Rabbits – love ‘em or eat ‘em
In my book, holiday celebrations should always feature special foods. Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce, turkey, and Aurora’s celery-sage stuffing, and my birthday should always include angel’s food cake and whipped cream. Problem is, in our family growing up, food traditions stopped about there. Christmas was Thanksgiving Redux (with more pies), and I don’t recall Easter having any special dish. When my now-husband and I prepared to celebrate our first Christmas together, we brainstormed a new tradition to carry on in our new little family.
“Ham?” I suggested. Russell wrinkled his nose. “Rabbit?” he countered.
I have a complicated attitude towards rabbits. Or an uncomplicated one, depending on how you take it. Let’s not mince words: I dislike them.
Alive, that is.
[disclaimer: graphic photos of animal butchering after the cut]
I understand that for many people, rabbits fit squarely into the “pet” category. Who wants to chow down on the Velveteen Rabbit? Or gnaw on the hearty thighs of Thumper? Sadists, and mean people, that’s who. I would certainly feel that way if someone waxed rhapsodic about stewed cat, having very fond memories of our family cats. Dog, well, we aren’t bosom buddies, but I like them well enough that I was not tempted by the restaurants in Manchuria proudly proclaiming 狗肉 (gǒu ròu = dog meat).
Rabbits, though, are in a different camp. You say “cute and fuzzy,” and I hear “vicious and sullen.” A roommate in college had two rabbits who likely inspired these feelings in my heart. One was large and grey, named Ellen, Lady Fluffington, or something similarly dowdy. The other was petite, with snow white fur, named Peter. That’s right. Peter Rabbit.
Ellen was a bully. Peter was half her size. From time to time, we would hear high-pitched shrieking from the basement, where the rabbits lived in a multi-level cage. A particular memory stands out – going downstairs to find Peter huddling in one corner, his pristine fur splattered with brilliant red blood. His own, of course. Ellen was sitting in the opposite corner, staring balefully at Peter.
I don’t like anthropomorphizing animals – who does? – but that rabbit Ellen was a bitch.
I’m sure there are many sweet, kind bunnies in the world. Pleasant, soft little things who may or may not frighten themselves to death, or break their spines if you hold them wrong. Russell said it well, though, when he said “Rabbits have all the negatives of cats with few of the positives. They’re standoffish and dependent on you, but not useful, and never want to sit in your lap.” They don’t hunt mice, and do eat their own poo.
I am not a leporiphobe (unless we’re talking Monty Python-style rabbits, or the Minorcan Giant Lagomorph), just not a fan. Not someone inclined to give them special treatment. I believe in treating your food with respect, but I think most people will agree that some animals are easier to eat than others. Dinosaurs? BBQ time. Pigs? Can be cute, but, bacon. And in the US of A, ponies = NOOOOO.
Rabbits? I suppose I missed that developmental window of putting them in the friends camp vs. the food camp.
And oh, how solidly they are in the food camp. Ever since Samwise cooked up that brace of coneys Sméagol caught for him and Frodo, in Ithilien (remember, before Faramir showed up?), the mention of rabbit has set my salivary glands a-flutter. I’m not sure I ever ate it before that Christmas, but I sure romanticized it. Hard.
We sourced our first rabbit at the Paulina Meat Market in Chicago. It was three heavy pounds of frozen-solid meat, shipped in from Canada. After thawing it in the fridge, I pulled up a webpage on rabbit butchering, and hacked it to pieces with one small serrated knife and many winces (me, not the rabbit).
I’d broken down chickens before, and turkeys, but never a mammal. I remember pausing with my fingers on a shoulder joint, flexing it, searching for the right place to cut, thinking, with no small level of discomfort, “This feels like our cat.”
I credit my familiarity with cat anatomy, garnered through years of poking and prodding the long-suffering family beast (RIP, Petronius), as the crucial piece that got me through the butchering with enough meat to cook.
The dish turned out tasty. Not fantastic, but enough better than the gaminess my sister had feared, that she proclaimed herself a convert. I thought it was a bit tough, but interesting, and most importantly, full of potential. Russell made me agree to cook it again the next year.
Fast forward to this Christmas. We’re living in one of the best food regions in the country, if you go for local sourcing, ethical raising, and other sustainable agricultural and animal husbandry practices. A new butcher store had opened up a mile away, selling all air-chilled, never-frozen meat from within 150 miles. Russell pre-ordered a rabbit from Devil’s Gulch Ranch, and a half-pound of bacon, for pickup on Xmas Eve. I rustled up a recipe for Rabbit with Mushrooms, which may or may not have been the same one I used in Chicago. Ich kann mich nicht erinnern.
Wanting to avoid the unmoored, helpless feeling I experienced the last time I broke a little beast down, I turned to my usual MO. I put a call in to my good friend Mr. Google. After wading through enough sites to learn that many people deceptively call slaughtering “butchering”, I located a pictorial guide to rabbit butchery that got me through the (most) confusing parts.
The feeling of this four and a quarter pounder could not be further from my first rabbit experience. Unless it had scales. Or was made of gold. It was worlds apart, in any case. The membranes lying between muscles were glistening, intact. The kidneys and liver were attached, and a thoracic membrane stretched between the ribs. I was baffled by the leg joints, as I’m pretty sure rabbits have more going on in the hip and knee regions than I do. I was in awe of the meatiness of the thighs, surprised by the delicacy of the individual ribs. I hesitated, before snapping each one off the spine.
Cooking that rabbit was a joy from start to finish. I seasoned the pieces with salt and pepper, rubbed them with mustard, seared them in a hot Dutch oven, and let them braise in chicken broth and wine.
Several additions of onions, mushrooms, and bacon later, that dish was crowned the finest meat I’ve ever prepared. I’m not a super experienced meat-cooker, so maybe that’s low praise, but hey, Russell swooned too. Two days later it still tasted as tender and flavorful as a half hour off the stove.
So what made the difference between rabbits one and two? From my albeit amateur vantage, I’d chalk it up to freshness and quality. The flesh of the never-frozen local beast felt so firm, so animate, compared to the limp Canuck. Ahem. Twss. I also worked my way through most of the meat parts of a pig over the last 6 months, so am more comfortable with mammalian anatomy, which may have helped with the butchering component. I have so much to learn though. So, so much.
One thing is for sure though: I know what our family is eating for Christmas next year.