What, for Americans, most likely deters rabbit’s transfiguration into dinner is cuteness.
People who travel in France and Italy, where hare and rabbit appear on family and restaurant menus, usually cheer a rabbit dish. They tuck right into rabbit napped in a mustard sauce or rabbit sauteed with paprika and mushrooms or rabbit stuffed with wine-soaked prunes whose seed you replace with chopped rabbit liver. Mafioso John Gotti, incarcerated now in our toughest federal penitentiary, once regularly took dinner at a Manhattan trattoria that accommodated his hunger for rabbit hunter-style, in an opulent tomato and black olive sauce, served with bright yellow polenta or rabbit and mushroom casserole reeking of garlic. When I see Gotti’s name now in newspapers, I imagine him stretched out on his back in his windowless Ohio cell, reconstructing in his empty mouth the taste of rabbit browned in olive oil and then extending that fantasy through the litany of possible sauces.
In Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter Rabbit’s mother warns him, “Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden. Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor.” Anglophiles can be wooed with rabbit pie, composed much as you would chicken pie, with potato, peas, diced carrots, rich rabbit gravy, all enclosed within a sandy lard crust, and served with Brussels sprouts steamed only until fork tender and a salad of apple, walnut, radicchio, and celery, dressed with sherry and lemon juice.
Southerners and Midwesterners, middle-aged or older, whose mothers and grandmothers fried or smothered or fricasseed rabbit, also applaud a rabbit dinner. For frying, rabbit is cut into six pieces — two front legs with rib sections, two pieces of loin or back, and the two hind legs. A small paper bag is filled with one-half to one cup flour, one teaspoon of salt, a pinch of black pepper. One piece at a time, the rabbit parts are put in the bag and floured. So easily does a cut-up rabbit reassemble itself in mind and admit of rabbit’s familiar lineaments that one quickly wants to get the rabbit coated with flour and into the frying pan, which ideally will be a high-sided black iron skillet.
Exiles from the United States’ culinary Old Country seem particularly gladdened when fried rabbit is offered as centerpiece to mashed potatoes into which a fried rabbit’s cream gravy can be pooled. Add to this nostalgic menu slightly bitter turnip and mustard greens or fresh green beans simmered all day with fatback and onion. Pass around a basket of corn muffins, Southern origin tweaked by cranberry and grated fresh ginger. Place on your sideboard, if you have one, a footed cake stand. On the cake stand set a lemon pound cake baked in a tube pan and drizzled while it cools with a hot lemon syrup. No matter if you lack the sideboard or even the footed cake stand, as long as your cake sits in the background, all through dinner a Xanadu promising itself. The promise is what’s important.
Americans, per capita, annually devour about 250 pounds of beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and fish. Of all that meaty poundage, Americans nibble an average of half an ounce of rabbit per man, woman, child. No dish I bring to the table causes such anxiety as rabbit. Taste isn’t the problem. Domestic rabbit tastes not that different from the innocuous chicken breast. Nor is rabbit bad for you. The meat is lean and low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium; a four-ounce serving contains about 200 calories. The obstacle is mind, not mouth.
So many rabbit cultural artifacts clutter the American psyche that future anthropologists will consider us rabbit-obsessed. Rabbit fictions permeate childhood: Br’er Rabbit, Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, the Velveteen Rabbit, Hazel and Fiver and company in Watership Down, Bambi’s Thumper, Rabbit HUTs Father Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit and March Hare. These fictional rabbits, turned to plush, comfort us in our cribs, soak up our nasty infant drool and insatiable infant grief. Add to these, cartoon rabbits: Roger Rabbit, Crusader Rabbit, Ricochet Rabbit, Matt Groening’s rabbits in Life in Hell, malicious Bugs Bunny with his annoying screech, “What’s up, Doc?” The hand puppet Bunny Rabbit, who would do anything for a carrot, was a regular on Captain Kangaroo’s morning television show. There is the song we sang as youngsters, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail.” The magic act in which the magician pulls the startled rabbit, often with fluttering chiffon scarves, out of his top hat is a standard.
For adults, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy bunnies, breasts boosted agonizingly by push-up bras and bottoms punctuated by the white bunny tails, dangerously sexualized the rabbit. John Updike’s licentious Rabbit Angstrom, the rangy hero with the slight overbite who leched through four novels, from Rabbit Run through Rabbit at Rest, put a male twist on the sexualized rabbit. Conversations about sex use the rabbit. We say, “She f-----s like a rabbit,” and mean she’s an indiscriminate, lax slut. He who, however, “f-----s like a rabbit” is a sexual marathoner, a fellow who never says die. Those who “breed like rabbits” tend to be people whose birth rate we believe needs lowering, which is anyone other than you and me.
But what, for Americans, most likely deters rabbit’s transfiguration into dinner is cuteness. Cute is more difficult to lift from fork to mouth, to bite down on, chew, and swallow, than disgusting. We gag on cute. No animal whose telos is the dinner plate seems as cute as rabbit. The pig, steer, chicken, even the waddling duck or ill-tempered but handsome goose can have the cute cooked out of them. The bunny rabbit with his floppy ears, fuzzy tail, plumpish rump, twitching nose, Gene Tierney overbite, sensitive whiskers, and steadfast eyes is not so easily rendered into dinner.
Rabbit is not hare. Both rabbit and hare belong to the family Leporidae, order Lagomorpha (leaping animals) but to different genera. Rabbits are gregarious and dig burrows. Hares, except at breeding time, are generally solitary; rather than burrowing, they create shallow depressions for nests, usually among grasses. Rabbit young are born hairless, blind, and helpless; hare young are born furred, open-eyed, and minutes after birth can hop about. Adult rabbits are generally smaller than hares, their legs, feet, and ears shorter. Hares’ coloring resembles their brownish surroundings. They tend to have very short upturned tails, a divided upper lip, and more powerful hind legs than do rabbits and are able to run faster and longer, which ability they need, since they can’t, like rabbits, hide away in underground burrows. The domestication of hares has proved near impossible because, unlike the rabbit, the hare is reluctant to breed in captivity.
Popular nomenclature further confuses the rabbit/hare distinction. The snowshoe rabbit and jackrabbit are hares. The fashionable domestic breed known as the Belgian hare (model for Beatrix Potter’s Peter and Benjamin) is rabbit, not hare. The cottontail, the most common wild rabbit in the United States, stands somewhere between rabbit and hare. The cottontail does not dig out burrows but rests and sleeps in slight depressions or burrows of other animals. Cottontails, like hares, tend to be loners, although when feeding or mating, cottontails will gather in group?. Cottontail young are fully furred within a week; their eyes open in six to nine days.
Rabbit, hare, and cottontail are herbivorous. They feed on vegetable matter, grain, grasses, roots, twigs, and strip the bark from young trees. All are largely nocturnal. Unless startled, frightened, or injured, they are silent. They produce between four and eight litters per year, with three to nine young per litter. Although most die far earlier, all can live to their ninth or tenth year. (The model for Peter Rabbit was nine when he died.)
Rabbits and hares are indigenous everywhere other than Australia, New Zealand, southern South America, and Antarctica. The rabbit and hare, aided by passionate fecundity, by adaptability and gradual decrease in enemies other than man, have proliferated across the world’s temperate zones.
Rabbit was a popular food in Greece and Rome. Romans captured and reared wild rabbits in leporaria, walled gardens that protected rabbits from predators. Roman nobleman Apicius (25 BC-AD 37) accumulated a manuscript of recipes, some 468 of which have survived. These recipes make up what food historians deem the earliest extant cookbook. Apicius suggests a ground meat patty with pine nuts and myrtle berries. As to what kind of meat to use in the grind, Apicius writes, “The ground meat patties of peacock have first place if they are fried so they remain tender. Those of pheasant have second place, those of rabbit third, those of chicken fourth, and those of suckling pig fifth.”
Apicius offers two recipes for hare — roasted hare with herb sauce and stuffed hare. Both accommodate hare and rabbit’s lack of fat by wrapping the meat in pork. (Apicius’s recipes for hare and rabbit can be found rewritten for the contemporary kitchen in A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa.) Both use the popular Roman condiment garum, a salty fermented fish sauce inherited from the Greeks and common throughout the Mediterranean by the time of the Roman Empire. (Some 350 of Apicius’s recipes require garum.) The Romans used the salty garum as regularly as Orientals use soya sauces or Americans use catsup and now, salsa. Garum producers flourished in Pompeii, Libya, and southern Spain; the sauce was shipped throughout the Roman Empire in amphoras labeled with the manufacturer’s name. Choicer brands of garum cost ten times as much as the finest wine.
Accounts of hare hunting in Britain date from the Roman invasion. Introduced from Spain and Italy into France in the Middle Ages, the rabbit soon became acclimatized. On the continent during the Middle Ages rabbits were domesticated in the monasteries whose discipline forbade meat entirely or permitted it only rarely. The Church ruled that the flesh of newly born or not-yet-born rabbits was not meat.
By the late 1700s, in the reign of Louis XVI, wild rabbits in France had become so destructive to crops that His soon-to-be-guillotined Majesty gave permission for anyone to hunt them. Louis XVIII, however, was acclaimed as the canniest connoisseur of wild rabbits of his time. Because the rabbit, like all meat, acquires flavor from what it eats, Louis XVIII could sniff aromas rising from a passing rabbit fricassee and declare, correctly, in which part of the country the animal had lived.
Europeans considered wild rabbit’s flavor far superior to domesticated; hare they found tastiest of all (and beginning in the Middle Ages, hare’s blood was one of the apothecary’s most important ingredients). Wild rabbit’s meat offered a strong, gamy, rich, “brown” taste; hare tasted even stronger. Hare and wild rabbit, foraging for food, of course, exercised far more than did farmed rabbits and therefore had a darker, firmer meat than the caged rabbit. Flavor differed from wild rabbit to wild rabbit and hare to hare, unlike the more uniform flavor of domestic rabbit. Particularly prized in France and Italy were wild rabbits that fed where thyme, rosemary, lavender, and other strongly fragrant herbs grew.
The Old World rabbit, Oryctolagus cuniculus, ancestor to all domestic rabbit breeds, was known in France as le lapin de choux, or “cabbage rabbit.” Domestic rabbit, then and now, ranges in size from 2 to 20 pounds.
In England, by the late 17th Century, most estates kept domestic rabbits, and rabbit was sold in towns and cities by poulterers. Rabbit starred in stews and pies, was roasted with herbs and potted. Sara Paston-Williams writes in The Art of Dining that potting was a popular way of preserving foodstuffs. Meat was baked in butter, drained, and then sealed under more butter, so that it could keep for up to a year. By the 1820s the two largest rabbit keepers in London kept some 2000 breeding does from which they produced rabbits for home use.
Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, all used hare and wild and domestic rabbit. Rabbit was an ingredient in sausage, terrines, pate, stews, and pies. A preparation, with variations, that appeared all across the continent and in England was the civet, a thick game stew in which meat is marinated in a local wine, usually red, and herbs native to the region, and then cooked slowly until meat falls from bone. A civet can be made from any furred game — wild boar, venison, rabbit — but the most common meat was hare and later, domestic rabbit.
The civet takes its name from the French cives, small green onions similar to our chives, which have always been a prime civet ingredient. What distinguishes the civet, however, is not the cive, but that the sauce, usually based on red wine, is thickened with the animal’s blood and minced liver. Blood-thickened sauces were common in an era when slaughtering was done at home. (The traditional coq au vin uses the rooster’s blood as thickener for its sauce.) Blood-thickened sauce is also used to prepare the traditional jugged hare. (I used to think that the term “jugged hare” referred to the cutting of a hare’s jugular vein to acquire its blood. However, if the various culinary dictionaries and American Heritage are correct, “jugged” refers merely to preparation of a baked or stewed hare in an earthenware jug.) Now, civets are most often prepared without blood.
What, for Americans, most likely deters rabbit’s transfiguration into dinner is cuteness.
Rabbit bones continue to be found in prehistoric American Indian sites. Dutch settlers to the New World in 1654 bought from the Indians a piece of land along the Atlantic Ocean. They named the land “Conye Eylant,” after the “conies,” or rabbits, that swarmed through the area. The name later was Anglicized into Coney Island. Newcomers to North America hunted the abundant game they found here. Domesticated rabbit, like chicken, was brought to North America from Europe as breeding stock, and German settlers to America in the 1700s and 1800s brought their celebration of the Easter Bunny with them. Our ancestors, farmers and householders in towns and cities, often kept a hutch of rabbits in back yards.
In the 20th Century, rabbit has been turned to in bad times. During the Depression wild rabbits were snared or shot; the hutch reappeared in back yards. More recently, in Roger and Me, Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary about what happened in Flint, Michigan, after the local General Motors plant closed, Moore shows Rhonda, who supplements her Social Security check by raising and selling rabbits as “pets or meat.” In Moore’s film, Rhonda clubs and skins a rabbit. “First we were pets,” said Moore, “then we were meat,” drawing an analogy between Rhonda’s rabbits and GM’s laid-off workers.
Even more recently, Jernigan, the first novel by Ann Beattie’s first husband, Newsweek books editor David Gates, shows a contemporary rabbit rearer, Martha. Jernigan, after his wife’s death, has moved in with Martha. In the basement of Martha’s suburban New Jersey home are rabbit hutches — “Bunny Hell,” she uneasily calls this arrangement. Martha raises the rabbits for food. Gates describes Jernigan’s initial descent into Bunny Hell: “I count five cages, made of two-by-fours and chicken wire. Each cage had three or four rabbits. White, black, piebald: bright, trusting eyes. Martha stuck two fingers through the chicken wire and smoothed between the ears of a chocolate-brown rabbit the size of a roasting chicken.”
Jernigan gasps. Martha says, “It’s actually more moral than going out and buying chicken or something. Do you know how those chickens live that you get at the store? You know how they die?”
Late in the novel, Jernigan kills a rabbit for dinner. “The gun went snap and the rabbit gave a shiver and just turned to meat.”
How to Cook Beotrix Potter's Favorite Animal
RABBIT STEW CIVET DE LAPIS
Civet of rabbit or hare (lievre) is one of the mythic dishes of Provence, adored by everyone, and everyone agrees that it must be accompanied by a fine, old Provencal red wine. A few years ago, Jean-Marie regularly chose Domaine Tempier vintages from the 1960s to accompany Lulu’s civets. Now, a 1972 is a typical choice.
If you are unable —- or disinclined — to finish the sauce with blood, don’t worry. With or without the blood liaison, the ragout is delicious. American cottontails, which are usually shot by farmers and left to die in the fields, are wonderful prepared in this way.
Physically, the blood acts in a red wine sauce in the same way as egg yolks in a bianquette, reinforcing the sauce’s body and lending it a sensuous, velvety texture; like a sauce finished with egg yolks, a civet must not approach a boil after the blood has been added lest the sauce break and become grainy.
The blood is always collected and stirred in a bowl containing a tablespoon of wine vinegar, which prevents it from coagulating. The blood of a wild rabbit or hare, which has been shot, collectsin the chest cavity, behind the diaphragm, a membrane that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. After the animal has been skinned and gutted, the liver removed, and the gall bladder carefully cut away and discarded, the diaphragm is slit open and the blood poured into the bowl containing vinegar. A hutch rabbit, sacrificed with a civet in mind, is killed by rupturing the spinal column at the base of the skull. The jugular vein is then slashed and the blood collected in the bowl containing vinegar before the rabbit is skinned.
To cut up a rabbit for a saute, use a large, heavy knife. The forelegs are attached to the body only by flesh and connective tissue. Slice beneath the shoulder blade with the knife blade held flat against the body to remove each foreleg. Cut across the body at the point where the hind legs join the saddle; separate the legs by cutting to the side of the tail end of the spinal column. Cut the saddle across into two or three sections, depending upon the size of the animal, leaving the kidneys attached. Fold one belly flap over a kidney or the underside or the saddle section, wrap the other flap over the first and partly around the body, fixing it to the flesh with a toothpick to form a neat package. The rib cage can be left whole or slit in two. Split the head in two, holding the knife in place and giving it a firm smack with
a wooden mallet. The head will add flavor to the sauce, and those who are not offended at the sight of a head will find the cheeks, tongue, and brain to be delectable morsels.
Lulu mixes the pureed rabbit’s liver into the blood to thicken her civets, and she likes to serve a creamy puree of sweet potatoes as an accompaniment; at other times, the civet is simply accompanied by boiled potatoes or macaroni. A civet, above all, for Lulu must be prepared with “lots of thyme.”
If you do not intend to finish your ragout with blood, sprinkle an extra tablespoon of flour over the pieces of rabbit as they are browning, before being moistened with the marinade.
For one 3-pound rabbit (or two cottontails), cut up as for a saute, blood stirred with one tablespoon red wine vinegar, and liver reserved (see above)
1 large onion, finely sliced
6 garlic cloves, crushed
3 thyme branches
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cups (1 bottle) young, deeply colored, tannic red wine
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 head garlic, cloves separated, superficial chaff removed, but uncrushed and unpeeled
Bouquet garni (“lots of thyme,” bay leaf, strip of dried orange peel)
In a large mixing bowl, mingle the rabbit pieces with all the dry ingredients of the marinade, sprinkle over the olive oil, and pour over red wine to cover. Marinate for several hours or overnight, covered, turning the rabbit pieces around in the marinade two or three times.
Empty the bowl into a colander, collecting the marinade in another bowl. Drain well, remove the rabbit pieces (discard the residue in the colander), and dry them in paper towels. Salt them and dredge them in flour. In a large heavy saute pan, heat the olive oil, arrange the rabbit pieces in the pan, side by side, tuck in the garlic cloves where space permits, and cook over medium heat, turning rabbit and garlic over and around until the rabbit is golden on all sides. In a saucepan, bring the marinade to a boil, pour it over, scrape the bottom and sides of the pan with a wooden spoon to dissolve any caramelized adherences, tuck in the bouquet garni, and adjust the heat to maintain a bare simmer, lid slightly ajar. Turn the rabbit pieces over in the sauce after 30 minutes and simmer for 15 minutes longer (for a young rabbit), or until a thigh, when pricked with a knife tip or trussing needle, is tender. Remove the pan from the heat.
Puree the rabbit’s liver, either in a blender or by crushing it in a sieve and working it through with a wooden pestle. Stir the puree into the blood, stir in a ladle of the rabbit’s sauce, grind over pepper, and pour the mixture into a sautd pan, stirring and moving around the contents. Return the pan to low heat and rotate it, slowly swirling to keep everything moving, until the sauce has noticeably thickened and its color has turned from red to rich chocolate. Remove from the heat and serve, directly from the saute pan, onto heated plates.
Lulu’s Provencal Table: The Exuberant Food and Wine from the Domaine Tempier Vineyard, by Richard Olney, with a foreword by Alice Waters; Harper Collins; 1994; $30.00
RABBIT CASSEROLE WITH CHEESE AND HERB DUMPLINGS
6 oz. green streaky bacon rashers, de-rinded (or use thick slices of bacon)
Selected rabbit joints, total weight about 2 1/2 lbs.
2 leeks, sliced
2 parsnips, chopped 4 carrots, sliced
4 sticks of celery, chopped
3 tablespoons plain flour
1 1/4 cups still, dry cider
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
Salt and freshly milled black pepper
1 bay leaf
Sprig of fresh lavender, thyme, or rosemary Sprigs of fresh lavender and marigold petals, to garnish
3/4 cup self-rising flour
Pinch of salt
Freshly milled black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
1/2 cup shredded suet
1/2 cup mature Cheddar cheese, finely grated
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Chop the bacon and fry gently in a flameproof casserole dish until the fat runs. Wash and dry the rabbit joints, then add them to the casserole and fry gently until browned all over. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place on a plate while you fry the vegetables, adding a little butter if necessary.
Sprinkle in the flour and stir well. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove from the heat and gradually add the cider and the stock. Bring to a boil, stirring continuously, then season to taste. Add the herbs and the rabbit and cover and bake for about Vh hours or until the rabbit is tender.
To make the dumplings, sieve the flour and salt together into a bowl. Season with pepper and stir in the thyme, parsley, chives, suet, and grated cheese. Add enough cold water to mix to a soft dough. Shape into 12 small balls.
Twenty minutes before the end of the cooking time, taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Place the dumplings on top of the casserole, then cover again and bake for 20 minutes, until they are well risen. Remove the lid and brown under a hot grill for a few minutes if you like crispy dumplings.
Serve immediately, garnished with a few tiny sprigs of lavender and sprinkled with marigold petals.
Beatrix Potter’s Country Cooking, by Sara Paston-Williams; F. Wame & Co.; 1991; $22.95