Rabbits: The Other White Meat
Let me just dismiss out of hand the notion that eating rabbits is objectionable simply because they are so damn cute. This line of thinking seems wholly unfair to all the other adorable, fluffy animals we so readily consume. With the same logic, should other animals be eaten, not because they are delicious, but because they fall far short of our conventional notions of cuteness (opossums)? Isn’t it high time we stopped letting images of Thumper and the Easter Bunny stand in the way of enjoying a delicious lapin à la moutarde? There is a growing movement that says yes.
Rabbit on the table was once quite commonplace in this country, where it’s long been associated with somewhat marginalized populations, including immigrants and the rural poor. During World War II, when beef was dedicated to feeding our overseas troops, the government encouraged people to raise rabbits for meat, and backyard hutches became as ubiquitous as victory gardens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even produced leaflets with rabbit recipes, while Americans were assured that “the meat of the domestic rabbit is pearly white, fine-grained, nutritious, palatable and may be served throughout the year.” Later, when the French food revolution of the 1960s transformed American dining, thanks in part to Julia Child, that classic rabbit in mustard sauce was very much in vogue. And yet rabbit never really established a firm foothold in the supermarket, since cuniculture (the agricultural practice of breeding and raising rabbits) is more suited to a homestead or small-scale farm endeavor.
In large part this can be attributed to the difficulties of producing rabbits on a commercial scale. With fragile immune systems and a propensity to eat their young under stressful conditions, rabbits require a kinder, gentler environment than what is possible in a conventional industrial operation, say for chickens. This makes raising them an ideal venture for artisan producers like R’Eisen Shine Farm in Schaghticoke, New York, where owners Ejay and Kim Carter also raise pigs and sheep. “We believe we’re good at growing meat because we were vegetarians for so long,” says Ejay. “So we’re willing to do all kinds of crazy stuff, like taking ice packs out to the rabbits in the summer to keep them cool and comfortable.”
Their current production of 120 rabbits a year will soon triple with the completion of a new “rabbitat,” a pasture-based system with family- style groupings on grass designed to mimic the animals’ natural habitat. This increase in production, and a new on-site processing space where they can oversee their own slaughtering, will enable R’Eisen Shine Farm to go from selling only to its CSA customers to making rabbits available at wholesale and through local farmers markets.
Like other animals raised on pasture, rabbit is very sustainable. When it’s too cold to be grazing outside, they are fed alfalfa pellets and hay rather than energy-intensive soy or fish meal which is often given to poultry. A single doe (female rabbit) can have multiple litters every year—though the Carters respectfully limit their breeding to twice annually—and those litters of 8 to 10 kits (rabbit babies) will reach breeding age within months. This means that a rabbit can produce up to six pounds of meat on the same amount of feed and water it takes a cow to produce just one pound. The meat is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, high in protein and low in calories. Plus, the manure rabbits produce makes wonderful compost, returning important nutrients back to the soil.
One thing that rabbit is not, however, is cheap. As with many boutique meats, the fairly hefty price tag is a reflection of the care and infrastructure needed to raise a quality product. R’Eisen Shine Farm charges their CSA “co-owners” a flat fee of $30 for a rabbit that weighs around 3.5 pounds, which is about twice the price of a whole pasture-raised chicken. Compare this rabbit to a similar specimen (though of unspecified origin) that was recently priced nearly double that at Eataly in New York City, and it makes sense, if you are going to forgo the chicken option, to consider raising rabbits at home.
The two most popular meat breeds are New Zealand and Californian, but many rabbit farmers end up creating their own unique mixes. The animal’s rapid and renowned reproductive cycle makes breeding goals attainable in a relatively short period of time. The Carters have been refining their crossbreed—“a mix of Californian, Satin, Rex and a few Giant-Chinchilla-crossed-with-Satin”—for the last four years, selecting for size, temperament, overall hardiness and an ability to convert pasture to meat.
In Honesdale, Pennsylvania, just across the New York State line, Rick and Linda Franciosa of Quails R-US Plus crossbreed their Californians and New Zealands with Silver Foxes, a rare breed recognized by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste, which is a living catalog of delicious and distinctive foods facing extinction. Though 200 breeding does will be needed for them to meet their ultimate goal of producing 100 rabbits a week, they are currently selling just a fraction of that at local farmers markets. “Rabbits are more of an attention-grabber at the moment,” says Rick, who acknowledges that customers open to eating rabbit barely outnumber the more squeamish. But he remains optimistic about evolving perceptions, in part because of the steady request for rabbit from several restaurants in Sullivan County, including Matthew’s on Main in Callicoon and The Heron in Narrowsburg.
MORE THAN ONE WAY TO COOK A RABBIT
Rabbit has parts that cook differently, much like chicken, whose mild flavor and smooth texture it shares. This makes braising a good option for the whole animal. At R’Eisen Shine Farm, a favorite dish is rabbit gently braised in wine with vegetables. Once falling-apart-tender, the meat is pulled from the fine, delicate bones and shredded over soft polenta. Brining or a good soak in buttermilk is the ideal prelude to a fried preparation. At Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria in New York City, rabbit is left overnight in a bath of crème fraîche, lemon zest and herbs before being dredged in semolina flour and fried to a crisp. The lean meat remains juicy and aromatic, without a trace of the gaminess sometimes encountered in wild rabbit.
At The Heron, chef Paul Nanni finds plenty of takers for his shepherd’s pie made with rabbit. “A lot of people upstate have grown up raising and eating rabbit,” he says, “and they love it.” He also wraps the loins with the saddle and poaches them for a roulade that is sliced and served with harissa, chopped hazelnuts and mustard oil. If all this is giving you a hankering for rabbit—or at least piquing your curiosity— consider booking a table at the Flammerie in Kinderhook. In March, they are offering a special tasting menu based on all the meats raised at R’Eisen Shine Farm.
“Rabbit is on the menu here about two or three times a month all year long,” says Fish & Game co-chef and partner Kevin Pomplun.
The Hudson restaurant focuses almost exclusively on local and sustainable resources. Its New Zealand rabbits come from Fazio Farms in Modena, a larger operation with 400 breeding does raised in enclosures imported from Italy. Owner John Fazio delivers his freshly butchered rabbits along with their offal, which Fish & Game puts to good use in dishes like grilled rabbit kidneys with bean salad and fava kimchi. Other preparations vary with the seasons and range from rabbit potpie with a spelt crust to charred leeks filled with the braised meat. Perhaps it’s no surprise they are so enthusiastically received, given the restaurant’s name and the fact that a rabbit features prominently in its logo.
Though it may seem far-fetched in some parts of the country, raising rabbits is a very workable option for residents of the Hudson Valley, especially those who have already undertaken the arguably more challenging feat of raising chickens. Rabbit has historically been something of a “crisis meat” in America—eaten in response to adverse circumstances of one sort or another—and the current state of our meat production certainly qualifies as dire. Those of us not ready or able to engage in animal husbandry are fortunate that there is a growing number of small purveyors shepherding this carefully raised, sustainable and delicious option from their farms to our tables. All we have to do is hop to it.
Here is a short list of Hudson Valley
Purveyors that raise and/or sell rabbits for the eating: