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for people who care about the West

The rabbit course

Western urbanites meet their meat

 

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. ..."