The rabbit course

Western urbanites meet their meat

  • A student in Samin Nosrat's rabbit course in Oakland, California, sections a rabbit. Courses that help city folk reclaim traditional culinary skills are popping up in urban centers around the West.

    Alice Tu

Samin Nosrat can butcher a rabbit in three minutes flat. Boning knife in hand, the chef stands surrounded by 12 eager students who watch her every move. On the countertop lies a raw rabbit; skinned and eviscerated, it resembles a deformed chicken, sans feathers. Nosrat lowers the knife. First come the legs, sliced off neatly at the pelvis. Then the shoulders, which promise to be tender. "Rabbit shoulders are like heaven compared to the leg," she explains. "They just sit there, barely held on (to the body) ... you could probably pick up a rabbit and pull off its arm."

Her audience is rapt, silent. The catering kitchen in Oakland, Calif., rented for this afternoon's "Rabbit Course" class, already smells like roasted meat; Nosrat has braised a pair of rabbit legs for the cooking demo later on. As for me -- listening via the speakerphone next to Nosrat's cutting board -- I can't help twitching as the cleaver descends with a whack! whack!

None of the students seem squeamish, though. Each has paid $99 for the lesson. Some are aspiring cooks. One is a hunter. And at least two plan to raise rabbits for their families.

If there's a common thread here, it's the urge to reclaim traditional skills that, in Nosrat's words, "every mom taught her daughter in the past." Nosrat was trained in Italy, where she spent two years working in restaurants, butcher shops and farm co-ops. There, she found that even many of the urbanites own plots of land in the countryside -- often handed down through the generations -- where they plant olive trees and raise livestock.

Such overlap is harder to find in the U.S. While the rural West still has longtime ranchers, farmers and hunters, most city residents have lost connection to meat production. It takes money now, and dedication, to salvage those skills. Nosrat's class is part of a growing trend, some of it bordering on entertainment: Avedano's Holly Park Market in San Francisco offers "Butchery for Adults" at $300 a head. Portland foodies can pay $75 to reduce a rooster from living bird to coq au vin. Near Seattle, about 20 people gathered at "Sacrificio" to butcher and cook a pig. And last November, the Art Institute of Portland hosted the $25-a-ticket "Livestock": Butchers cut up a cow while writers read aloud from essays about food. Attendees drank wine and munched on appetizers made from locally grown meat.

Rancher Chad Campbell finds it hard to believe that anyone would pay hundreds of dollars for a butchering class. "It blows my mind ... but I already know how to do it." Campbell is part of Colorado Homestead Ranches, a six-ranch co-op in the western part of the state that owns and operates a local USDA-inspected meat-processing plant. That's a rarity in modern ranching, where animals are generally shipped off for processing, sometimes to feedlots many states away. "I guess (the classes) make sense if (people want to learn) how butchering is done right," says Campbell. "And education like that is very important."

These "ethical butchering" classes rarely include the actual killing. (Nosrat's rabbits were slaughtered the week before, with a quick snap of the neck.) They're less about backyard pig-keeping than about teaching people to handle unprocessed meat bought directly from small farmers. Some farms offer additional courses in sausage-making or raising livestock.

Linda Worthman wants to go all the way. A retired biology teacher and public health researcher, she acquired a taste for rabbit in childhood, when her father, a "New York City executive who (liked to) garden," raised rabbits for the family table. Once Nosrat sautés the freshly-butchered rabbit, adding a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, Worthman has nothing but praise.

"Amazing. And the liver -- oh, boy! It just glows."

The hard part comes when the novice butchers are handed their own rabbits. "My (cutting) technique was closer to sawing, which is a no-no," Worthman says ruefully. "I will practice with chickens until I get (my own rabbits)." Less than a week later, Worthman set out to buy a couple of does to raise in her Berkeley city backyard. She's even signed up for a class on rabbit husbandry, which will cover an essential hole in her education: "Someone's gonna have to teach me how to kill a rabbit. ..."

the rabbit course
Page Lambert
Page Lambert
May 24, 2010 04:59 PM
When my kids were eating home grown meat, and wild game, that had been raised on our ranch, we often knew the name of animal whose meat we ate. Hurrah to those willing to know more about the food they eat, and to take responsibility for feeding their families. I read the other day that in America, an average size dog, kept as a pet, has an annual carbon footprint the same as an SUV -measured, in part, by the amount of meat and grain they consume. That same day, I was researching the horse slaughter issue, or the "lack of slaughter" issue. Bottom line, horses are suffering needlessly because they are starving, and U.S. sale barns no longer have "killer" sales for these horses. It wasn't that many decades ago that horse meat was fed to dogs. Hmmm.
Rabbits as food source
Sherry Myers
Sherry Myers
May 25, 2010 01:14 PM
Probably not the response anyone is looking for here but it is my experience. A few years ago my cat brought home a baby bunny he cought from the nearby population of wild domesticated rabbits. It was tiny so i kept it, intending to let it go when older. I had no idea how intelligent and affectionate rabiits were. He slept on my bed, used a litter box, and went in and out with the cats. He learned several tricks the cats couldn't or wouldn't learn. He would hop up in my lap and lick my chin. I never kept him in a pen or cage, and when he was old enough to wander off he never did. He never left the yard, except when my neighbor's cats had kittens - he went every day to visit. I found a lot of info on the internet on how trainable rabbits are, and how smart and affectionate. In Europe they have jumping competitions with hundreds of rabbits in arenas, some not even on a leash because they know their job and are into it. Check it out on You Tube! The point here is that I couldn't eat a rabbit any more than a cat or dog. If more people knew how intellignt they were, they might feel the same.
rabbits are very smart
May 30, 2010 07:44 PM
Many rabbit breeders realize this, but we also know where to draw the line between livestock and pets.
Humane Rabbit Slaughter
Pamela Alley
Pamela Alley
May 30, 2010 07:32 PM
Animals which will be used for food should be respected and appreciated their entire lives, a trend which is growing. A great thing!

The information on rabbits is out there...the Rabbit Industry Council recently began selling its first educational video, "Humane Rabbit Slaughter for Home Use" (available via ).

If there is sufficient demand, the Rabbit Industry Council would be delighted to set up classes on- and off-line for those wishing to learn humane raising, keeping, and euthanasia techniques for rabbits which will be used for food.

Pet rabbit owners can become very upset at the thought of rabbits-as-food, and that's okay--to them, they are beloved pets rather than a food source. However, that should not stop those who wish to raise rabbits for food from doing so in a responsible and ethical fashion.

Education is a tremendous asset; don't ever forget it. :)