When I saw the last bite of dinner on my plate - a bean, a piece of onion, a fragment of tomato, and a morsel of rabbit, all of which was improved by a most fragrant sauce - I was glad we bought a trio of rabbits last fall and have spent the past nine months figuring out how to manage their waste, breed them successfully, and keep them comfortable in our erratic weather.
Saturday afternoon we butchered our first batch of young rabbits: they were eleven weeks old and dressed out at about 2 ½ pounds apiece. I hung a green tarp along the fence to make sure none of our neighbors saw anything they didn't want to. A few came over and showed an interest and I was glad to show them what we were doing. Likewise with our kids. I told them that their involvement was voluntary, and wasn't surprised by their active participation. In addition to the work involved with bleeding, gutting, and skinning ten rabbits, we also dissected an eyeball, saw how poop travels through a body, cut open a stomach, cut a gall bladder to smell bile, began curing several pelts, and marveled at the texture of lungs.
Like anything I don't do frequently, butchering the first few took longer than the last ones. But, I was done in a few hours and now our fridge is full of fresh meat; I also have a big bowl full of livers that I'll cook tomorrow.
We were doing yard work again today and I didn't plan a special first meal with our rabbit meat, so I fell back on the familiar. After sautéing garlic in a little duck fat, I browned a few back legs, which are much meatier than the front ones. Then a sliced onion and a good pour of an Alsatian riesling, which I cooked down. A little water and I covered the dutch oven with a heavy lid and let it braise awhile. I went into the garden and cut a few large sprigs of tarragon and thyme. I added them and continued. My wife picked a colander of birthday beans from this year's bumper crop, and I stewed them with a tomato and a little swiss chard. Finally, a handful of fresh parsley on the rabbit and dinner was ready.
Why am I willing to wait nine months for dinner? What is it about growing vegetables and raising, killing, and cooking animals that fascinates me so much? I was never a farm kid and doubt I'll ever be one. But tasting that last forkful of dinner, all mixed up with rabbit juices and tarragon, I feel like I can look into the past and begin to understand some of what we've abandoned as we've shifted from an agrarian to a mass-marketed society. In a very short time we've lost languages, cultures, traditions and foodways. Cooking beyond a recipe calls for more than an ingredient list; it requires a certain understanding of - and access to - raw ingredients and cooking techniques, most of which can't be purchased in a store. And the stuff isn't fancy or expensive if it's part of your life and environment - making cassoulet in France in 1609 certainly didn't cost hundreds of dollars and multiple trips to Williams-Sonoma and other specialty stores. I want to keep some of these older food traditions an active part of my life and culture because I think they're just as vulnerable and perishable as a language or an endangered species.