Posted On: 06/06/2016
I ordered the pappardelle with rabbit. I don’t know what made me do it. This was a couple years ago at the charming Luce in Portland, Oregon. I was visiting friends, enjoying quiet conversation as the sun went down and the bright little windowed restaurant dimmed seductively. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe I wanted a thrill. Either way, the tender braised meat melted into the ribbons of paper-thin fresh pasta and dissolved on my tongue with savory transcendence. I didn’t know what I would tell my friends. Closing my eyes to taste better, I didn’t care.
I’m not a vegetarian and typically don’t feel a need to explain such dinner choices. But at the time I was doubly blessed with an adorable pet rabbit and a friend who regularly threatened to eat her after a couple glasses of wine. On more than one occasion I had explicitly stated, in public at high volume, that rabbits were not food. And here I was, eating her cousin.
Food choices can be intensely personal; they encompass health concerns, religious commitments, social and environmental activism and matters of taste. People have all sorts of reasons for what they will or won’t eat, but sometimes reason has nothing to do with it. We don’t always want to know where our food comes from or how it makes its way to our plates. “Meat comes from the grocery store,” as my friend likes to say – where it’s bloodless, boneless and costs money rather than lives. I enjoy ignoring inconvenient truths as much as any American, but there’s something weird about our abstraction from the things we consume. Now that I think about food choices for a living, I’ve been wondering if the only difference between rabbit and beef is that I’ve never gotten to know a cow.
Like any thoroughly suburban girl born in the 1980s, I was raised on anthropomorphizing children’s literature and hypocrisy – demanding Oscar Mayer salami sandwiches while passionately reading Charlotte’s Web. I cried when Bambi’s mom died; I loved cheeseburgers. The Velveteen Rabbit was my favorite children’s book: a story about how love makes us real – not real enough to eat.
This was perfectly normal for my milieu, as I found out when I was 8 and my family visited the Baby Chick Hatchery in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. My sister and I queued up behind younger kids pressing their faces to the warm, fingerprinted glass of an incubator housing twitching chicken eggs. The ubiquitous whining of tired or bored children heard throughout the rest of the museum didn’t enter this room. We stood rapt, watching the miraculous strength of tiny beaks and claws splitting the shells that contained them.
After a moment my uncle called us over to where slightly older birds with fluffy yellow down feathers hopped and chirped with the exuberance of extreme youth. “Hey girls, look!” he said, grinning. “That’s where chicken nuggets come from.” He did not speak quietly. The awe and delight of the children around us instantly bottomed out into horror, while my sister and I (monsters) laughed uncontrollably. If the endless family retellings of this story are to be believed, half the kids in the room started crying and turned to their mothers with some hard questions while the poor women attempted to murder my uncle with their eyes. We got out of there as quickly as we could.
Yes, my uncle was out of line, but he wasn’t exactly lying. Like a lot of comedians, he enjoyed exposing the hypocrisies around him. There is something darkly funny about the most basic facts of an omnivorous diet bringing meat-eating children to tears. I laughed, but I don’t think I had ever consciously associated the hygienic, plastic-wrapped meat my mother bought with animals who jumped and played and looked cute. That is partly why the memory is so vivid: I was forced to consider the reality of my food choices.
Eventually I got used to the idea of eating the barnyard classics, but long after I came to terms with chewing Wilbur with my teeth, rabbit was still a taboo meat. The idea of eating rabbit was akin to eating cat – worse, actually. We weren’t a cat family, but I grew up with a pet rabbit named Floppy. Since rabbits aren’t a big part of the American diet, I was unaware people ate them at all until I read The Lord of the Rings and Samwise Gamgee cooked up a coney stew – something that didn’t seem cool, even for a hobbit.
Despite Floppy’s sour personality and aggressive habits of chasing the dog and trying to bite me (I’m still convinced my dad captured him in the wild.), the real reason I couldn’t eat rabbit was because they’re the cutest. Chicks are sweet, but chickens are basically feathered dinosaurs with beady, soulless eyes. Cows outside a fence are terrifying; they’re enormous and they know somehow you want to eat them. Ducks are severely cute, but groups of rabbits are called fluffles. When pet rabbits feel particularly enthused, they sprint in little zigzagging circles, jump into the air and twist their bodies in a fit of pure joy called a binky. Seriously, the term for happy bunny jumping is binkying. (Now take a moment to Google bunny binky videos before continuing.)
Floppy would never have done such a thing. I know about all this because of my later pet rabbit, Lyonet Bunny. I did not ask for a rabbit in my mid-20s, but when my boyfriend surprised me with her I squealed like a cartoon damsel. She was a white Holland Lop with brown spots and a clown frowny-face marking over her nose. I let her run around my room, where she was free to chew on stray books and binky with the best of them. Bunny went by her last name, as anyone named by an insufferable graduate student would, but Lyonet was particularly appropriate. She was the only woman in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (a book of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table stories) who went on a quest. She adventured to save her sister and made life very difficult for some knights with a signature mix of steadfastness and impudence.
Lyonet Bunny earned her spirited name. Anyone who sat on the ground risked her jumping in their laps for a head scratch or jumping up their backs onto a shoulder for unknown reasons (and a risk of panicked claw scratches). She loved being petted and nudged my hand with her head like a dog. She ground her teeth contentedly and gave lots of compulsive licking kisses when she was happy. She also pulled carrots out of timid treat-givers’ hands and kicked her litter around when she was in a foul mood. A rabbit of fine taste, her favorite food was Italian parsley. Her only Floppy-ish trait was scaring my roommate’s dog, stomping her foot violently when he came sniffing around.
It’s a little ridiculous for a grown woman to have a pet bunny, and my friends loved pointing this out. My house is festooned with so many bunny gifts it looks like a design theme – a fact that made it especially awkward to start eating rabbit. I have a triptych of Lyonet Bunny watercolor portraits, a thrift-store painting, a photography print, an entire family of bunny figurines and even a mounted geometric paper rabbit head. I am what you could call a Rabbit Lady – now, a Rabbit Lady who eats rabbit.
Coming to terms with this clash of identities, I kept thinking about that day at the museum. Children who grew up on a farm would not have had the same reaction as the city kids crowding the hatchery. That kind of cognitive dissonance is only possible for people who whole-heartedly accept contradicting narratives. In this case: Chickens are adorable barnyard animals that cluck-cluck here and cluck-cluck there, and chicken is a totally unrelated food that comes with french fries at all the best restaurants.
I wasn’t going to become a vegan, but I felt the need to resolve this double vision in a way that wasn’t the classic “don’t think about it” option. I wanted to talk with people whose ideas weren’t so abstract, whose relationships with rabbits were professional rather than personal or theoretical. So I sought out local farmers.
Rabbits aren’t big-money livestock in Missouri; people who raise them are primarily hobbyists. Working with such low-demand, low-cost and low-impact animals, rabbit farmers tend to do a lot of other things as well, which explains why I followed Ben Geisert’s enormous tractor to my first rabbit farm in April. He was coming back to Moonshine Valley Farms from an odd job plowing somebody’s land when I got to Washington. This was my first lesson on farming rabbits: the need to diversify.
I was surprised to find Geisert a lanky 20-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and a baseball hat. He is a full-time student, works at his father’s Todd Geisert Farms, helps out around the family’s new Farm to You Market and is currently renovating the old barn and farmhouse on the land he’s renting for Moonshine Valley. (Indeed, nothing will make you feel lazier than talking to a farmer.)
Geisert has raised rabbits and ducks under the name Moonshine Valley for less than a year. “I wanted to do something on my own,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about rabbits before I started doing this – just jumped in.” Working for yourself when you don’t know what you’re doing may sound terrifying, but Geisert shrugged it off. “We’re farmers,” he said. “We dabble in everything.”
He’s worked with a lot of animals, but rabbits are small, cheap, don’t require extensive fencing or space, and can actually improve the land they’re raised on. “Rabbits have the best conversion ratio for pounds of feed to pounds of gain,” Geisert said. That sustainability factor makes them good for the environment and the perfect livestock for a motivated, energetic young farmer looking to branch out.
“When you’re your own boss you’re also taking on the liability. … There’s money in it,” Geisert said, staring at the pens he built with untreated wood (free of chemicals in case the rabbits chew on them). “If I can figure it out.”
Talking to this hard-skinned, young business owner, at times I felt like an insufferable character from the show Girls attempting to communicate with a real human: Does the animals’ cuteness make it hard for you to do your job? Seriously? Geisert opened a pen and lifted out a dappled brown rabbit with gentle no-nonsense. It remained calm as he petted it. He cared for these animals every day with an all-natural feed and humane housing.
Geisert came to raise rabbits because he was a born farmer. One town over in Labadie, Rosalie Truong became a farmer because she started raising rabbits. When I met Truong, petite with a black pixie cut and a big perpetual smile, she was wearing a beautiful angora wool dress that she knitted herself, from yarn she hand spun, from rabbits she raised and sheared. “I like the idea of doing everything,” Truong said.
She was talking about how she got started raising Angoras after taking a hand spinning night class (She also tried Hawaiian dancing, with fewer consequences.). But Truong’s comment rang more broadly true. Along with fiber and meat rabbits, her Grand Army Farm is home to quail, ducks, chickens, geese, goats, some massive guardian dogs and a biodynamic garden. “My husband calls me a collector of hobbies,” Truong said.
A collector of professions is also accurate; Truong is an obstetric anesthesiologist at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, a mother and a farmer. She has a farm manager and hires a few high school students to help with the work, but still. “It’s not uncommon for me to work 18 to 20 hours a day and sleep four hours,” Truong said. “I’m driven. I’ve always been that way. I’m like, ‘This is going to happen because I want it to happen.’”
Truong has raised Angoras since 1988, but she got into meat rabbits, typically the New Zealand breed, just a few years ago. They are colony-raised, cage-free in her barn, which allows them to behave more like they would in the wild. Remember Watership Down? Wild fluffles live in warrens with a dominant male and a pecking order. “It’s fun to see them run around and do what they normally do,” Truong said. “There’s a lot more social interaction (in colony raising).”
Entering the red Grand Army barn amid a swarm of multicolored chickens, I understood what she meant. I’d never seen a whole colony of rabbits before. I could see more than 20 hopping around, sniffing each other and diving into the burrows Truong couldn’t prevent them from digging in the hay-scattered dirt floor. A curious jet-black rabbit came over to inspect me and bite my shoes. Two little white-furred babies snuggled against a wall. They weren’t there just to be cute for me; they were doing their own thing, and it was fascinating to watch.
I had to remind myself that, unlike her Angoras, Truong wasn’t going to keep these rabbits for their whole natural lives. It was clear she loved them. She loved watching them run around and giving them what they needed to be healthy, supplementing feed with vegetables from the garden they helped grow with manure. But she also slaughtered them herself. “People are so fascinated by that, but to me it’s just one part of it,” Truong said after too many gruesome questions.
She uses a device called a hopper popper. “It’s more humane,” she said. “You break their neck, and they’re out instantly.” She didn’t seem to like talking about it, but she won’t allow anyone else to slaughter her rabbits. “I like to control that aspect,” she said. Doing it herself saves Truong’s rabbits the stress of transport, and it also ensures their humane treatment from birth to death. That makes Truong’s love for her animals different and ultimately more significant than mine.
Hearing me gush over all these farm animals, a co-worker predicted I would become a vegetarian. But that’s not where all this is headed. It feels morbid to ask about slaughtering rabbits, but if I eat meat, then I’m already a part of that process. Knowing someone like Truong or Geisert is involved makes it something I’m OK with. And so, clearly incapable of leaving well enough alone, I decided to test this progress toward animal-loving-omnivore self-acceptance by making my own rabbit ragu with fresh pasta, inspired by Luce.
I went to Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions where I found myself nervously handing my recipe across the counter and talking too loudly about how much better rabbits are for the environment than other livestock. The chatty butchers were enthusiastic about the recipe and quizzically polite when I mumbled something about having a pet rabbit. I averted my eyes while they broke down two Grand Army Farm rabbits, and I left with a paper-wrapped parcel of cuts that didn’t look too rabbit-y at all. Meat’s meat, I thought with a shrug.
At home in my kitchen, I put on some music and poured a big glass of wine. I browned, I sauteed, I deglazed, I braised. I felt pretty good – I’d done this countless times with all kinds of meat. Then it came time to debone and shred. It started fine, but when I came to the ribs and saddle (the back cut), I paused. Rabbits are super lean. When you pet a rabbit, you can feel each fragile rib beneath its fluffy fur. Removing those ribs, I had a horrible memory montage of Bunny wiggling her nose and kicking up her little cottontail in a binky. Then I finished cooking. I had people coming over for pasta.
Yes, it’s disturbing for me to cook rabbit. But I’d rather that discomfort make me care more about the meat I eat than reinforce a childhood taboo. I already knew I could love some animals and eat others. I’m coming around to loving the animals I eat by ensuring they have good lives and then are treated with the dignity they deserve: like by making them into a life-changing pasta dish.
Grand Army Farms rabbits are available by special order at Bolyard’s Meat & Provisions, 2810 Sutton Blvd., Maplewood, 314.647.2567, bolyardsmeat.com
Moonshine Valley Farms rabbits are available at Farm to You Market, 5025 Old Highway 100, Washington, 844.682.2266, farmtoyoumarket.com
Want to comment on this article? Login or sign up on Sauce.