Lean, nutritious, and climate friendly, rabbit can offer an escape from the industrial meat supply chain
“Have you ever taken legs off a chicken? The back legs are a ball and socket, like on a chicken. Find where the thighs meet with the spine, and cut through the joint. With the forelegs, cut underneath the shoulder blade.”
Beard framing his face mask, Nick DeLauri stood outside Vermont Butcher Shop, his sustainable meatery in Londonderry, and explained how to break down the whole rabbit he had brought me curbside. “Now you have just the spine and loins. Take the sternum and neck off, chunk the rest out with a cleaver, and braise the whole thing.”
A little Dijon mustard, white wine, herbs, and cream, and the lapin à la moutarde I prepared — fragrant, tender, and mildly gamey — couldn’t have been easier or more delicious. Nor could the rabbit livers I pan-seared, or the rillettes I whipped up the next day with the leftovers. I made a stock from the bones, then blitzed the meat with some of that stock in a food processor. A cinch.
I had bought that bunny on a whim to serve to my COVID-19 pod at our rental house. Now, having cooked it, I wasn’t just curious; I was seriously interested in why I hadn’t been cooking it all along. “Rabbits have such a small footprint on our world, and the manure is great for compost for our garden,” says Lisa Webster, co-owner of Maine’s North Star Sheep Farm, where the Vermont Butcher Shop sources its rabbits. “There’s zero waste, and it’s nutrient dense. It’s really a tremendous protein.” Healthy, delicious, climate friendly — why aren’t we eating rabbit more often, I wondered?
“It’s a hard sell,” DeLauri says. “People look at it, and it’s Bambi’s friend Thumper.”
Perception is everything when we’re eating animals. As social anthropologist F. Xavier Medina explains, our meat choices rely on categorical thinking: Pets cannot be food. But Medina, the director of the UNESCO Chair on Food, Culture and Development, is a Spaniard, so he acknowledges rabbit’s “particular case.” It’s cute in a pet shop window, but it has also been bred for food since antiquity — especially on the Iberian Peninsula, home to Oryctolagus cuniculus, the prodigious European rabbit, ancestor to the world’s 305 domesticated breeds. In Spain, they eat lots of rabbit.
Even there, though, rabbit’s “transitional status creates a difficult balance for the socially constructed identity given to the animal,” writes Medina in an essay in the 2007 edited volume Consuming the Inedible: Neglected Dimensions of Food Choice. We’re wigged out by rabbit’s binary-busting. The bunny taboo is especially resonant in the U.S., where it’s implicated, says famed offal chef Chris Cosentino, in our problematic food system. “The public views certain meats as okay to eat and others not,” he says. “By doing so, we’ve limited our ability to be sustainable and have variance in our diets, and we’ve also fueled the fire for factory farming.”
Even if we get over “the cuteness factor,” as Cosentino calls it, rabbit is difficult to find in supermarket coolers. Unlike chickens, they’re difficult to raise at factory-farm numbers. And meat sold to grocery stores and at farmers markets must be processed by a USDA-certified facility, very few of which will process rabbits. The only statistic the USDA keeps on rabbits — in 2017, 495,707 sold live by farms for any purpose, including for human consumption, dog food, pets, labs, or fur — pales in comparison to the roughly 90 million cattle, 200 million hogs, and 9 billion chickens sold just for meat.
Still, according to Emily Ashton of the American Rabbit Breeders of America, the USDA statistics are misleading. She puts the number of rabbits sold for food in the U.S. at 50 million. Most are raised by small family farmers, who fly under the radar of the USDA, processing the meat themselves and selling it on their farms in an exemplar of the “know your producer” transaction.
Their in-the-know rabbit customers seem to be onto something. In a year when the pandemic challenged where, how, and what we eat, maybe all of us should be cooking more rabbit for dinner. Lean, nutritious, and suited for the small scale, rabbit can offer an escape from the industrial meat supply chain that COVID-19 has exposed as so problematic. It’s a way to support local farms, and it’s awesome for the backyard homesteading boom of the coronavirus era. When even food writers are complaining on Facebook about the lack of “everyday” protein options as we prep dinner yet again for our quarantined families, maybe it’s time we figure out how to cook up a pot of Thumper.
Rabbit has had a few peak moments in America, starting in pre-Columbian times. Though the rabbit most often served in restaurants is of European descent, 15 species of wild rabbits and hares are native to North America. As Sean Sherman, founder of the Sioux Chef and Indigenous Food Lab, points out, these animals have long been a common Native American food.
“When we’re looking at protein usage from Indigenous people, it’s whatever animals were in their area, and you can find rabbits everywhere,” he says. And they figure prominently in Native spirituality, spanning categories not with difficulty, but with reverence. “There are so many stories of rabbits that fall into our mythology,” says Sherman. At the Indigenous Food Lab (and for his upcoming restaurant) in Minneapolis, rabbit is a key ingredient. “We’ve been using it since we cut out the colonial proteins, beef and pork.”
Following importation of European breeds in the mid–19th century, rabbits did what rabbits do and became invasive, most notably in Chatham County, North Carolina. When the railroad arrived in the 1880s, Chatham shipped the nuisances north by the many thousands, where they landed on plates in Northeastern cities. “Rabbit fever,” an illness caught from skinning rabbits, killed the Chatham rabbit trade. But rabbit had another run during World War II, when a meat supply diminished by the war effort led Life magazine to push readers to raise rabbits at home, using the lede, “Domestic rabbits are one of the few pets which can be enjoyed dead or alive.” When beef production ramped up in the 1960s, rabbit fell off menus again. But another bunny bump came just a decade ago, in the Meatpaper days, when everybody from Michael Pollan to a pre-Salt Fat Acid Heat Samin Nosrat was pulling rabbit out of the nose-to-tail hat.
Arguably, rabbit never went fully mainstream. But among consumers outside of “vanilla American” communities, as Ariane Daguin — the CEO of D’Artagnan Foods, purveyor of specialty meats, including rabbit — puts it, “there is an ethnic market eating rabbit on a regular basis.” And while rabbit is relatively absent on American menus, chefs who’ve brought dishes here from rabbit-friendly places report a positive reception.
“When I moved here, I felt like there were only three proteins you can touch: pig, beef, and chicken,” says Hugue Dufour of New York’s M. Wells. “But I’ve been serving rabbit many ways, and I’m always surprised at how people are open to it.” Tagine, confit, lièvre à la royale with foie gras and black truffles — “I was even, at some point, serving rabbit ‘oysters.’ I would braise the heads and dress the brains in lemon, butter, and bread crumbs. Right away, people would go for it.”
At Boia De in Miami, the pappardelle alla lepre that Luciana Giangrandi got to know during childhood summers in Livorno is so popular that she can’t take it off the menu, and a staple at José Andrés’s Jaleo restaurants is paella Valenciana, where rabbit shares its rice bed with chicken and beans. Michele Casadei Massari has been perfecting coniglio in potacchio, a garlic- and tomato-braised rabbit from his mother’s native Marche, to offer at Lucciola in Manhattan. Dishes like these come from the southern Mediterranean, where meat rabbits have been bred since Phoenician times. But there are rabbit traditions from elsewhere, too. At New York’s Adda, Chintan Pandya has been doing research and development on a Rajasthani hunter’s delicacy called khad khargosh, spice-marinated, wrapped in bread, and pit-roasted. And Marcelle Afram has been digging into her Middle Eastern roots so she can use local rabbits at D.C.’s Maydan and Compass Rose: mashawi, or Levantine barbecue; awarma, a sort of confit; even rabbit kibbe. “Our guests trust us, and what we do is rooted in tradition, so we have a backstory that helps them let go of preconceived notions,” she says.
Some chefs’ dishes are even homegrown American. Sherman’s cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen, includes recipes for rabbit pemican and cedar-braised rabbit, a dish he’s suggested as an alternative to turkey for a Native revisioning of Thanksgiving. In Minnesota, he’s using foraged ingredients — balsam, rosehips, raspberry bush, sweet fern sprigs — for an aromatic rabbit stew that “tastes exactly like where you are.”
Before leaving Asheville’s Benne on Eagle, Ashleigh Shanti offered an onion-braised rabbit stew she describes as Appalachian Soul Food. At Bolete in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Lee Chizmar goes through a dozen rabbits weekly, taking inspiration from his Pennsylvania Dutch neighbors for an autumnal rabbit sauerbraten and a springtime braise with wild asparagus and ramps. “The Pennsylvania Dutch say boddegschmack, which means the taste of the land,” he says. Rabbit is rich in boddegschmack. “I imagine myself out in the woods foraging and catching a rabbit to make a dish off the land.”
COVID-19 put a dent in chefs’ rabbit ambitions, dinging the wholesale market for farmers like Mark Pasternak, whose Devil’s Gulch Ranch in Marin County has long supplied California heavy hitters like Chez Panisse and Saison. “Because the situation is so challenging, restaurants have been focusing more on ‘normal’ meats that they can put in a to-go container,” Pasternak says.
But adventurous home cooks have kept his rabbit business going. “Because restaurants closed, and people who want good food have had limited options, our farmers market sales skyrocketed,” says Pasternak, who sells at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza and Marin’s Civic Center. “There was a general rise in interest in buying farm meats directly, and rabbit is a part of that.”
For meat eaters freaked out by the waste, the COVID-19 spread, and other problems exposed this year in our industrial meat supply chain, “rabbit is small-scale friendly,” says Daniel Salatin of Virginia’s Polyface Farms. “You can grow them on an urban farm very close to where they’re eaten. That lends itself to the transparency that is important for accountability, where the food buyer and the producer are ideologically in line.”
Salatin is the son of Joel Salatin, the outspoken star of regenerative farming, and he uses an integrative approach. He raises breeding bunnies in hutches above free-range chickens, who scratch the rabbits’ fallen food, bedding, and manure into the dirt, creating compost for the pastures, and keeping the barn clean and disease-free. Before they’re slaughtered at 12 weeks, weaned rabbits are pastured in a rabbit tractor, “as close to their natural setting as we can get,” he says.
Salatin processes and sells whole rabbits on his farm; he doesn’t ship them. The heads and guts get composted or go to his laying flocks for protein, and he’s working with a partner to create hide chew-toys for dogs, in for yet another “synergistic application.” His is a holistic gospel of animal husbandry that suits rabbit well, and he’s spreading it through speaking and media appearances. “They’re a great starter animal, and when you’re raising them for meat, you have a constant supply of cute,” he says. “Just don’t give them names, and you’ll be fine.”
Not that every rabbit farmer is sustainable. Imported rabbits, primarily from China, are mass produced, and there’s some of that Stateside, too. Rabbits are not considered livestock and are therefore exempt from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. In 2017, inhumane practices were exposed at the largest U.S. processor, Arkansas’s Pel-Freez, which is D’Artagnan’s supplier. For D’Artagnan, whose reputation is for humanely raised meat, it was a scandal that led to new “ironclad procedures,” says CEO Ariane Daguin, including regular visits to the plant, which is under new management.
All of that might be slim assurance, but there are almost no other operations like Pel-Freez in the U.S., in part because, as Mark Pasternak explains, “while rabbits breed like rabbits, they also die like rabbits,” succumbing easily to disease in factory-farm settings. “They are extremely labor intensive to do on a commercial scale,” he says. Small-scale rabbit farmers are simply more successful.
One of them is Michelle Week. Most meat rabbits in the U.S. are a cross between California and New Zealand varieties, albino bunnies originally bred for laboratories. But at Good Rain Farm in Vancouver, Washington, Week raises silver-furred Champagne d’Argent rabbits, a nod to her settler ancestors from France, where the heritage breed was developed by monks.
How she utilizes her rabbits, though, is informed by the concept of the circle of life she gets from her Indigenous Sinixt lineage. Part of a closed-loop ecosystem, the rabbits fertilize her vegetable plots, nibble garden leftovers, and mow the pasture. Then she open-air butchers them at five or six pounds, selling them whole through her CSA for $10 a pound. With little of the stress of a factory situation, they’re easy to produce. “A cow takes 18 months to raise. I can raise the same weight in rabbits off one acre of hayed grass in 12 months,” she says.
Her rabbitry has been so successful, Week is quadrupling her operation to 40 breeding bunnies, producing just shy of 500 rabbits to sell per year. She’s also become a role model for would-be homesteaders in her area. “A lot of our rabbits are sold as breeding stock to people who want to grow their own meat,” she says. “There’s concern since COVID-19 about the security of our food system and distribution delays. Folks who raise chickens kept getting dead batches in the mail, so keeping rabbits in a backyard reduces these concerns. They have a light impact on the earth, and they’re healthy, all-white meat.”
Rich in highly-quality proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and minerals like calcium and potassium, rabbit meat is also lean and low in cholesterol. Of course, its lack of fat means you need to take caution when you prepare it. Chefs have some advice.
“The slower you cook it, the better it will taste and more moist it will remain. If you try to cook rabbit like chicken, the meat comes out hard,” says Pandya. So, no roast of whole rabbit. Only the back legs will hold up to that kind of heat.
The loins are the most tender part, but they need some protection. Chizmar suggests pan-roasting them wrapped in bacon. And the front legs, with their little, removable bones, are perfect for confit. You might also try a favorite of Jaleo chef Ramon Martinez: “If you cut it in little pieces and just flour it, you deep-fry the whole thing, and it’s better than chicken.”
For starters, though, go with Sherman’s braising advice: “Throw the whole thing in an Instant Pot with a bunch of stuff.”
What kind of stuff? “There’s that old saying: ‘Take the animal back to its feet,’” says Cosentino. “Look for flavors that bring out the characteristics of rabbit. Rosemary bolsters its depth. Carrots naturally highlight their sweetness.”
And if your COVID-19 bubble balks at eating bunny, tell them to take a tip from Nina Compton. The St. Lucia native named her first New Orleans restaurant after an trickster rabbit from Caribbean folklore, Compère Lapin, and she has no trouble spanning the divide between cute and culinary when she braises rabbit in curry for an “unctuous, powerful, tasty dish” that’s a crowd pleaser at her Bywater American Bistro. To anyone having trouble swallowing rabbit as food, Compton has some words: “People need to be adventurous. Have fun with it. Close your eyes and just take a bite.”