Rabbit Makes a Comeback on New England Tables
by Suzanne Cope
Whether in a rustic stew on my grandmother’s table or as a ragu over pasta in Italy, I have eaten rabbit a handful of times and without trepidation. The meat was tender and sweet. Not entirely unlike chicken, but with its own unique flavor, and each time complemented by the varied local vegetables and herbs with which it had been roasted or stewed.
However, my encounters with rabbit were rare and I had never cooked it myself—for no other reason than it was not a meat I often came across in menus, when shopping or while seeking inspiration in cookbooks. Rabbit wasn’t on my radar. Yet after spying a whole, frozen rabbit among the offerings at a small farmstand, I decided to give it a try.
A month passed, however, while the rabbit sat in my freezer, daring me to cook it each time I opened the door. But I still wasn’t sure how it would make it to my table. Friends who we often had over for dinner balked at rabbit for a main course—their daughter had one as a pet, named Smokey. When I suggested a rabbit dish for dinner one weekend my husband sighed, “but they’re so cute.” Finally, I decided to tackle people’s assumptions and misconceptions—and make a great meal in the process.
Eating rabbit has a long history in many cultures, including New England. Europeans, Central Americans and South Americans have featured rabbit in popular dishes for centuries; in some cases throwing the head into the pot to inform the diner what meat was used for their stew. For native New Englanders, however, rabbit was the hallmark of poverty. Rabbits can survive in a variety of habitats around the world and, well, reproduce as prolifically as the old adage goes.
It should be no surprise that rabbit could be found on the tables of many working class households throughout history and across many continents—and that immigrants brought their dishes with them to New England. However it wasn’t just the availability of rabbit that made this meat popular for so many, but also its nutritional value and versatility. Rabbit is a lean meat that cooks similarly to chicken and is lower in calories, fat and cholesterol and higher in protein than other proteins like chicken, turkey, pork or beef. Rabbit can be roasted, braised, stewed or grilled and various parts can be used in charcuterie. Yet, despite its many attributes, rabbit has been out of favor with New England diners for many years.
Elizabeth Riley, a food historian, confirmed that rabbit was not mentioned in the earliest cookbooks from New England, speculating that it was often derided for its association as meat only eaten by the poor. This was reinforced during World War II when rabbit was sold more frequently because of food shortages; when the war-induced shortages ended, so did rabbit’s forced popularity.
Rabbit has been often associated with game meats such as venison, despite the fact that rabbit is rarely commercially hunted, but rather is raised alongside other traditional barnyard animals. Paradoxically, rabbit also seems to suffer from an image problem as being too fancy—for many it is associated with French and haute cuisine.These findings echoed my own experience—I had eaten rabbit that was hunted by my grandfather and rabbit prepared in a higher-end restaurant. It made sense that a typical diner or cook might make assumptions about rabbit’s flavor or versatility. Luckily the push to redress these misconceptions around the region has been gaining force in recent years.
Jen Hashley, a former vegetarian, began raising rabbits three seasons ago inspired in part by an article about a one-woman rabbit farm in Oregon. At the time she and her husband, Pete, had recently started Pete and Jen’s Backyard Birds, raising organic, pasture-fed and humanely treated chickens for meat and eggs in the backyard of their home on the Verrill Farm homestead in Concord, Massachusetts. (Pete works for Verrill Farm as an assistant farm manager and they live in employee housing.) Jen worked off the farm during the day and could only help out at night and on the weekends, which caused her to feel disconnected from the animals on the farm. She saw rabbit farming as a manageable way that she could regain the “joy part of farming,” as she put it. At the time Pete and Jen weren’t birthing any of their own animals (although they now birth their own piglets as well as Jen’s rabbits) and Jen wanted to get to know her animals and learn about genetic selection using the manageable space she had available.
Jen started small, doing research on the best breeds and seeking out quality breeding stock, which took her eight months. She now has three breeds of does—New Zealand, Californian and Satin—which were chosen for their good meat-to-bone ratio and hardiness. These 15 mothers produce litters of six to 10 “kits” (baby rabbits) and are given four weeks to wean their young—a longer time than most commercial processors allow. Does are bred every eight to 10 weeks, according to a detailed schedule tacked to the wall of the rabbit hutch. (“This is what keeps me sane,” Jen said.) Rabbits are fed bark, seeds and hay in addition to commercial pelleted rabbit feed. It is very important to manage their nutrition, especially since Jen’s rabbits are never medicated. While this is a philosophy that Jen believes in regardless, commercially few rabbits are medicated in part because it is not cost effective and the industry is not large enough to have spurred products in this realm.
For now Jen’s rabbits are kept in cages and their manure is collected for compost for the garden, a product Jen is considering packaging and selling. Caging rabbits is necessary, as they are burrowing animals that generally can’t be fenced in and are susceptible to predators. However, Jen has found potential alternatives to the traditional rabbit hutch from Daniel Salatin, son of the farmer Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm. The younger Salatin has been experimenting with methods for pasturing rabbit and Pete and Jen attended a Polyface Farm Intensive Discovery Seminar in Virginia this past July to see the pastured rabbit operation in action. They even brought back some of the Salatin breeding stock to help launch their own pasture-based genetics. Jen plans to pilot growing rabbits in movable “pasture pens” in 2011.
John Abbatematteo and Pat Roll have a similar setup of rabbit hutches at West Elm Farm, where they also raise lambs and pigs for meat, chickens for eggs and goats for wool and milk-based body care items as well as other niche products. John began raising rabbits three years ago when he was searching for a local source for rabbit meat and couldn’t find one closer than Vermont. He now has seven does and two bucks—all New Zealand—that produce litters year-round.
Like Jen, John sells to dedicated individuals who know to call the farm to reserve their meat and arrange for a pickup. West Elm Farm sends all of its meat animals to state-inspected facilities to be butchered, which are then returned to the farm to be sold.
West Elm Farm is also dedicated to health and well-being of its rabbits, feeding them leftover greens, corn husks or apple cores, depending on the season. Otherwise their feed consists of grain from Poulin Grain in Vermont and pellets that have 18%protein and are mostly alfalfa. They keep their stock in the largest rabbit cages available and include pads in a significant portion of each cage so that the rabbits are not always standing on wire. John echoes Jen’s frustration with cages as being the only viable alternative for raising rabbits. He also notes, “Rabbits are very territorial. If they are penned in you can’t control fighting between the males and females.” John is confident, however, that he is providing his animals with the safest and most comfortable existence that he can, while creating a local food source that is healthy and free of antibiotics and other chemicals.
Jen has developed a following of local chefs who help sustain her business. Chef Peter McCarthy of EVOO in Cambridge buys from Jen because he appreciates knowing the provenance of his ingredients and strives to support local farmers whom he trusts, noting, “The best part about sourcing local products is meeting great people.”
Peter has been using rabbit on his menu at EVOO for nearly a decade, influenced by the rabbit rillette he learned to make when he worked as a chef at Seasons at the Bostonian. This dish has inspired the smoked rabbit confit salad that is frequently on EVOO’s menu, featuring smoked rabbit legs with dried cherries, Vermont cheddar cheese over local greens and finished with duck fat. Peter strives to use the whole rabbit, often turning the loin into a separate dish and the liver into a mousse or pate. In the beginning, he admits, “Rabbit was a difficult sell.” But as a chef who has long been a proponent of local ingredients, he said he has seen his customers become more willing to take culinary risks if the ingredients are locally or sustainably farmed. “Today,” he notes, “the idea of eating rabbit is suddenly not so farfetched.”
John at West Elm Farms echoes much of Peter’s sentiment. He admits that he still hears criticism from people who wonder how he can raise “cute bunnies” to eat, but for the most part he receives positive feedback. John said, “My business has only increased because of this growing movement to eat healthy, eat local and know where your sources of meat are from.” John also credits the movie Food, Inc. for raising awareness of rabbit as a healthy protein that is comparable to chicken. “It’s hard [for smaller, local farms] to produce meat chicken at a price people are willing to pay,” he states, and cites this as another reason that rabbit is gaining in popularity in addition to the inclusion of rabbit-based dishes on menus of respected chefs who are known for using local and sustainable ingredients.
When I walked into the Cambridge location of the Savenor’s, all I knew was that I would be meeting with a butcher named Ron to talk about rabbit. Little did I realize that he was the owner, grandson of the founders and personal butcher to countless area chefs and formerly for the late Julia Child.
“My relationships with farmers are all personal,” Ron Savenor explains, adding that bigger is not better in his point of view. Considering that Savenor’s has been in business since 1939, started by Ron’s grandparents Dora and Abraham Savenor, and has a loyal following of foodies and chefs, his philosophy seems to be working.
Among many game meats, as rabbit is classified at the retail level, Savenor’s sells rabbit from both of their locations, available whole, boneless or as selected cuts (butchers will also cut to order or tailor any item upon request). Ron sources his rabbit from a few different area farms, adding another to the roster only after he has spoken to the farmer and developed a genuine rapport about their farming philosophy and practices.
Unlike the experience of some local farmers and chefs, Savenor’s has been steadily selling rabbit for years. “Our customers are foodies,” Ron explains. This much appears to be clear—a photo of Ron’s father, Jack, and Julia Child is on the wall immediately facing the front door of the store and Ron is prone to describing products rhapsodically, describing a cut of meat as “OMG good!” Savenor’s was also a proponent of local sourcing long before it was in vogue. Clearly they knew what so many new to the locavore movement are only now discovering: Local very often means fresher and tastier, and when you know the farmer, as Ron always does, it means humane and sustainable as well.
Before I left, Ron demonstrated how to cut up a whole rabbit into eight pieces, noting that it is not that much different that cutting up a chicken. Inspired, I headed home to defrost my rabbit and prepare a meal based upon the recommendations of the chefs, farmers and butchers I had met. Once the three-pound rabbit was thawed, I found that I could easily (if not expertly) break it down into twin thighs, loins, ribs and shoulder cuts, removing the kidney, liver and parts of the backbone along the way (which I saved for stock and gravy). I continued to brown the meat, later adding vegetables, herbs and wine for braising, finishing it all in a large pot on the stovetop. In a little more than an hour, I had a beautifully cooked rabbit dish that would have easily fed six people.
But that night it was just my husband and myself. He approached the dish cautiously, his fork hovering for a moment above the bowl before digging in.
“I don’t think I’ve ever eaten rabbit before,” he noted. It was true that many food lovers whom I had spoken with had rarely allowed rabbit to grace their table. I watched him chew thoughtfully before he announced, “It’s delicious. Like chicken … but different. Maybe even better.” Perhaps different, but likely not so rare for long.
Pete & Jen’s Backyard Birds
159 Wheeler Road
Concord, MA 01742
Whole rabbits available at the mini-store located at the farm.
West Elm Farm
65West Elm Street
Pembroke, MA 02359
Rabbits are dressed and cut, then vacuum-sealed and frozen, with whole rabbits available on request.
350 Third Street
Cambridge, MA 02142
160 Charles Street
Boston, MA 02114
92 Kirkland Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Suzanne Cope teaches writing at Berklee College and Lesley University. She has written about food, family, travel and pop culture for various publications and is working on the book Locavore in the City: Upside-down Gardening, Cheese-Making, Fermenting, Foraging and Other Delicious Local Pursuits. You can reach her at email@example.com and follow her adventures at www.locavoreinthecity.com and www.twitter.com/locavoreincity.