catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 2 :: 2005.01.28 — 2005.02.10


What dogs will eat

My brother Randy lifted the cellar door and set it aside. With him beside me, I lay on the linoleum floor with a broomstick. As our mother?s canning jars floated past in the dark water I stabbed at them, fishing for supper. Randy leaned over the edge, grabbed a quart of green beans and a jar of canned venison, and handed them to Mom. We lived in a three room house with no bathroom, six brothers and sisters, two adults, and a dog on a farm in northern Minnesota. The only running water we had was that which flowed through our cellar each spring as our land reverted to swamp, raising the ground water to the bottom of the kitchen floor.

None of this deterred my parents? hospitality. It proved to be the foundation of my own desire to provide shelter and the comfort of food for those who come our way. At the same time, because of our sin-steeped lives and the dark that sometimes surrounds eating experiences, these times aren?t always trouble free. Even a tiny careless remark or act can plunge the atmosphere of fellowship around a meal into a panorama of pain. That’s why today, and all our lives, my husband, Denis, and I take care to push back. We invite friends and strangers to join us at our table whether simple or elaborate, spontaneous or planned. We wish to offer a touch of the breakfast Jesus prepared for his disciples on one of his last days here. It must have been lovely as they ate his fresh bread and grilled fish there on the chilly, early-morning beach. But since I?m not Jesus, and can?t seem to master the art of grilling fish, I offer you a story from my childhood that contains the most tender chocolate cake I know. And if you come to my house, I?ll make you some and we can eat it together.

A lot of things died on our farm. In fact, death was the fate of most farm animals. At a certain point of growth?fatness?maturity?they were harvested, butchered, or sold to keep us alive. It was the expected destination for pigs, chickens, steers, old milk cows, and sometimes sheep. We didn’t need to learn to live with it. It was simply life .

One of the exceptions to this pattern was dogs. Dogs were purely for pleasure. Our dogs didn’t herd, guard, or hunt, as some might expect. They were simply companions for children. They followed us to the pasture, to the woods, to the fields, and to the ditch to play in the water and eat frogs. They ran beside us and playfully pulled at our clothes and wrists. They licked us with their soft tongues and loved us with their fetid breath. However, Dad required them to keep a few rules just like everyone else.

Dog’s Rules were:

  1. Stay home.
  2. Don’t chase vehicles.
  3. Don’t bite humans.
  4. Don’t eat chickens or their eggs.
  5. Don’t chase deer.

Especially, don’t chase deer. That was a crime so felonious, a dog caught chasing deer or even known to have once chased a deer could be shot by anyone on sight. Anyone. That wasn’t just Dad’s rule, it was upheld by everyone in our county. Deer were loved and protected by all. For despite their shyness and graceful beauty, which were truly appreciated, I considered venison a major food group along with cheese, potatoes, and chocolate cake. Deer never seemed to damage crops, daintily browsing through fields of alfalfa and wheat, fattening themselves for the fall hunt.

My husband and a friend from Texas once witnessed this last rule in action, and marveled at the casual nature of the enforcement. During deer hunting season, they were with my brother, Rex, who stopped his pickup in the middle of the road and got out to talk with Jerry Khrone, who was going the other direction. Jerry had also stopped his pickup in the middle of the road and got out to talk. They stood beside their pickups and spoke of this and that: The effects of weather on the buck rut, some fool who was arrested by the game warden for firing at a deer decoy the night before the season opened. As they visited, Jerry spotted a white dog loping across the far field. He paused a moment: ?There’s that damn Bjork dog. Been chasin’ deer. That’s it then.? He reached into his pickup, pulled out his rifle, fired once, and a dog flipped into the air and died in the plowed field 250 yards away. Rex and Jerry continued to talk about doe permits as though he had merely paused mid-sentence to hawk one.

There were no rules for dogs about eating horse biscuits, rolling in ripe manure, or chasing skunks. That was expected of a dog and left him plenty of room for amusement.

We owned a series of dogs each memorable in his own way, but the one that bought the farm stands out. This dog broke a lot of rules, and we kids worried. Corky was part Dalmatian and part black lab and was born with the temper of an old crank and the resolve of a terrorist. For one, as soon as he could walk, he had gone to the neighbors to check out the local females. For another, he declared war on any vehicle that drove by our farm. He?d lay in wait in the tall grass along the edge of the road, and as a car neared, he would jump out snarling and running after the tires, his teeth bared and his hair standing on end. Any kid within hearing distance would run toward the road screaming ?Corky! Get back here!? Not that he ever paid us any mind. He’d come back with defiance in his eye, tongue hanging out, and his tail up?no remorse at all. He was an addict who couldn’t help himself. Dad warned again and again Corky was going to get himself killed.

This had already happened to one of our dogs?getting herself killed by a car. She was a sweet Dalmatian named Spotty, and we tried desperately to stop her from chasing cars. We begged and reasoned with her. We beat her. We tied her up, but there was always someone who couldn’t bear the sad look on her face and set her free. Nothing worked. The next thing she’d be hiding in the tall grass along the road and jumping out after anything that dared to drive by. Then one day a fisherman from the Twin Cities whizzed by in a big Buick, and as she chased his tires, he swerved and got her, a dull popping sound. She lifted her head from the gravel, looked at us with sad, apologetic eyes, and tried to drag herself toward us on her two front legs.

We ran to her and Randy picked her up, a heavy load for a seven year old. He staggered down the drive. Our younger sister, Jan, and I trailed along beside him crying, ?Don’t die, Spotty, please don’t die.? As we laid her on the back steps, blood trickled out her nose and ears. She gazed at us from her dark blue eyes that slowly changed to a milky gauze. Her body stayed warm and limp for awhile, as though she was just napping and could still wake if she chose.

So even though Corky was not going to win any personality prizes, we still didn’t want him to die that way. Certainly not that way.

Corky’s fatal move was the infraction of a more serious rule: he bit people. He was always short tempered about his food and bones. If you happened near him while he was eating, he would stop and hang over his bowl in a protective stance. His body would rumble, his lips lifting in a snarl.

I guess it was the danger or the challenge that drew my five-year-old brother, Rex, into teasing him. It was like playing roulette in a way. Grab Corky’s bone, dangle it in the air above him, and Corky would go ravening, leaping and lunging for it. The trick was to let go of the bone at just the right moment without making contact with Corky’s teeth. One day, my brother misjudged and got bit. He went crying to Mom. It was probably the second or third time Corky had bit someone, so Dad made a pronouncement: ?I’m telling you, if he bites anybody again, I’m going to shoot him.? We hoped he didn’t mean it.

Not long after, we had friends for supper on a warm summer evening. Our kitchen was too small for everyone, so the children ate in the yard. Supper that night included my mother’s fried chicken, the best in the world. Platters of breasts, wings, and legs came out of the cast iron skillets browned and crisp?especially on the side that touched the bottom of the pan the longest, where it had time to absorb greasy pan juices and cure to salty, spicy perfection. We sat in the grass and on the steps, our plates loaded with the foods that always accompanied fried chicken: Creamy mashed potatoes with milk gravy made from the drippings in the frying pans, biscuits, green beans fresh from the garden, sliced ripe tomatoes; and the contrast of tangy cole slaw.

As we ate, Corky watched, looking grimmer by the second, waiting for someone to give him a chicken leg before he had to take it by force. Rex sucked the last of the meat off his piece and offered it to Corky. Corky lunged, and Rex lifted his hand, ready to play their game. Infuriated, Corky leaped, grabbed bone, hand, and all in his jaw and wrenched away. Rex drew his hand back and this time blood was oozing out of three canine puncture wounds. Howling with pain and anger, shaking his hand, and squeezing more blood out of the holes, he tried to run to the house, but Randy and I cut him off, yelling, ?Aw, c’mon. You asked for it. Corky didn’t mean to.?

By this time we were making such a racket over Rex and the dog, Dad came to the top of the steps and boomed his usual inquiry, ?WHAT THE SAM HELL IS GOING ON OUT HERE!?? Actually, it wasn’t ?Sam Hell.? It was ?Sam Hill,? though I didn’t learn that until many years later. Still, it amounted to the same thing.

Rex ran up and showed his hand, which had a couple of scarlet drips falling from the end?s of his fingers.

?Corky bit me,? he bawled.

Jan was crying. She was six years old and the most tender-hearted and gentle of all of us. The visiting children were standing a little way off. They had stopped eating. Only Dallas, our youngest brother, sat on the ground contentedly shoveling mashed potatoes into his mouth, oblivious and a little too young for the drama that was shaping up around him. Randy and I stood at the bottom of the steps pleading for Corky, pointing out that Rex had been teasing him.

It was useless. Corky was standing over his chicken bone a few feet away. It was between his front paws; he had cracked the shank and was swallowing the splinters whole. His last memory must have been a pleasant one as Dad shot him point blank between the eyes. He simply dropped.

For dessert, Mom had made chocolate cake with chocolate fudge icing. She always spread it just before the cake cooled, which gave it a shiny, satiny appearance, and a thin glass-like surface that broke into miniature sheets to reveal the creamy underside of the icing and the moist cake beneath. Randy and I had no appetite for about ten minutes. We carefully set our plates on the porch and went around to the backside of the haystack and sat on a bale.

Remembering what I had done to Bing, I knew I couldn?t stay mad at Rex for getting Corky into trouble. Bing was the little rat terrier that began my spiritual journey. When I was four years old, he planted an awareness of the transcendent within me?there were realities in life that couldn?t be touched by the hand or seen by the eye. This presence, shimmering just beyond our senses, appraised the weight of not only our words, but our actions. For me, Bing was a purveyor of love and grace, and only three years later I accidentally killed him.

Randy wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt and said, ?They?re starting to play ball.?

We got up to join the rest of the kids. But first, we ate a piece of chocolate cake.

(Excerpted from The Exact Place, an as yet unpublished childhood memoir by Margie Haack.)

Randy?s Favorite Chocolate Cake


  • 1 cup boiling water

  • 2 sq. unsweetened chocolate

  • 1/2 cup butter

  • 1 t. vanilla

  • 1 3/4 cup brown sugar

  • 2 eggs

  • 1 3/4 cup flour

  • 1 t. soda

  • 1/4 t. salt

  • 1/2 c sour cream


In a small bowl pour boiling water over chocolate. Stir to mix. Set aside. Cream butter and vanilla. Add brown sugar, blend well. Add eggs one at a time and beat. Combine dry ingredients and add to mixture. Beat until smooth. Stir in sour cream and chocolate. Place in 9×13 greased cake pan. Bake at 325 for 1 hour 15 min. or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Chocolate Fudge Icing


  • 1 stick butter

  • 3 T. cocoa

  • 6 T. milk

  • 1 t. vanilla

  • 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar

  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)


Melt butter in a saucepan along with cocoa. Add milk and bring to boil. Remove from heat and beat in the powdered sugar and vanilla. Beat until smooth and add more sugar if necessary until it is of a spreading consistency. Stir in nuts. Spread on cake while slightly warm.

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