Dear Cecil: I’ve heard rabbit meat was once thought of much how we think of chicken today, and I’m curious why things have changed. Rabbits reproduce quickly, and they’re tasty. Have I just solved the hunger crisis? Bunny Biased
The other day I trekked over to my local high-end grocer to examine the leporine options, hoping to gin up a little anecdotal evidence. I found five rabbits — fresh, not frozen, which would seem to indicate that someone’s eating them once in a while, at least among the Whole Foods set. In fact, in summer 2014 Whole Foods launched a rabbit-meat pilot program in select stores, recognizing the bunny’s potential to be a next big thing in proteins. As you demonstrate, the case isn’t hard to make: the meat is low-fat, the animals are famous for breeding prodigiously, and rabbit husbandry is far better for the environment than many of the extant options.
Rabbit’s been a next big thing before. For nearly as long as the republic has existed, really, people are on record wondering why we don’t eat more of it. “The cultivation of Rabbits would be profitable in America,” argued Amelia Simmons in American Cookery (1796), initiating a media tradition that continues to the present: every few years or so a spate of newspaper stories proclaim, as the Los Angeles Times did last year, that “rabbit appears to be going through a renaissance of sorts,” enumerating all the reasons it makes sense to eat the critters and suggesting they may finally be on the cusp of culinary glory.
And yes, there was a period when rabbits were big here. Beef, you’ll recall, was rationed during World War II; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advised housewives instead to “meet the meat shortage by eating domestic rabbit meat,” the Department of Agriculture released rabbit recipes, and Life magazine pitched in to the effort with a 1943 article featuring the memorable opening line “Domestic rabbits are one of the few pets which can be enjoyed dead or alive.” After the war, though, the American eating public went back to its old ways — beef, chicken, pork.
There’s no single explanation for rabbits’ failure to catch on, but we might point to a cluster of issues. Like squirrels, rabbits as foodstuff suffer from an association with poverty. Even before wartime rationing, during the Great Depression rabbits were maligned as “Hoover hogs” — the poor man’s pork, lean meat for lean times. (So lean, in fact, that there’s a form of malnutrition called “rabbit starvation,” or protein poisoning — what happens when you digest too much protein and no fat. Here’s where I mention that when I cooked that bunny the other day, it was with a quarter pound of pancetta.)
Also during the Depression, a feed farmer named Jesse Jewell figured out how to vertically integrate the production of chicken, theretofore a decentralized affairand, contra the bunny, chicken was then considered something of a luxury meat. (Recall the political-ad promise of “a chicken in every pot.”) Jewell lived in Georgia, where many farmers raised poultry, whereas the rabbit producers of the time were centered in California. Had the contingencies of history and geography been different? We might be eating a lot more rabbit these days.
Then again, maybe not. Rabbit producers say the creatures resist the kinds of industrial farming that would allow them to be raised on a mass scale. Those that receive insufficiently gentle treatment may engage in such uneconomical behaviors as eating their young. They’ve got weak immune systems and are prone to illness. As one rabbit rancher explained to Modern Farmer magazine, “Mother Nature designed them at the low end of the food chain so they die easily. That’s problematic.”
And then there’s the cuteness factor. That Whole Foods pilot program I mentioned up top? It’s about to end. The store blamed low sales, and journalists uncovered some unsavory practices on the rabbit farms, but it didn’t help that the initiative was met with ferocious opposition by animal rights activists, who picketed stores with signs saying things like “Whole Foods Market Is Now Serving Our Pets.”
In a context of infinite plenty, this outsize sympathy for charismatic megafauna — the so-called Bambi effect — wouldn’t be too troubling. But given an era of climate change, dwindling natural resources, and rising consumption — global meat production almost doubled between 1980 and 2004 — we’re direly in want of proteins more environmentally friendly than, say, cows, which require enormous amounts of energy to raise and process. One researcher claimed last year that giving up beef would be more effective in cutting carbon emissions than giving up cars. Rabbits convert calories into meat far more efficiently, producing six pounds on the amount of feed and water it takes a cow to produce one.
Of course, they’re not the only alternative protein source out there. One sees touted, for instance, the potential of insects, which also tend to elicit some real resistance — this time it’s the ick factor. Given our need for more sustainable sources of protein, though, consumers might someday have to make a choice: bugs or bunny?
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.