I got six rabbits sent to me recently. Please, don’t ask — I have good friends in high places. And yes, my freezer looked like a tiny meat locker. So, I’ve been trying to recreate this stew I had one time as a kid in Eutawville, S.C.
The memory is beginning to get foggy now, but I remember small things, like the haze in the early morning air. The smell of grass and soil, and the sound of chickens scurrying along. It was an older wooden house, lot’s of what I assume to be shiplap (shoutout to Fixer Upper), and I remember the warmth of the small, old-school kitchen.
I’ve romanticized this place and event probably a bit in my head, but it’s a good memory, and one that I can recognize now was pivotal in my development. So, I cling to it.
I was about 7 probably, maybe younger, and I was a country girl and tomboy to the core. I’d been running around outside exploring, and staying out of grown folks’ business, and had finally been called in to wash up and eat.
Something smelled really good, and I was handed a bowl and spoon. I saw rice and I saw gravy and I went to work-probably asking for hot sauce at some point too. I was a scrawny little ol’ thang, probably all of 50 pounds soaking wet, but I tore that bowl up. I remember asking after finishing what it was I’d eaten, and the man who’d served it to me said it was rabbit.
I casually shrugged it off, like, “Oh, bet. Well, that was fire.” (But in a 7-year-old Amethyst voice.) Because it was. It was simple, something familiar and in no way concerning or off-putting to me. I probably should have been more upset at the thought of the bunnies I’d often seen growing up hiding in berry thickets and tall grass being slaughtered and served for dinner.
I remember us staying a bit longer, and me asking to take some of the chicken eggs home to try to hatch on my own. By the time we’d gotten back to our home, I’d fallen asleep and smushed most of those eggs (yikes), and went on about my night, sleeping peacefully since I’d worn myself out and eaten a stick-to-your-bones type of meal.
Rabbit was something I’d never eaten, but that meal and that day has always been one that stuck out in my mind and I’ve been chasing it ever since. I want to live simply and eat well, with chickens in my yard and a screened-in front porch. I want to wake up to hazy mornings with dew-stained grass, chirping birds and the sound of slow-creeping cars, crunching in the gravel as they come up a dirt road. Comfort to me is found in a sort of symbiosis with nature and community and culture. And I’d found part of that that day in a bowl of rabbit stew and rice.
Rabbit has been hard to get lately, and super expensive, as so many other ingredients that I grew up eating that were usually found in abundance and for cheap because they weren’t prime butcher cuts. The less-popular types of proteins our great-grandmothers and grandfathers ate got pushed aside as they assimilated and moved further into modern culture, and using local ingredients became less mainstream, especially as local farmers got pushed over by Big Ag.
I’ve found the best way to get these ingredients — if you can’t legally and safely get them on your own — is to find those people in your communities who do. (Or just go online like the fancy chefs do if you don’t mind spending the extra cash.)
I have a few steady sources now from working in the food industry, so it’s been a journey during the pandemic. And with a recent move back to Charleston it’s time for me to recreate that dish. My recipe is my own, and I’m looking for something in my mind from over 20 years ago, so it’s not anywhere near what I had as a kid. But, it makes my house, literally and I guess metaphorically, feel and smell warm. And it’s a dish I hope you can find comfort in too.
Amethyst Ganaway, a North Charleston native, is a chef, food writer and food historian specializing in Southern, African-American and African diaspora foodways.
Amethyst Ganaway’s Rabbit Stew
This dish can be made in a crockpot, slow cooker, or on the stove top, and the rabbit can be substituted for chicken.
Neutral flavored oil (vegetable, canola, etc.)
1 Three-pound rabbit, cut into small pieces and patted dry with a paper towel
Ground black pepper
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
1½ pounds sliced mushrooms of your choice (I used a mix of shiitake, bella, and oyster)
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
6 cups water or chicken stock
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 small bunches fresh sage
1 small bunch fresh oregano
1 sprig fresh rosemary
In a large Dutch oven or oven-safe roasting pan with a lid, heat enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan over medium high heat for about 1-2 minutes. While oil is heating, liberally season rabbit with salt and pepper in a bowl. Carefully add rabbit pieces to the pan and sear until brown, about 5-6 minutes. Flip and repeat with the other side. When all of the rabbit pieces are browned, carefully remove them and set aside and reduce heat in the pan to medium.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Add about 2 tablespoons of oil to your pan and add sliced onions. Stir the onions frequently so that they brown but don’t burn, for about 3-4 minutes. Onions should be softened and slightly caramelized. Add mushrooms and stir well. Continue stirring onions and mushrooms for about 5-8 minutes until they have cooked down and are soft and brown but still have shape. Add flour and stir very well, making sure there are no lumps or white pieces, and let cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, stirring until well combined and flour is no longer white.
Add about 1 cup of water or stock, and bring the heat up to high, stirring vigorously to mix well. Add the remaining liquid and bring to a boil for about 5 minutes until the mixture has slightly reduced. Reduce heat to medium and season to taste. Add in the rabbit and fresh herbs, turn off the heat, and cover tightly with a lid or foil. Carefully place into the oven and let cook until tender, at least 2 hours, but the longer the better. Serve alone, or over rice.