January 5, 2011
There comes a time in every urban homesteader’s life when one must decide how far you’re going to take this thing. It was easy enough for us to decide that no pigs would live in our backyard. Goats were fairly obviously out of the question as well, given that our neighborhood association doesn’t even technically allow chickens. The next option down the totem pole seemed to be rabbits. As Rachel from Dog Island Farm explains in her brilliant post about how raising rabbits will make you more self-sufficient, rabbits are an easy choice for the urban homesteader because they don’t take up much space, produce rich garden-ready fertilizer, don’t make noise and, well…they f*k like bunnies. While there is unmistakable value in knowing the source of your food, Jared and I weren’t sure we were ready to look our food in the eye.
Now’s the time to warn you – if you began reading this blog post because you saw a cute, fuzzy rabbit and you just adore those cuddly critters, you should probably stop reading now. This won’t be a post about cuddling twitchy-nosed little bundles of fur.
Back to the story…
I’ve spent the last several months asking everyone I know who keeps food animals how they feel about taking a life and I realized we were in trouble when I identified much more with the husband of the urban farmer who became vegetarian when his wife told him they’d be taking the lives of their own meat than I did with the courageous woman who took garden shears to her turkey’s neck. Despite my reluctance to take a life I know I’m not quite ready for a meatless existence. While most people I know are okay with the double standard, it was really bothering me; hence, my big dilemma. If I was going to continue eating meat, I felt like I needed to be able to own up to the life I would be taking, however distant I was in the process. This was going to be a bumpy road.
I started mentioning meat rabbits to Jared after a confluence of circumstances planted the idea in my head that I wasn’t a ‘real’ urban farmer unless at least some of my meat came from the backyard as well. In the span of a month, I read Novella Carpenter’s Farm City, met three urban farmers who are keeping rabbits for food and found an inspiring site by @Hank_Shaw (who I follow on Twitter) all about catching, dressing and consuming game animals. I had rabbit on the brain.
It’s important I think to insert a little history here. When I was a kid, maybe 12 or so, we got a rabbit. We trained it to use the litter box (at least as much as you can train a rabbit) and kept it in the house like you would a cat. I regret having to admit that I don’t remember her name. I do remember, however, that she soon had a litter of rabbits (“kits” in farmer-speak) even though there was no male rabbit in sight. She must have come to us already pregnant – this will not surprise anyone who’s ever kept rabbits. Who knows what happened to the rest of the kits but we were left with one male rabbit plus the mom in the end. We apparently didn’t know much about rabbit-keeping because we kept the two together and it wasn’t long before the two had another litter of kits. By this time, we were keeping the rabbits outside in a rabbit hutch – they had quickly graduated from cuddly indoor pets to stinky outdoor pets. It was my job to feed and water them and I’ll never forget going outside to refresh their water in the dead of winter and finding four tiny pink baby bunny-worm-creatures with their heads chewed off by their own shrewd mother. I must have been scarred for life because, to this day, I find rabbits a tad repulsive.
It’s possible that this early childhood experience was working around in my subconscious when I told Jared I could see myself butchering a rabbit way more easily than I could see myself butchering a chicken. Our chickens are our pets after all, quirky little creatures with names as unique as their individual personalities. I couldn’t take the life of something I’d named. Rabbits, however, were this theoretical offspring-consuming farm creature in my mind. Cold-blooded baby-munchers would certainly be easier to dispatch than a cooing little character with a Facebook page (to anyone concerned that I’ve completely lost my marbles, I have to admit I neither created or maintain that page).
After much questioning of my motives, Jared finally decided I was serious enough that he should react to my provocation. He confessed that he didn’t even know how rabbit tasted so it didn’t make sense to think about raising and killing something that he might not even want to eat. I had enjoyed rabbit ragout before and remembered it being delicious but it had been a long time. I agreed that we should prepare rabbit at home before the discussion progressed. I asked Esperanza of Pluck and Feather Farm who raises rabbits herself where we might find rabbit to cook and she sent me to Baron’s Meat and Poultry in Alameda where sure enough they had fresh rabbit and goat. We saved the goat for an Indian recipe and I got to work on the rabbit.
As I removed the rabbit from its packaging I really tried to identify with the animal as I would have if it had been raised under my watch. It was a whole rabbit so I did my best to imagine what it had looked like alive and what it had eaten. I examined its body from neck (the head had been removed) to tail and checked out how all the parts worked. I held it out in front of me and saw it as a rabbit rather than a chunk of meat.
Only when I felt I had a grasp of the thing did I finally begin to disassemble it. I had never cooked rabbit before and wasn’t sure how to butcher it but did my best and ended up with six rough pieces – two front legs, two back legs and two back pieces (which I later found out are the coveted pieces). Following Hank Shaw’s recipe, I dredged the rabbit parts in flour, fried them and moved on to the stew which consisted of onion, garlic, potatoes and spices. I then prepared the tomato red wine sauce which went over the entire dish.
Jared wasn’t involved in the cooking process and I was glad because there was a part of me that wanted to surprise him. I had my suspicions that this would be a fabulous meal and I think it’s so fun to have a great meal presented to you in its final form without having to see the messy middle steps. Besides, this was an important first step in the rabbit decision and I wanted to him to sit back and taste what was certain to be an exquisite final product.
Jared's reaction to the rabbit stew
A couple of hours later and the rabbit was ready to be served. I decorated the dish with a a little sprig of parsley and set the table simply. I didn’t want anything to distract us from this meal upon which I had piled so much gravitas. I took pictures of our dishes, we thanked the rabbit (something we began doing after buying a side of beef) and then I sat back to watch Jared take the first bite. It didn’t even take a second taste to confirm his reaction – delicious!! His expression was so gratifying I made him freeze it so I could capture it on my camera. The meal was a success!!
Or was it? After all that fancy kitchen work, I found it incredibly difficult to enjoy the meal. Perhaps it was the intense study of the animal and the way I forced myself to think of the meat as a living creature. Whatever the cause, I had no appetite whatsoever and just could not get into my own bowl of stew. Jared happily gobbled his up and even helped himself to seconds, swooning the entire time over the flavor while I looked on in confusion. A staunch advocate of re-working the leftovers, I found myself feeding leftover rabbit meat to the dog after I had given Jared ample time to eat it himself. A very strange occurrence indeed.
After hearing that story, you might rightly wonder why we moved on to step 2 in our decision-making process. Who knows what drives a woman on a mission to connect with her food to do these crazy things? At some point I had reached out to Rachel at Dog Island Farm to talk rabbits. I told her we were thinking about raising rabbits, inspired by her blog post among other things, and asked if we might be able to come along for a tutorial next time they slaughtered. She happily obliged and within a couple of weeks had sent me a message with a date. Jared and I waited in nervous anticipation.
Tom with the rabbit
Many farmers will tell you that you don’t name your food and Rachel and Tom are mostly of that ilk – except when they’re not. They do name their breeding pairs and I reasoned with myself that it made total sense since you don’t slaughter your breeding pairs – except when you do. All this to say that the rabbit that was to meet her end that day was named Roly-Poly. This only matters if you’re already kind of freaking out about killing a rabbit.
Roly Poly was a Californian and Tom and Rachel were replacing her. Since a meat animal is a resource not to be wasted, at the end of her usefulness in breeding, she was to become food regardless of whether she had a name. It’s not very sustainable after all to keep a bunch of retired breeding rabbits on a farm when they’ve outlived their usefulness.
I had watched a couple of videos on YouTube to prepare me for the process. In the videos the neck of the rabbit was broken in various ways – the cleanest seemed to be the video where the person used a device called the Rabbit Wringer that held the rabbit’s head as you pulled on the body to break the neck. Tom didn’t need devices, though. He held the Roly Poly upside down by the feet and used his massive right arm to deliver a karate-type chop to the neck. The rabbit let out a disturbing scream, which I wasn’t prepared for (on several levels) and then went limp. That was it – the worst part was over as far as I was concerned. I’m not of the sacred body camp – I think lives are sacred but once the life has left the body I don’t get all sentimental.
Next, Tom hung the rabbit by it feet onto the fence where he had fashioned a couple of hooks precisely for that purpose. The limp body hung by its two achilles tendons as he quickly slit the throat to let the rabbit bleed out. There wasn’t nearly as much blood as I had imagined – maybe a half cup or so – and it drained into a bucket he had placed below the body.
A couple of incisions around the feet and tail and it was easy to remove the pelt in a couple of quick tugs. I’ve heard other people call this “removing the pajamas” which sounds so much more friendly than “skinning”. Tom then opened up the gut of the rabbit and carefully removed the viscera, cautious to avoid bursting the bladder and intestines. The edible organs went to the dogs and Tom told us the intestines would be buried. He cut off the head to freeze for later (apparently the brain is used for tanning the hide?) and saved the pelt as well. He removed the feet and put one bloody foot in a ziploc bag for us to send to our nephew. Now that I think about it, it’s probably still in our refrigerator somewhere. Ew.
Field Dressed Rabbit
In the end, the entire process was not as bad as either of us had expected. Having grown up in the midwest, neither of us are complete strangers to field dressing an animal, but it’s also something neither of us really ever imagined ourselves doing. The rabbit conversation is on hold for now, but it does seem as if we’ve decided in our indecision that it’s probably not for us.
I respect and admire what Rachel and Tom are doing up at Dog Island Farm and I’m grateful that they were generous enough to open their home to us and allow us to observe their process. It’s vital for people to understand where their food comes from and to recognize that each meat dish they consume used to be a living being with a beating heart and a life. Rachel and Tom honor their animals by raising them thoughtfully and humanely and when the time comes they butcher them with great respect. They eat with an understanding that the lives they take sustain them and they don’t waste their food.
I can’t help but think that if we all had to look our food in the eye, we would think twice about our eating habits. Some of us, like the aforementioned husband of the urban farmer, would likely choose the vegetarian route. Others, like Rachel and Tom would probably cook less meat and be certain to consume what they cook with little to no waste.
This type of animal husbandry might be more our style for now!
As for Jared and I, we decided that with our busy jobs and my travel schedule, adding another living being is not a viable option. It’s already difficult for us to find someone who can take care of the farm when we travel and the more responsibilities we add the harder it will become. We’ll have to see what the future holds. For now, I sure am cooking a lot of beans!