It was a huge hirsute blanket
quilted from dozens of silken rabbit pelts on which I was deflowered. The dreamy
dichotomy on my skin of course beard and velvety blanket still floods me with
warm, sticky pleasure.
It was desire yet again that
led me to rabbits: specifically to a strip
of scrappy row houses in the bowels of Oakland for the most sublime rabbit
rillettes. As I approached my
destination, dirty ribbons of freeway overhead provided the white noise of our collective
hurried insanity. A few blocks to the
east lies a recycling center and the same number of blocks to the west, a scrap
yard; the vague venting of grinding metal adding to the bleak din. A burnt, industrial smell from the nearby
ports clung to the grayish haze like the tattered lining of a smoker’s pea coat.
Varying shades of humanity
with glazed eyes and manic energy pushed pinched shopping carts over potholes in
the sidewalks, the red plastic nameplates of their rightful retail owners
banging against the scuffed metal baskets where toddlers once sat, their fat
legs protruding through the gaps.
Smack in the middle of the
block sits a small forlorn house and its tiny driveway surrounded by a high chain-linked
fence, a metal-mouth of braces safeguarding a bright smile in the midst of
crookedness and blight.
The house’s wood floors,
stripped by hand and lightly stained, shone in the late morning sun; vintage furniture
bore fine lines and the scattering of art hung by a honed eye. The generous kitchen was anchored by an antediluvian
commercial stove, a black behemoth scored on Craigslist and helmed for decades by
various captains of their canteens. Glass
jars filled with dried herbs, oils, and spices lined the counters, and a row of
good carbon steel knives stood at attention, affixed to a thick magnet mounted
on the wall.
We pushed through to the back
of the house and down a rickety, rotting staircase to a long, narrow
garden. Wooden beds set in bark paths overflowed
with herbs and flowers and lettuces gone to seed. Propped against the fence were bee boxes
painted a long faded robin’s egg blue, producing gallons of wonderfully distinctive
honey (for which I trade decent Barolo to lavish on my morning’s tea).
At the end of the garden,
butted against a concrete wall resides a chicken coop built on stilted legs and
overflowing with straw. Across from the
poultry was a large cage, its several levels housing a dozen fat, well raised, Florida
As we fawned over the rabbits
and marveled at their albino red eyes, it was explained to me that these small
mammals reside in the family Leporidae of the order Lagomorpha. All of the eight different genera classified
as rabbit are herbivores, subsisting on a diet high in hard-to-digest
cellulose. Cattle and sheep, also herbivores,
chew their food, regurgitate it, and re-chew the cud, making it easier to
digest. Rabbits, however, utilize
hindgut fermentation, passing two types of feces: a hard dropping, and later, a softer black
pellet made up of microorganisms and undigested plant cell walls. Also called a caecotroph, the soft pellet is
immediately eaten. This double digestion allows the bacteria in
the pellets to fully process the plant carbohydrates, enabling the rabbit to
extract all of the nutrients.
While they can be found in
many parts of the planet, more than half of the world’s rabbit population lives
in North America.
We chose two males, their fur
as thick and sensuous as the hair on a young lover’s head. We made haste to the basement, where we gave
our thanks and quickly broke their necks, their deaths immediate. They were then strung up on a small
jerry-rigged gambrel to bleed out and be skinned and eviscerated; the blood and
guts returned to the garden as compost to begin the lifecycle once again.
Rillettes: the word trips off the tongue. Similar to pâté, rillettes were originally
made with pork, but rabbit, bird, and fish are now often made into this
decadent treat. The meat is cooked in
seasoned pork fat until terribly tender, pounded into a paste, packed into
small pots and covered with a thin layer of the fat. A thick spoonful spread across a crusty butt
of hot country bread, pain de campagne, makes one believe in the superiority of the French;
they grok the gastronomic harmony of fineness and rusticity. Dishes prepared for kings made from whatever
the land afforded.
And while the recipe for
rillettes is different in each region of the France, Anjou and Touraine are
noted for their fine spread, usually made from pork, often molded into the shape
of a pyramid and topped with the pig’s tail.
God help you, if you are the guest of honor.
a heavy cast iron pot, we rendered two pounds of pork fat in a dribble of olive
oil, adding cubed smoked bacon and roughly chopped mirepoix, just barely
browning everything before adding a coarse pestle of black pepper and sea
salt. With a heavy cleaver, we split the
two rabbits into quarters and laid them to rest in the pot, adding thyme and a
bottle of French white wine, an Arbois worthy of a half-glass before
lunch. The entire medley was covered in
a dense chicken stock before being blessed with a fresh bay leaf and lidded
tightly; set to roast in the oven until fragrant, the meat falling from the
and wild hare hang from hooks in London’s markets next to braces of game bird in
autumn, and are easily found in butcher’s windows and cases across Europe. In Morocco, rabbit is cooked in tagines with
raisins, in Italy it’s often stewed with garlic and green olives, and in
China’s Sichuan kitchens, rabbit is made spicy and fried. Leaner than chicken, pork and beef, rabbits
are labeled as fryers (4.5-5 pounds and up to 9 weeks in age), or roasters
(over five pounds and up to 8 months old).
the pot was removed from the oven, and the rabbit only mildly searing to the
touch, we removed the meat from the bones, chopping half and pulsing half. The vegetables and fat were strained from the
liquid and puréed, while the liquor was reduced to a mere quarter of
itself. Half of this silky rich reduction
was combined into the vegetable/meat mixture and pulsed together, then combined
with the chunky chopped meat. We packed
the mélange tightly into ramekins and topped each with the remaining half of
the reduced liquid, wrapping them tightly and hiding them in the back of the
am I able to sit down to a meal of anything I’ve harvested on the same day I took
it for the pot. The stink of death from
the fish, pig, lamb, cow, or bird I’ve slaughtered still lingers on my
fingertips and remorse needs at least a day to resolve into gratitude.
were swept from a wicker basket’s interior before being lined with rough
antique linens. A crock of stone ground
mustard, a loaf of sesame wheat bread pulled from a wood fired oven, and a jar
of pickled baby vegetables were all cradled next to a bottle of Dujac’s Morey
St. Denis older than my ancient cat. In
the center was tucked a rather large ramekin of the rabbit rillettes, a frozen
meat pop sure to be the ideal temperature once unwrapped on a quiet stretch of
West Marin beach.