not a sad story, I promise.

In my family, Thanksgiving was always a big deal: formal meal, Sunday dress, fancy manners, lots of dishes that had to be washed by hand. When my parents divorced Thanksgiving became a double big deal, one meal with each parent, which became rather exhausting and more than a little stressful.

So the Thanksgiving after our son was born, Bernard and I decided to play the “new baby” card and claim a pass. Our plan was to spend the day at home in our pajamas. We would drink coffee with Baileys, watch the parade, eat grilled cheese (maybe with turkey), take naps, and relax. It’s the only reason we were home that day, there to receive our unexpected guest.

Our two Lab-ish dogs announced his arrival. They jumped onto the red front window seat cushion and began the tail-thumping, tongue-wagging happy dance that dogs do when they’re excited. This behavior was reserved for friendly visitors, so naturally we thought a family member had dropped by with treats. We looked out to find instead a small, mange-covered black and white puppy, sitting in the driveway, mirroring the wagging tails and happy dog smile.

As it was Thanksgiving morning and the shelter was closed, there was nothing to do but put him a kennel in the garage (with food and water, of course, and a blanket, or two, in case it got chilly). The next day we took him to our vet who confirmed the mange (“very contagious; you’ll have to keep him quarantined”) and offered a deep discount on neutering so he would be easier to place with a forever family. A family other than our family, that was the plan. We had two dogs and a baby, and we were just settling into a gentle family rhythm.

Tidbit 1I could tell you all the ins and outs of how Tidbit (a “tidbit” of a snack for our 120 lb. yellow Lab, Bernard said) became a member of our family. But most of the details are uninteresting and, in the end, unimportant. He allowed our infant son to crawl on his back and tug on his ears, and the other two dogs enjoyed him. Those were the things that mattered. And he was exceedingly clever – exponentially smarter than the incumbents.

One night after Tidbit graduated from quarantine, he made a show of understanding that dogs were not allowed in the kitchen. He was lying down properly, front paws touching the edge of the threshold between the dining room and the kitchen, nose between his paws, eyes alert. Whatever I was cooking that night required frequent trips to the refrigerator, and I saw him every time I walked by the open door. What a good dog he’ll be for someone, I thought.

Then, in a flash, on my fourth or fifth trip, he pounced. The leftover roast chicken was whisked away to the living room, plate clattering to the floor. He’d been plotting, timing my every door opening. As I said, he was exceedingly clever, even if he wasn’t well-mannered.

He was also exceedingly loud, at least when company arrived. While the Lab-ish dogs greeted guests with wags and slobber, Tidbit charged the door with a bark similar to hyena howls. He’d found his place, and he wasn’t about to let anyone threaten it. As a result we went from being the Sunday night cooking and gathering house to the one that required earplugs and protective gear.

The howling came in handy on morning runs, however. One day when we were out before sunrise Tidbit took off for the treeline, a jackal on the hunt. He emerged a few minutes later chasing a man who was desperately trying to pull up his pants while also trying to avoid the ferocious dog.

The Jackal

But the episode that really set Tidbit’s legacy was this:

One early morning, not long after we moved from our tiny farmhouse into the Money Pit, I heard Tidbit making an odd sound downstairs.

“I think there’s someone in our house,” I whispered to a happily snoring and oblivious Bernard. “Bernard! Wake up, dammit! There’s somebody downstairs, and I think Tidbit has him cornered.”

Reluctantly Bernard dragged himself out of bed, reached for the Mag-Lite, and padded down the stairs. He was back minutes later, hands held in front about 12 inches apart.

“What is it? What’s happening?!” I asked. In response he said nothing but emphasized the 12 inch spread of his hands.

“No. Tell me it’s not a rat. We do not have a rat in this house.”

Yes, we did have a rat. In our house. A 12 inch rat, tip to tail. And Tidbit had that damn rat cornered under the radiator in the den, no way to escape. He’d been there for a good while, long enough for a substantial puddle of drool to accumulate from all the excited panting. It was a rich tableau: Tidbit and the rat, eye to eye, still as statues.

In our pre-dawn haze we decided on a plan that, in hindsight, was clearly flawed. Bernard and Tidbit would hold the rat in situ. I would go to Walgreens and buy every kind of trap available – glue trap, snap trap, whatever. We would set the traps around the exposed perimeter of the radiator, drag Tidbit away, and let the traps do the rest. Honestly, at 4:30 in the morning it sounded reasonable.

I pulled a pair of fleece pants over my nightgown, threw on a jacket, headed to Walgreens, and bought every trap in the store. It was 4:59 a.m.

Since it was very cold and very early, and since we were surely not going to get back to bed, and since people are as distractible as dogs, I noticed that Starbucks next door had just turned on its lights. Coffee! I thought, as an otherwise heeling dog might think, Squirrel!

5 minutes too late, that’s what I was. I arrived home, bags and coffee in hand to hear Tidbit lapping water in the bathroom. “He made it as long as he could,” Bernard said, “but he needed water, and as soon as he moved the rat took off for the basement door. He’s g-o-n-e gone. What took you so long, anyway?”

Poor Tidbit, deprived of his prize, his one lifetime trophy, because of the addictive lure of Starbucks.

Clever and protective, wild and smelly, he never stopped earning his keep, fearing his welcome was only short term. In fact we really did keep trying to find him a home, in denial that his home was already found. We were his, and he was ours.Tidbit 2

Osteosarcoma, in case you’re wondering, that’s what claimed Tidbit, my rat-deterring, flasher-chasing jackal. He did outlive the incumbent Lab-ish friends, but only by a few months. It was relatively quick, and he spent his last days happily doped up on Tramadol until one night when the pain broke through and I slept with my whimpering friend in the bottom bunk of my son’s bed, stroking his rough muzzle and promising a final trip to the vet first thing in the morning.  A dignified protector deserved no less.

To this day, a decade after that 4:30 a.m. wake-up call and five years after Tidbit loped off to the Rainbow Bridge, we’ve never seen a rat inside our house. The warning tale that one explorer told must have carried through generations.

If you follow along here regularly then you know we now have other dogs. We made it two weeks after Tidbit died before a pair of chocolate Labs lured me on PetFinder. This time around we were going to hold firm on a two dog rule. Our house would be calmer, happier with only two.

The Wolfman Yoda danceFour months after the two Labs settled in, a scrappy, smelly, unneutered mutt showed up in our front yard, his wagging tail met with equal wags on the front porch, just in time for Thanksgiving. His name is Wolfman Yoda. May the rats beware.

Happy week.

********

Food | Week of November 17, 2014

Short food note, because a couple of friends have asked: I am compiling an index of all the recipes I’ve shared, and I plan to have the page up by year-end. My plan is to sort by main ingredient, but if you have a better idea then please share. Someone also asked why I often stick to such traditional recipe sites like Epicurious, Food Network and Martha Stewart. Well-used sites like these that draw from magazines and high profile chefs typically have a solid vetting process, both for the recipes and for the authenticity. If you’re looking for something a little funkier, try using the main ingredient of the recipes I’ve listed to do a search of your own – use it as a starting or focal point.

This week we’re having a couple of meals that have store-bought options, along with a couple that require some real cooking. And then there’s the homemade pizza, always a bit hit around here. Enjoy.

Spaghetti Frittata

Bernard has been itching to make a spaghetti frittata, for reasons I cannot begin to explain. He got the idea in his head, and it’s still there. I started with this simple recipe from Armandino Batali (Mario’s dad). I liked it, but it was too plain for Bernard’s taste; so his plan is to modify with Italian sausage and lots of fresh parsley. Note: I did not have leftover pasta or sauce, so I cooked, drained and cooled to room temp all in the same night. Worked fine.

fall greens 2014Crab Cakes | Green Salad

I was in New Orleans last week for a meeting and was treated to a marvelous dinner at Arnaud’s. I’ve been craving crab ever since (not that I’ll be able to match theirs), so crab cakes seem in order, and here’s the recipe I’m using. If I run out of time – if my idea is bigger than my calendar, then I’ll buy prepared crab cakes from Fresh Market. For the salad, here’s a recipe for simple lemon vinaigrette that will complement the crab.

Bourbon Salmon | Green Beans | Rice

My people aren’t crazy about salmon, but they’ll usually eat it if its well-marinated and has a sweet edge to it. In a time crunch, the bourbon marinated salmon from Fresh Market is a go-to dinner; cook at home or buy it already cooked. If you want to experiment with flavor and have time, here’s a simple recipe to try at home. Serve with jasmine rice and steamed green beans.

Butternut Squash | Spinach Cake | Herb Saladeggs april 2014

Michelle at Gourmandistan and I share a love of butternut squash. A few weeks ago she sent me a link to this wonderful recipe, one I’ve made several times since. I peel the squash with a vegetable peeler, cut it into big chunks, remove the seeds and then chop in the Cuisinart. It isn’t as pretty as a hand-cut dice, but it’s much faster. Note that the garlic intensifies over the long cooking period, so I suppose you should use sparingly if garlic isn’t your thing (never a problem in our house). Serve with an equally hearty vegetable dish like Dave T’s Spinach Cake, and you’ll feel warm and full.

Pizza Margherita

Homemade pizza on a weeknight is not as impossible as you think, provided you use a good dough recipe. This one from the Splendid Table comes together quickly, reheats well and is easy to customize. Makes for a fun family activity if family dinner is in order.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Michelle says:

    I generally scoff at anybody who is convinced that everything that happens is for a “reason.” But… seems like those dogs found you. Hmmm, maybe for a reason? Or maybe, and more likely in my mind, just great luck for you both. And hooray for that! (Oh, and I can’t wait to try your method on the butternut squash. Why didn’t I think of that???)

  2. Michelle says:

    Ha! Well, you know, we Vandy girls have to stick together! She really was rather before her time (and not just with Burt…)

  3. This one totally got me tearing up… love me a doggy tale.

  4. jgroeber says:

    How much do I love your story-telling? And I’m not even a dog person.
    Here’s hoping you’ll be putting up your Thanksgiving plans well before Thanksgiving so that I can copy them and pretend that I planned an authentically tasty homegrown but gourmet meal of my own. No one need be the wiser.

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