Rabbit

By Hanna Raskin

hraskin@postandcourier.com

Food writers are forever chasing the new, undiscovered and underappreciated, so it’s no surprise the lowly rabbit has recently spawned reams of lofty culinary prose. “The meat is delectable, with the ethereal subtlety of Dover sole,” Tamar Adler last year wrote in a Vogue chronicle of a rabbit meal in Spain. “If I’d never tasted rabbit in a bustling osteria, but only read of people eating it, it is this rabbit, with its crisp skin, its sweet fat, I would have hoped, someday, to meet.”

The current crop of rabbit fans didn’t invent the genre. Adler quoted food writer Roy Andries de Groot, who in 1976 swooned over rabbit, suggesting “you eat it at a small wooden table in a garden under the shadow of an olive tree on a hot and sparkling day, accompanied by a bottle of rose and a mixed Salade Mesclun.”

But rabbit is right now having a moment, for a multitude of reasons: It’s nutritious, it’s sustainable and eaters who so choose can raise a backyard bunny and butcher it themselves. Need more reasons to get on the rabbit train? Read on.

1.Rabbits and hares belong to the same family, but they’re different species, much like sheep and goats. Hares are generally bigger animals with longer ears and less interest in socializing, but the real giveaway occurs at birth. A hare is what the high-tech crowd would consider a plug-and-play model: It’s born furry and open-eyed. A rabbit, by contrast, starts out life hairless and helpless, without the ability to see, hear or regulate its body temperature.

2.Jackrabbits and cottontails are native to North America, but the rabbit that turns up in pet hutches and on dinner plates is officially known as Oryctolagus cuniculus. The Old World rabbit was domesticated 3,000 years ago by Phoenicians living in modern-day Spain, and successfully introduced by western explorers to every continent but Antarctica. Most rabbits sold as meat are crosses between New Zealand and Belgian varieties, although Chinese imports and Scottish hares also figure into the food supply.

3.Rabbit is sometimes called the other “other white meat,” but it doesn’t seem so foreign to the millions of people who observe religious dietary restrictions. Unlike pork, rabbit meat is halal. It’s also eaten by some Hindus who shun beef. More than a millennium ago, Pope Gregory I ruled rabbit meat wasn’t meat, meaning it was sanctioned for Lent. “There are no known taboos against eating rabbit,” rabbit meat advocate Steven Lukefahr told Time magazine (conveniently forgetting the laws of kashrut.)

4.One of the great dishes in the rabbit canon is hasenpfeffer, a German preparation first developed for hare. As Mimi Sheraton describes it in her new book, “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die,” “the meat is sauteed with bacon, diced pork, and onions until brown, then placed in a casserole with the blood or bloodwurst puree, bay leaves, juniper berries, lots of black peppercorns, red wine vinegar and a little red currant jelly. “ When baked, she adds, “it tastes like medieval history.”

5.According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, compared with beef, pork, lamb, turkey, veal and chicken, rabbit has the highest percentage of protein, fewest calories per pound and lowest percentage of fat. Of course, that leanness can pose problems for cooks: Rabbit is notorious for being served dry. A Brooklyn chef quoted in The New York Times suggests getting around the problem by wrapping rabbit loins in bacon.

6.Rabbit is a staple of French and Italian cuisines, but U.S. consumption has long been inhibited by affection for the Easter bunny, a folkloric figure that dates back centuries, and Bugs Bunny, dreamed up by Leon Schlesinger Productions in the late 1930s. Consumption spiked briefly during World War II, when beef was reserved for the troops, but the USDA estimates fewer than 3 million rabbits are annually eaten by Americans.

7.The Federal Meat Inspection Act that applies to cows, sheep, goats and poultry, including chickens and ducks, doesn’t cover rabbit. If rabbit farmers don’t submit their meat for voluntary inspection, it’s subject to inspection by the Food and Drug Administration. Certain states also impose additional restrictions: In South Carolina, rabbits intended for commercial sale must be raised on a farm and processed in a state-approved facility.