On a clear May night, I met some folks* at Oakleaf restaurant in Pittsboro to eat some Chatham Rabbit.
One hundred years ago in the surrounds of Pittsboro and Siler City, rabbits were an enormous cash crop, though they were never farmed. Local boys and their dogs caught them, using traps made of gum tree logs. Barreled in fat, the rabbits were shipped by the ton out of the rail depot in the western part of the county to points up and down the eastern seaboard.
For half a century, the Chatham Rabbit was a triumph of unchecked opportunism. They multiplied in the border scrub and fallow pastures of farms abandoned by abolitionists; they proliferated in the hedges and woods on thousands of acres of "unimproved" land or "old field" burned out and left behind by farmers moving to richer Midwestern soil.
Chatham rabbits grew fat in the bramble. By the end of the 19th century, they were so numerous as to be run over by the dozen on railroad tracks and caught barehanded by boys after the first killing frost. This was an unintended benefit for an agricultural community proud of its self-sustainability. Rabbits were practically jumping into the pot. Naturally, the first thing to do was eat them.
"I gave an old colored woman a rabbit yesterday," wrote William "Buck" Edwards, a farmer and Confederate veteran, to the Siler City Grit in November 1911, "and it was the best deed I have done since the election. I said, 'How are you to cook it?' 'Oh,' she said, 'I will stew it and put dumplings in, too.'"—Southern Cultures magazine, 2012
What started as welcome additional winter protein in the late 1800s had become big business by the 1911–1912 season: 26,060 rabbits, bought for an average of 8 cents apiece, were shipped out of Siler City. This does not count those personally consumed.
By this time there was a dish in one of New York's most famous restaurants called "Chatham Rabbit," and it was being enthusiastically eaten up and down the Eastern seaboard. In Chatham County, softball teams and string bands were named after the dish.
By the Second World War it was all over. The Chatham Rabbit faded from our cultural memory.
So in an act of historic locavorism at Oakleaf, my friends and I brought the Rabbit back.
Three days before, I had walked with Chef Brendan Cox to the Pittsboro Farmer's Market and bought three big pasture-raised rabbits from Fatty Owl Farm, one of only a few rabbit producers in the county. The market, like the restaurant, is on the grounds of the old Chatham Mill, a building located where it is because the owner liked to come to Chatham County to hunt rabbits.
Chef Cox prepared the animal four ways, from three historic recipes and one of his own creation. Our first Chatham Rabbit was fried. Cox had placed the loin in a buttermilk brine by 8:30 that morning. The crisp pieces were served with mustard greens, a Dijon emulsion and a fried guinea hen egg from his family's farm. We ate, murmuring about how good it was, and then the conversation turned to Bill Neal, former owner of Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill.
I bartended there in my youth. Will Sexton was the kitchen manager. We reminisced about getting drunk with Bill, breaking into his own restaurant, and shooting bottle rockets off the roof onto Franklin Street. I remembered Bill, annoyed by a waitress' grieving over a dead pet, muttering "Animals are for eating."
"I am here at Sanford in the electric shoe shop not feeling well by any means," correspondent Albert Phillips confided to the Siler City Grit in 1913. "I guess it is caused by the change from the good Bennett mineral water to Durham and Sanford pipe water, and I long for the time to come that I may sit by the good old Chatham fires, drinking the ever-healing waters, and feasting on cotton-tail rabbit."
The second rabbit dish was from the Sotterley Plantation, on the Tidewater in Cox's home state of Maryland, circa 1903: Blanquette of Rabbit shoulder with cream, onions and dill, so simple and luscious we hardly talked at all. For a moment, I was transported to New York, where, years ago, I ate rabbit for the first time with my dad, back when he was more mobile and no less irascible. That rabbit was grilled and slightly gamey and we fell silent too. The Blanquette, in its effortless complexity, was one of the best I've ever eaten.
In the early 20th century it must have been a marvelous thing, as winters grew harsh, to have something to cook other than a little cured pork and root vegetables. The third course was a true Chatham Rabbit, a Southern Cacciatore from 1915, with the back shank braised in tomato sauce with a little onion and butter and placed over a bed of local grits. It was a dish originally made by people of scant means, now served to those of relative privilege. Its ingredients—first by necessity and now by choice—are as local and seasonal as possible.
The last dish served at Oakleaf restaurant, rosemary-scented rabbit loin with Oregon morels, Larry's sweet peas and wild ramps was a Cox original: simple, clean and sublime.
From being raised in a pasture to now being pasture-raised, the Chatham Rabbit is making its return.
*The pals: Will Sexton, digital collections coordinator at Duke University Libraries, wrote an article called "Boomtown Rabbits: The Rabbit Market in Chatham County, North Carolina, 1880–1920," published in the summer 2012 edition of Southern Cultures; Jill Warren Lucas, a food writer and co-founder of Culinary Historians of Piedmont N.C. (CHOP NC); Brooke Telarico, a Californian songwriter and recent transplant to North Carolina. Never tasted rabbit.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A rare bit of rabbit."