A few weeks back, on the first of the year, I went to a friend’s house to kill his chickens. He and his wife shared two of the three birds culled that day and I’ve been eating from that morning’s work ever since. It was the first experience in a series of a events that we’ll dub “Ax to Table,” a year-long experiment in which I’m killing and eating animals while simultaneously living an otherwise-vegan lifestyle.
Now it was time for the second chapter. On a very deep level, I’d known that I would have the hardest time killing two animals: rabbits, for the usual reasons of cuteness, and goats because, well, I just like them and hope to raise a few eventually.
The idea of grappling with one of these challenges early in the run seemed a good choice. Additionally, I wanted to mix the experience up a bit. For this one, the kill would take place at one location, including the initial butchering of the animal; the rest would take place in a restaurant, with a skilled chef at the helm.
To this degree, the rabbit project was a success, taking me from Hillsboro, Missouri, on a beautiful, late-winter Sunday morning, to the kitchen of Elaia the next day. Here’s the story of what went down, broken into bite-sized bits.
The Dates: January 25 and 26
The Background: A friend in Hillsboro, Annie Denny Lehrer, invited me to the spacious, woodsy property where she lives with her husband Simon, their engaging three-year-old son Gus, playful dog Sammie, a flock of 50 mixed-breed chickens (plus one thinks-it’s-a-chicken duck) and a half-dozen rabbits. Their place is picture-postcard lovely and the animals that live in their mid-sized barn are certainly there for food production, with Simon the harvester.
The connection to Elaia came through our mutual friend John Fausz. Formerly bar manager at the restaurant, he suggested Chef de Cuisine Josh Charles as a top young chef who’s well-versed in preparing and butchering rabbits. Having grown up in Farmington himself, Charles understood this extremely direct, farm-to-table concept as well as anyone, and he agreed to run through a breakdown of the animal in Elaia’s well-appointed kitchen, after which we’d share the meal.
The quality of experiences, then, were doubled here: the rabbit came from a home where animals are treated with a high quality of life; while the preparation would come via the hands of a top young chef at one of St. Louis’ best-regarded kitchens. (There’d also be self-cooked offal stew; not bad.) So, uh, wow.
The Kill: The actual kill of a rabbit, Lehrer noted in our prep, can come three ways. One is simple: shoot the rabbit. This, though, can lead to a carcass that’s riddled by the bullet. You can also stun a rabbit through a head shot, followed by a quick throat cut; this works, but does cause additional suffering.
The most effective method, though, is to place a stick across the back of the rabbit’s neck, immobilizing it by the use of both (human) feet straddling the stick. A quick, violent pull at the rabbit’s hind legs separates the head from the spine, instantaneously killing the rabbit, while making the initial butchery and bleed-out that much easier. And as Lehrer said, the method is so hands-on that you can’t help but know that the rabbit in your hands is dead, thus reducing any worry that the animal is alive-and-suffering to zero.
In my case, the the experience went… well, not as planned. Simon handed me the rabbit, which I cradled for a couple of minutes, as Gus came over to pet it and say goodbye. Already sensing that I was losing my nerve, I placed the large, female, New Zealand/California hybrid on the ground, then sat a rake across its neck. As I placed my second foot down, the rabbit flinched and so did I, giving her just enough wiggle room to slip out and away; the rabbit ran around for another two minutes before I asked for relief from Simon, who snatched it up and executed the kill quickly, efficiently and, I dare say, as humanely as you can. That said, the experience was a violent act, by any measure, and a sight that I’ll not soon forget.
While I didn’t kill the rabbit, an attempt was made. The Lehrers also said that I could come out in a few weeks, when another of their rabbits will face the same fate. This time, I’ll actually have to do the deed. I have to. As grim as that sounds, I’m telling myself that again: I have to see that through.
The Butchering: Lehrer’s got a system. He hangs the rabbit from two hooks, with a butcher station next to it. The rabbit’s head comes off first and it’s an easy cut. The skin, when prepped with two leg incisions and a large “Y” down the body, allows you to strip the animal in one steady motion, until you reach the hind feet, which come off with a cleaver later in the process. (And, yes, I saved the rabbit’s feet for curing as totems.) The innards come out in portions, with many folks saving the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys, as these organ meats can be made in various ways; the chickens eat the remainder of the guts.
While the first step in the process took place a few feet from the kill, the second half took place 45-minutes away at Elaia, where Charles can skillfully break down a rabbit in just a few minutes. In our case, he prepped one of Elaia’s rabbits, before handing off some of the duties on the Lehrer rabbit to me. We took about a half-hour to fully break it down, Charles marveling at the size of this rabbit, which was, to his eye, a surprisingly-large animal. (“This one’s the size of a cat.”) As with Lehrer, Charles was a patient mentor, telling me that he enjoys working with folks as green as possible, so that he can impart ideas without the student having too many predisposed notions. Well, he had that student with me, with every step of the process a small, interesting, but doable challenge, cuts of meat coming as loins, hind legs with lots of bone and scrap remaining for the stock pot.
The Cooking: On Sunday, a friend and I cooked up the offal, creating a simple mushroom soup with vegetables, using the heart, lungs, kidneys and liver. It was interesting and tasty. No complaints, and it continued the day-long conversation about food sourcing in a profoundly personal way.
The next day, Charles handled almost all of the preparation in the Elaia kitchen, talking me through what I’d need to do at home with the remaining cuts. He was bemused by cooking the rabbit in a vegan style, subbing in chive oil for butter. Again, though, he rolled with that “innovation” and created a dish that was stunning: the rabbit was accompanied by various pickled items (turnips, mustard seeds, cabbage) and wild-harvested mushrooms conserved in grapeseed/olive oil, then fried into something of a chip. We shared the meal standing at the gleaming prep counter, where Charles eats, he guesses, “about 80 percent” of his meals.
In the process of this experience, he subtly gave me a stellar cooking lesson, while prepping one of the most amazing plates of food that I’ve ever tasted.
Here, too, he was amused.
“Being around all this great food,” he noted, sometimes he could forget how striking his food would be to an amateur. The offal soup aside, this was my first taste of professionally prepped rabbit, ever, and some of the first meat in 25 years. It was all a bit mind-blowing, quite honestly. I’ve never had a food high, but honestly believe that I may’ve enjoyed one that day.
The Intensity Level: Driving to the Lehrer’s cheerful home, my pal and I chatted and kibitzed and drank coffee, continuing all these activities in the Lehrer’s warm kitchen, where Gus enjoyed having some new friends over. That kind of pleasantry, combined with my going into the kill trying to not think about the act, was the worst way I could’ve handled my own brain. Wrong vibes, dude. At the risk of sounding dramatic and macabre, I have to approach the next situation with more of a killer’s mentality. Weird but essential.
Overall Experience: So much to sum up! I need to actually kill a rabbit to make this story complete. (So strange to type, even stranger to feel.) The rabbit kill was so, mmm, “real,” that I’m fully-aware others down the road will be just as intense, if not more so. And I continue to be touched by people’s generosity in sharing food, in a wide variety of forms.
Feast freelancer Thomas Crone is open to interesting and unique experiences for this Ax to Table Experiment; email him at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got leads.
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