Rabbits "are helping win the war," proclaimed a Los Angeles Times article from 1943. Touted as a patriotic food during World War II, rabbits were raised by thousands of Americans in their backyards. Along with victory gardens, rabbits helped put food on the table when much of the nation's supply was shipped to soldiers overseas and ration stamps provided less at home. But even though rabbit consumption spiked during the war, it all but disappeared afterward.
Think rabbit today and your thoughts probably veer to cartoon characters, cereal mascots, Easter and adorable pets. Perhaps the only "bunny" you've ever eaten was of the milk chocolate breed. For years, it seems the only place you could find "the real deal" was occasionally on the menu at French or Italian restaurants.
But rabbit appears to be going through a renaissance of sorts.
"I think it's gaining in popularity," says Mark Pasternak, co-owner, along with wife Myriam, of Devil's Gulch Ranch in Marin County. Their farm supplies rabbit to a number of butcher shops and restaurants in and around Northern California, including the French Laundry and Chez Panisse.
And in an era when game meats and nose-to-tail eating are redefining fine dining as food sport, rabbit is both familiar and exotic enough to appeal.
"It almost has a prohibitiony quality to it, like it was something your grandfather ate. It's a great 'old-fashioned' meat," says chef Ken Addington, who, with restaurant partner Jud Mongell, owns LA Chapter in downtown's Ace Hotel as well as Five Leaves and Nights and Weekends in Brooklyn, N.Y. "We've always had rabbit on the menus in Brooklyn. It's a fun, versatile meat."
And though Mongell was hesitant to feature rabbit at first, he's come around to the idea. "In these times when we're trying to be so conscious of what, and how, we're consuming, it's something to consider."
At a time when buzzwords like "organic," "local" and "sustainable" are driving the market, rabbit is ripe for resurgence. According to Slow Food USA, rabbit can produce 6 pounds of meat using the same amount of food and water it takes for a cow to produce only 1 pound. Not to mention the health benefits. Rabbit is a lean meat that is higher in protein but lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than many other meats, including chicken, beef and pork.
But how does it taste?
Domestic rabbit's all-white meat is fine-grained and has a mild flavor compared with other game meats.
"Rabbit is one of my favorite subjects because it is so versatile, like veal or chicken," says chef Evan Funke of Bucato. A favorite dish of his for those new to rabbit is rag¿¿. "Anytime I get the opportunity to introduce people to rabbit, [I do]. Rag¿¿ is easy."
Addington likes to pair bright flavorings, such as citrus, with rabbit; he currently has a lemon grass rabbit rag¿¿ on the menu at LA Chapter.
Though rabbit is mostly available through butcher shops such as Belcampo Meat Co. and Puritan Poultry and online, it is turning up more frequently in upscale markets, including select Gelson's markets. It is usually sold whole, though you can have your butcher break the animal down into parts. (But if you've ever wanted to learn how to break down any four-legged animal, rabbit is a great place to start because it's so small. Do be careful with the bones, however; rabbit bones are even more delicate than those of a chicken.)
And despite its reputation as an inexpensive option during frugal times, store-bought rabbit is not cheap; prices in Los Angeles range from about $10 to $13 a pound for a 2- to 3-pound rabbit.