Rabbit meat is delicious. I wish I didn't know that.
Rabbits bond for life. For most, instinct drives them to seek out another creature - usually one of their own kind, but it’s been known to encompass cats, guinea pigs, dogs or even birds. They’ll groom, cuddle and grieve palpably upon the other’s absence or loss.
Claudette, my nine-ish year old Hotot / dwarf mix (pictured above) is, as I was informed by my local rabbit rescue guru, bonded to me. She expresses this via chin rubs to shoes I’ve not previously worn around her (rabbits have scent glands with which they mark territory), a distinct drop-off in the bitchy behavior she demonstrates to nearly all other humans she’s encountered, and tooth-grinding purrs as I stroke her silken fur. We belong to each other.
At the same time, I can’t pretend that the most astonishing bite of food I ate in 2009 wasn’t a smoked rabbit kidney. In my defense, I didn’t order it; it was a gift from the chef of my favorite local restaurant. The rich, gamey, smoke-soaked flavor built in my mouth and did not ebb for many minutes. It made me grateful to have a tongue.
I debated for a minute or two before I ate it, and I apologized to my rabbits (there is another besides Claudette) upon my arrival at home. Yes, I sometimes anthropomorphize, but I felt genuine guilt when I looked into their faces. I take care of these animals. I enjoy and yes, love them. It is truly unnerving to know, quite specifically what is under their fur and how it tastes.
I am a dedicated, enthusiastic eater of meat and especially offal - occasionally from animals I’d known while they were still living, thanks to some farmer friends who have no use for the heads, organs and extremities of the pigs and cows they slaughter for food. I don’t have qualms - well, not any more - about enjoying eating these creatures I’d seen walking, wallowing, eating and generally cavorting about. Parts would otherwise going to go to waste, so I eat them.
What gives rabbits more rights than these creatures? Vegetarians would offer me a blanket solution to my quandary - just don’t consume any of them. Problem solved. But I haven’t been a vegetarian for a very long time, and even then, my reasons were not based in ethics or morality - more just an attempt at an identity. Either way, it's pretty easy to stay away from eating rabbit, and save for the occasional jab from a pal who threatens to fricassee my pets, I haven't had to think about it much. Until recently.
This month ushered in The Year of the Rabbit, according to the Chinese Lunar calendar. It's purportedly a time of tranquility and balance and in no way traditionally calls for an uptick in bunny eating - but it's shaking out that way in the food community. Bring up the subject of rabbits, and someone suggests ways to serve them. It's not that way with dogs and other domestic pets, unless someone's in a particularly dark mood. I joke that I've completely given up eating whippet and greyhound since I started living with one of each, but that's mostly to forestall the inevitable.
A December tweet from chef and No Reservations host Anthony Bourdain read: "Daughter said she wanted a bunny. So I'm making braised rabbit with pappardelle." Sadistic? Yes. Unexpected? Not a bit - but I can't pretend I didn't wince.
I similarly recoiled when Food & Wine editor-in-chief Dana Cowin tweeted, "Chefs developing recipes 4 @fandw always suggest rabbit. I always say no. Should I relent? Would you cook rabbit?". This was not because I sensed any flippancy on her part; Dana is an exceptionally graceful and conscientious person. Rather, I knew what was likely about to come her way.
When New York Times writer Kim Severson's article "Don't Tell The Kids" broached the topic of Brooklyn-based rabbit slaughter classes in March of 2010, she drew tremendous outrage from the online rabbit rescue community. I know, because I am a part of those groups. She wrote thoughtfully and thoroughly about the history and moral ambiguity of using rabbits as a meat animal, but the inclusion of recipes and a photograph of a lovely, live white rabbit galvanized the community. Many began calling for her head.
I didn't participate - I'm in a strange position as a food writer and rabbit owner - but letters to the editor stating calling her "an utterly disgusting human being" and "I would appreciate it if you would publish and article in response on how to butcher Kim Severson" are not helping anyone. They're the flip side of the knee-jerk jokes about making a snack of my pets - but infinitely darker in their disrespect for life. Human life.
That is where I have no grey area. Yes, I would rather spend time with my rabbits and my dogs than a good many of the people that I've met throughout the years. I would never choose their life over a human's. That sounds obvious, but it's not. My own death was called for and I was wished cancer, among other fates, by the readers of a piece I wrote about ethical pig slaughter.
I fully understand the passion that many people feel about the welfare of animals. If I didn't, I wouldn't share my home with several of them myself. I knew that putting that article - and in fact this one - out into the world was going to enrage people. That's not a bad thing - it means we get to talk with each other and hopefully get to understand each others' points of view a little bit better. Someone will likely suggest that the world would be better off if I were cooked and the rabbits ate me (I have a sneaking suspicion that I'd be a bit gamey), or that I'm a bleeding heart liberal (yeah, that's probably true) who just needs to grow a pair and munch bunny unapologetically.
All I know is that every night, when I walk into the room where Claudette and Digory live, check their water, bring them hay, greens and pellets, they're happy to see me. It could be just that I'm bringing their provisions, but I have a sneaking suspicion it's something more.
They don't dive directly into the food, but rather hunker down into restive loaves, feet tucked under them, ears tucked back to further streamline their bodies and wait for me to pet them until they purr.
I double dog dare you to try and eat hasenpfeffer after that.