I've been working towards the next big step in my urban homesteading experiment: I'm raising rabbits on FarmTina, which I plan to eat. You can read about my motives in my recent rabbit post, but to sum it up, I'm trying to make more of a connection to my food and take responsibility for what I eat. Someone out there is already killing the meat that ends up on my plate every day, so why shouldn't that someone be me?
To do this right, my boyfriend Michael and I took a class in Brooklyn with Novella Carpenter and Samin Nosrat called The Complete Rabbit. The class was even covered by the NY Times, and they published photos of Michael and I going through the whole process with the class! I took the class to be absolutely sure that raising, killing, and eating rabbits was something I could actually do- both technically AND mentally.
Killing an animal is not something that I take lightly. Humans fought their way to the top of the food chain, but modern conveniences have made it possible to go through an entire meat-eating leather-wearing life without ever actually facing the death of an animal yourself. I have come to believe that if I can't handle killing my own food, even just once, then I have no right being a meat eater.
Warning! If you keep reading, you will see photos of my first experience slaughtering rabbits.
I went into the rabbit class thinking it could have 3 outcomes:
- I would come away feeling empowered and excited about my new endeavor, ready to take on the life of a rabbit farmer.
- I would come away humbled by the experience and thankful for the lessons, but feel that breeding rabbits was not something I could stomach.
- I would be totally horrified and emotionally scarred, and I would make some serious changes in my life, starting with becoming vegan.
I knew that the most important take-away from this class would be my new respect for the concept of eating meat.
The workshop began in the backyard of Roberta's restaurant with Novella Carpenter. She spoke about raising rabbits in the city, something which she does on her back porch in Oakland, CA. The plan is to always have 2 rabbits that you keep as pets and use as breeders. Their babies are the ones that become the food.
The 2 pet rabbits need to be kept apart to control their breeding and they can live in an outdoor rabbit hutch all year round. These guys really are pets, and I would keep them with the intentions of never eating them. They would be fed yummy rabbit food, and hop around my yard for exercise, and I'd give them toys and treats and name them silly pet names. They have a lifespan of 9-12 years.
After discussing the way the rabbits would live, Novella got into the logistics of their sexy time. When you want to set the stage for romance, you just put the two lovebirds together in one cage and watch them lick, sniff, and pee on each other, and magically the lady rabbit becomes pregnant. After about 30 days, you'll have 4-12 baby rabbits that look like little blind moles.
The difficult part here is not to become attached to the babies, which are being bred for slaughter. Of course they're cute, but every baby animal is cute! It's nature's way of trying to trick us into taking care of them. You should of course treat them well and give them loving care, but don't name them. It just makes it harder to eat them.
After about 2 months, the baby rabbits are large enough to eat.
Novella showed us the most humane way to kill a rabbit, which is to break it's neck. Traditionally, rabbits have been killed by slitting their throat and draining the blood, but this can be a painful way to die and the rabbit often lets out a scream. Breaking the neck is faster, cleaner, and keeps the muscles of the head intact, which can be important for the cooking stage.
The rabbit died very quickly, and I felt comfort in the realization that it had no time to feel pain. I was trying to approach the rabbit's death from an academic point of view, but of course this was impossible. Watching an animal die is a solemn experience, and I hope that I never get used to it: if it becomes easy, I need to reevaluate.
So after Novella demonstrated the slaughter, she walked us through skinning and cleaning the rabbit. Skinning the rabbit is sometimes called "taking off his pajamas", because the skin pulls off easily in one piece. She cleaned out the stomach and guts but saved the organ meat, and she soaked the rabbit in water for a while to clean out the carcass.
Novella, taking off the pajamas
After the class watched this entire process, it was our turn to do it on our own. Michael and I picked out a white rabbit with red eyes and dirty little paws- definitely not a cute "bunny", which made the whole thing a little bit easier. We held Mr. Buns (I know, we shouldn't have named him, but we couldn't help it) to calm him down, and we used the opportunity to thank him for his sacrifice. We promised to honor and appreciate his meat, and we swore not to waste any of his parts.
Then Michael killed Mr. Buns.
We jumped into the task of skinning and cleaning it, and were surprised at how quickly we got the job done. It was very simple to remember the steps and follow through, and it almost felt intuitive, like there was some type of instinct at play to help us hunt and prepare our food. It took about 20 minutes from the time we were holding Mr. Buns to the time he was soaking in the water, ready to be taken home.
At this point, I was thinking that theoretically, I could kill a rabbit at home at 4pm and begin cooking him for dinner by 5. I would only use bits of the meat at a time and freeze the rest, so I could kill one rabbit each Sunday afternoon and have a meat supply for the entire week. I realized that I could actually live entirely on home-raised rabbit meat. There was no part of the process that I couldn't do on my own with basic materials. This was an amazing realization.
So, just to pause for a second, why raise rabbits for food and not, say, pigs? First of all, there are laws in the city about keeping animals in your yard, and rabbits are one of the few that are legal because they don't smell, aren't loud, and aren't very dirty. Second, rabbit is really the only meat that I can both raise and slaughter in my own backyard... slaughtering and processing a pig or goat or cow would be a huge project to undertake that required special equipment, even if you ignored the fact that it's illegal. Also, rabbits are famous for breeding quickly, so it's a good choice for a sustainable food source.
After I realized that the processing of a rabbit was actually something I was capabale of doing, Michael and I decided to try it again with another rabbit. We were more confident the second time, and now that we weren't so nervous about doing it correctly, we were able to admire the rabbit's flesh, organs, and fur. It was beautiful to see the way his insides fit together in a perfectly functional neat package.
Michael killing our second rabbit by breaking it's neck, a fast and humane method
We left Roberta's with 4 ziploc bags containing the following:
- Two full "pajamas" of rabbit fur
- Two intact rabbit heads, which had been cut off after their deaths to make processing easier
- Two rabbit carcasses, cleaned
- Two sets of edible rabbit organs: hearts, livers, kidneys
The second part of the class was to be held with Samin Nosrat at Marlow and Daughters.
We arrived with our bunny baggies and had a great class on butchering the entire rabbit. A rabbit has a similar body structure to other animals that we eat, such as chickens, so learning to separate the cuts of meat on a rabbit can be a good intro into the general art of butchery. Samin walked us through exactly where to cut each part of the rabbit so as not to waste anything at all. We ended up with the following from each rabbit:
- Two forequarters, which are the equivalent of arms and shoulders
- Two hindquarters, which include the leg and thigh
- Two loin steaks, also called saddle
- Two sides of rib meat
- A variety of bones and scrap meat to use for stew and stock
Butchering the rabbit was incredibly simple and intuitive for anyone who cooks meat and has seen different cuts from different animals. I was so excited about how we were able to use every single tiny piece of our rabbit's body. Nothing at all went to waste, not even fat and bones. Those will make some great flavor for soup stock!
Samin, far right, discussing rabbit butchery. Michael and I are far left.
This photo was taken by Holly Henderson for the NY Times
So lastly, there's the question of the head and fur. The hide needs to be tanned before we can use the fur for anything, since there is still skin underneath all that fluffy hair. We're actually saving the heads for that process: the rabbit's brains are a great material to use in tanning the hide. We are absolutely using every piece of this rabbit! I haven't tried this yet... that adventure will be for another post.
After the workshop, we immediately froze all of the meat, the heads, and the fur. We sauteed the organs with just balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper, a very fresh and simple recipe for a hugely nutritious snack!
Raising rabbits, or any animal for food, is not a totally wild concept. Obviously it is a way of life for the farmer, past and present, to raise and slaughter his own food. The reason this is such a big project for me is my environment: I live in a 300 square-foot apartment with a similar-sized yard surrounded by other apartment buildings in the city. I live alone, with very little help to take care of (and slaughter) animals. Real farmers have a lot more help, resources, and space than I do. So let's see if I can become a self-sufficient meat eater!
Think I can do it? Think I should even bother trying?