Mayan Rabbit 1

Oven-roasted rabbit at Mayan Café. | Photo by Kevin Gibson.

When I was a boy, my father and grandfathers would go rabbit hunting; sometimes I went with them, BB gun at the ready.

But eating rabbit as a kid was always a bittersweet affair – yes, the tender rabbit meat was an exotic, if chicken-esque, treat to my young taste buds, but at the same time, I’d have been just as happy to bring home the bunny as a pet.

Recently, Prevention magazine published an infographic calling rabbit “the new white meat,” citing its healthful qualities and noting its growing popularity in restaurants around the country. Heck, even groceries like Whole Foods are selling it now. Apparently, rabbit meat is lower in fat and higher in protein than chicken. Its healthful qualities in those categories far outdistance beef and pork.

Rabbit is also the lowest in calories of the four, coming in at well under half the number of calories per pound (795 to 2,050) and more than four times less fat (10 percent to 45 percent) than pork. It’s already popular for these reasons and others in many other parts of the world. So why aren’t we eating more rabbit in the United States?

Checking around, I discovered several restaurants in Louisville that have or have had rabbit on the menu, including Mayan Café (roasted), Harvest (braised), Proof on Main (rabbit sausage), Gralehaus (chicken-fried) and Hillbilly Tea (grilled). The prevailing opinion by a handful of these locals is that rabbit is on the rise, or at least has the potential to make that leap.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. A story last year by the L.A. Times touted rabbit as returning to the popularity it enjoyed as an entrée before and during WWII. The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times (although in a different light), in 2013, shared the sentiment. These are all major restaurant cities, and Louisville is a foodie town in its own right. It only makes sense the rabbit trend would hop into the bluegrass, especially considering you can still go out into the woods here and bag them yourself.

Chef Coby Ming of Harvest said she offered rabbit as a Southern dish for Mardi Gras a year ago and was surprised by the response.

“We sold probably twice what I expected,” she said. While rabbit isn’t currently a mainstay on Harvest’s menu, don’t be surprised if it returns to Harvest in some capacity.

“It’s lean, it’s flavorful, it has multiple applications,” Ming said. “In my mind, the outlet is there, but I guess it’s at the beginning of taking off. I think there’s a small audience that are fully embracing it and want more of it, but the majority are yet to be convinced.”

Bruce Ucán and Anne Shadle of Mayan Cafe. Photo by Kevin Gibson.

Bruce Ucan and Anne Shadle of Mayan Café.

Anne Shadle, co-owner of Mayan Café, is among the convinced. She and Chef Bruce Ucán began offering rabbit about four years ago, and today it is a mainstay on the menu. Shadle estimates rabbit is among the top four meat entrees at the restaurant.

If there’s a block, however, it could be because of Bugs Bunny. Or Peter Cottontail. Or the fact that America now largely sees the furry, long-eared, cottontail creatures as pets that are simply too cute to eat.

But Shadle believes it’s simply a matter of trying it for the first time. She has invested in rabbit at Mayan Café and built it into a menu favorite, and those who come back for it repeatedly are helping expand the potential audience.

One thing to note: In restaurants such as Mayan Café and Harvest, which are committed to the farm-to-table movement, you can bet these rabbits are farm raised. There are a handful of local rabbit suppliers, and Shadle said the whiskered bunnies aren’t being kept jammed in crates, they’re bouncing around a contained area, eating naturally.

That’s not only fresher and more healthful on the plate, it’s also far more humane than how large processors treat chickens, hogs and cattle.

Of course, some folks don’t want to try it that first time, even if someone they trust is giving them the thumbs up. Ucán said he has experienced rabbits in restaurants before that are, literally, served bone-in as half a rabbit. People are accustomed to seeing turkeys and chickens served that way, but not a creature they might have had as a pet.

That’s why at Mayan Café, rabbit is de-boned and roasted on site, and served pulled with a thick, pumpkin-seed mole sauce and vegetables. If you didn’t know better, you’d almost swear it was fowl.

I tried a sample of the roasted rabbit while researching this story, and found my memory of it was intact — it was moist, with the “white” meat having a consistency very near an extremely moist chicken breast and the “dark” meat more resembling dark turkey meat. The flavor has a unique, mildly gamey quality to it, but if you aren’t paying close attention, it really isn’t that far off from turkey.

Interestingly, Mayan Café tried turkey and duck, but didn’t sell as much as hoped. It was a process that led to committing to the unusual choice of rabbit.

“It was a series of decisions,” Ucán said. “We said, ‘What other grass-fed animals can we get that are sustainable?’”

Cuddly, healthful and delicious. Photo by Alan Tunnicliffe.

Cuddly, healthful and delicious. Photo by Alan Tunnicliffe.

At between $5 and $6 per pound, it’s also a meat that is cost-effective, Shadle said. You raise a hog, you have to figure out how to sell many various parts of it. But a rabbit is a rabbit is a rabbit. This makes it sustainable for suppliers and restaurants alike. The increased demand, Shadle believes, will help lead to more restaurants carrying it and more people trying it.

Mayan Café typically buys its rabbit from either Hughes Farms of Cynthiana, Ky., or Barbour Farm of Canmer, Ky., but there are others in Kentucky and nearby, including one that is growing in popularity and has a name that expresses a certain amount of confidence in the industry: Meat the Rabbit.

“People are opening their minds to food and looking for unique experiences,” Shadle said. “I think it will continue to grow.”

Ming is hopeful as well, in part because of all the healthful and local aspects of rabbit in a world that is more health- and locavore-focused: “To a certain extent, people are tentative but interested. We are beginning to get people on board.”

Rabbits are there for the taking, once people can see the animal more as a food source and less as a cartoon character.

“I would like to see more” restaurants serving it, Shadle said. “It’s easy to get; I mean, they multiply.”