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  • Locals return to rabbit

    The low-fat, low-cholesterol game meat is seeing a resurgence on Southern Oregon dinner tables
  • After decades of limping along, the rabbit business is hopping again. The only drawback to its rising popularity in the Rogue Valley is limited availability at a few specialty stores.
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  • After decades of limping along, the rabbit business is hopping again. The only drawback to its rising popularity in the Rogue Valley is limited availability at a few specialty stores.
    "I used to never have people ask for rabbit," says Cameron Callahan, co-owner of The Butcher Shop in Eagle Point.
    Within the past year, Callahan has fielded enough requests — five to six each week — to broker sales of whole rabbits raised nearby by Eagle Point resident Rosemarie Lewis. She confirms that demand outstrips her ability to meet it with a herd of about 200 does.
    "We can't raise enough," says Lewis. "It's been steadily climbing."
    Rabbit is enjoying the same resurgence as other game meats, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. Unlike game, however, domesticated rabbits have fine-grained, light-colored flesh with a mild flavor, making for a versatile protein. And it strikes the line between familiar enough while still seeming slightly exotic to a new set of fine diners, say chefs.
    Restaurants outside the region purchase most of Lewis' rabbits, which are processed every other week in California. Southern Oregon lacks a slaughtering facility certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, perhaps the biggest hurdle to purchasing rabbit locally, say Lewis and Callahan. Customers of The Butcher Shop buy the live animal, weighing in at 3 to 3 1/2; pounds — for $20 directly from the farm, and the store processes them free of charge.
    "There's really nothing to a rabbit," says Callahan. "You just gut it and skin it."
    That do-it-yourself quality made rabbit an obvious choice for backyard husbandry, side by side with victory gardens, during World War II, when American consumption spiked.
    Once it was no longer a symbol of patriotism, rabbit fell of fashion with other vestiges of the war effort. Yet some regions of the country never lost their taste for it, says Callahan.
    "It's a lot of the Southern people," says Callahan of customers regularly purchasing rabbit.
    The eat-local movement also has been influencing rabbit's rise. Amid a well-known reputation for quick breeding, rabbits require few resources to raise. Producing 6 pounds of rabbit meat takes the same amount of food and water as producing only 1 pound of beef, according to Slow Food USA.
    "It's a really good meat. It's small, and they grow fast," says Anne Manlove, agent for 4-H youth development at Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.
    Also recommending rabbit is a roster of health benefits. It's higher in protein but lower in calories, fat and cholesterol than many other meats, including chicken, beef and pork.
    "It's so low in fat," says Lewis.
    The Butcher Shop delivers whole rabbits, cut up and packaged. Rogue Meats in Sams Valley sells locally raised rabbits fresh and frozen for $5.99 per pound. Both Rogue Meats and The Butcher Shop also do a brisk business in processing older rabbits that aren't fit for human consumption into food for dogs, particularly those with allergies or digestive issues.
    Rogue Meats owner Travis Ellis says demand for rabbit tends to dip in spring and summer, just like other cuts of meat that don't lend themselves to outdoor grilling.
    "You don't barbecue it," he says. "You roast it or fry it."
    But barbecuing rabbit, along with lamb, has long capped off the annual springtime fair for participants of 4-H and Future Farmers of America. For $6, anyone can pile a plate with the two lesser-known meats and a few side dishes to benefit both student programs. Rabbits raised for "market pens," not fancy breeds for show, are served at the barbecue. This year's event is from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday, June 1, the final day of the three-day Jackson County Spring Fair at the Expo in Central Point.
    Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.
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