We eat bunnies. There, I said it. When I would tell people this fact about my family 20 years ago, they would shriek in horror. Bunnies are pets in the United States. The fluffy fur balls are meant for cuddling and not chewing. I get it. I do. But my people from the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples in Italy, find the fluffy fur balls absolutely delicious. They used to have a lot of them running around the island, so they were available to hunters. It was a time when people didn’t have supermarkets stocked with food. It was a time when the people did everything – including the killing of dinner – for themselves. When they could catch a bunny, they were going to have a decent meal.
Frankly, they’re not wrong about the deliciousness. This is not to say that it took a while for me – an American with access to fully-stocked store shelves and packages of meat that arrived as if by magic – to get used to the idea of eating bunny. My parents weren’t very honest about the whole thing either. There are famous pictures of my brother and me holding a precious, white bunny, who we believed would be our pet from then on. We each held the little guy in our arms. We were so happy in those photos. The next day was Sunday. My father told us the bunny had run away from home to join the circus. Seriously, that’s what he told us. Then, he served us said bunny for lunch. We didn’t even question it. We ate our pet and never put two and two together. In our defense, we were really little and liked the idea of our fluffy bunny out in the world pursuing his dream of stardom.
When we got a little older, we started to understand what was going on (and what we were eating). I remember being in Ischia with my parents and siblings one time, when I was about 11 years old. A relative showed up at our house with a paper bag that was moving as if something was inside. Sure enough, she pulled out a rabbit by his ears. She asked for a sharp knife and scissors. Then, she went onto the patio to kill and skin the rabbit on our porch. The point of bringing the undead rabbit to us was to prove this was fresh, a great gift to welcome us home. I would live to be an unwilling witness to these kills many more times in my life. Most recently, about a year ago, my cousins killed two rabbits on their porch while I was sipping tea in their kitchen in Ischia. It’s part of life there.
Many of my relatives now live in the United States. When I was a kid, a bunch of them raised rabbits for killing. Nowadays, we go to livestock farms, where you can either have workers there kill the rabbit of your choosing or you can bring the baby home alive. Every now and then, you can find a rabbit in the supermarket or specialty food store clean and wrapped in plastic just as you find a steak.
About a decade ago, my brother and sister were both living in Florida, when my parents were visiting them. My brother and father wanted to get a rabbit and had found a place to pick one up. You had to take the rabbit home alive. My sister, a zookeeper, was sitting in the car with the frolicking bunny trapped in a paper bag near her. My brother and father began discussing how and where they would kill dinner. My sister began crying with tears streaming down her face, so my mom asked them to stop talking. My father felt so badly that he pulled over and set the bunny free in the woods near the highway. We now joke that it was the day my father spent $12 to liberate a bunny. They had chicken from the grocery store for dinner instead.
In any event, on many a Sunday, we have coniglio Ischitano (rabbit of Ischia) on the table, and we eat pasta with rabbit sauce, too. If you’re interested in eating bunny (or are just curious about my family’s recipe), then here is the one Nonno Giovanni handed down to my father:
Recipe: Nonno Giovanni’s Rabbit (As Remembered by Pasquale Di Meglio)
Head of garlic + a few cloves
1 Rabbit (cut in pieces)
Glass of white wine + some for your drinking pleasure (Nonno was that kind of guy)
Salt to taste
1 Tbsp of conserve or tomato paste
1 Can or bottle (if you’re in Italy) of crushed or pureed tomatoes
Heat some olive oil to coat a pan. (Ischitani and Nonno used a tian, a clay pot with a protector that you place on the burner to keep it from cracking, but you can also use a Dutch oven or stainless steel pot if that’s all you have.) Brown, but don’t burn, one head of garlic and a couple of chopped garlic cloves in the oil. Generously season the rabbit with salt. Then, add the rabbit pieces to the pot and brown them on both sides. Next, add half a glass of white wine. Let the alcohol cook off. Add the conserve and crushed or pureed tomatoes. Add the oregano and basil if you have it. In Ischia, Nonno would only use basil when he had the fresh stuff growing in his garden. Cook on low for one hour. Nonno would never use a cover, only a screen to protect from making a mess. Take the rabbit out, put the sauce on boiled pasta (linguine and bucatini are preferred). And eat the rabbit as “secondo piatto” after the pasta.