How Not to Skin a Rabbit

Fernanda Eberstadt has published five novels and two books of nonfiction – most recently Bite Your Friends, a memoir on the body as a site of resistance to power. She also writes widely for publications like The New Yorker, Frieze, and European Review of Books. In this original essay, she viscerally revisits a domestic encounter with, among other things, viscera

Illustration ALEC DOHERTY

Chez Bascou, tot es bo! was the butcher shop’s cheery slogan.* It was the year 2000. We were living in a house on a vineyard in French Catalonia, a kilometre from the sea. My husband and I were each writing a book about the area, and everything was indeed bo – not just Monsieur Bascou’s sausage which came in long intestinal coils for outdoor grilling, but our new life, where on balmy nights all the neighbours sat out late in the communal courtyard, drinking the vineyard’s potent Rivesaltes and watching our children run free, building forts in the tall reeds and swinging from the rusty thresher.

Not so bo was hunting season, when Monsieur Bascou and his mates wandered across the courtyard, rifles cocked, in pursuit of the rabbits that made their warrens in the sandy soil. French law says you can’t fire within 150m of a house, but French Catalans are a headstrong bunch, and by Sunday evenings the courtyard was littered with spent cartridges. We outfitted our kids in hi-vis fuchsia and marmalade-orange anoraks, but they still looked to me like little bunnies as they scampered through the vines.

“Do you eat rabbit?” Monsieur Bascou asked me by way of a peace offering, when I protested.

“Sure,” I said, imagining neatly filleted columns of oven-ready pink. The following week he presented me with a carrier bag containing two dead furry beasts with long ears.

I’m a Manhattan girl. I was raised on pre-sliced bread and canned spaghetti and restaurant meals. But when I find something unnerving, I can get a little grim and go-it-alone stubborn. These were the days before YouTube could teach you how to tie your shoes or overthrow the government, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t figure out, by myself, how to skin an animal. People always said rabbits were easy-peelers, that their fur comes off like a pair of pajamas, all you needed was a sharp knife. Wasn’t this the second rule of the kitchen – keep your knives sharpened?

I dropped off our kids at pre-school, came home and barricaded the kitchen door. It was an épreuve, according to Foucault’s concept of the ordeal as a test of truth. I laid out the first rabbit on the sacrificial altar of the kitchen table, buried my face in its matted fur that still smelled of earth, autumn rain, vines, and said a little prayer of thanks.

Some day, not too soon, I hoped, other living creatures would have a chance to eat my body too.


First I hacked at the rabbit’s head with its accusing eyes and teeth, its impossibly long ears – was that where all its power of survival lay, in supersonic hearing? You made a first cut, so that the furry coat could then peel away, but where was the magic entry point? The feet – all four – all eight of them – needed to come off too, and they were even trickier.

A nursery rhyme that my mother used to sing me started jigging nervously in my head:

Bye baby bunting,

Daddy’s gone a-hunting,

To fetch a little rabbit skin,

To wrap his baby bunting in.

I still thought that if I could only do this thing cleanly, I might possibly wind up with a rabbit skin for each of my baby buntings.


Reader, I made a hash of it. No matter how I poked at those rabbits, their luscious fur refused to be parted neatly from the body beneath, the slippery flesh slithered away from my grasp, there was nothing to grip hold of, and the pelts ended up in bloody tatters. And yet even as I botched this basic test of carnivore capability, there was something thrilling in the endeavor. Mostly I remember the reek of it, the hot acrid boil of blood, shit, bile, the undersea coral of intestines, the liver and kidneys so raw and angry and purple, the heart in its opalescent casing. Mammalian life so freshly fled, and the strange fascination, the unease of seeing what should never be seen, a fellow animal’s innards exposed.

By the time the long labour, the slow slog of rending and disembowelling, was accomplished, the two rabbits had begun to resemble something you might actually encounter in Monsieur Bascou’s shop: I was drained but exalted.

Now we were onto firmer, less murderous-ecstatic ground: the question of how to cook these beasts, how to make a feast so royal that it would justify the bloodshed.


Back in my 20s, I’d spent six weeks in Palermo, writing about urban restoration and Lampedusa’s The Leopard. I had lived with Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, an opera director who was Lampedusa’s adopted son, and his wife Nicoletta Polo. Nicoletta was a fantastic cook. She’d taken me around Palermo’s markets, taught me about seasons, and introduced me to those dishes that reveal Sicily’s Arab-Norman-Catalan-Aragonese underbelly, dishes where pasta improbably encounters sardines and currants and wild fennel, or cakes are named after a saint’s severed breasts.

For Monsieur Bascou’s twin rabbits, I chose a Sicilian recipe, featuring an overnight marinade of dark chocolate and red wine, using the cheap, high-octane witches’ brew of Syrah and Grenache produced on the vineyard where we lived. The original recipe  I’ve long ago lost, but when I email Nicoletta Polo, who now runs a cooking school out of her palazzo in Palermo, she sends me her own favorite variant from the Ragusa and Modica area – which “is famous for its extraordinary chocolate,” she writes.

So here you go, the why-not-have-it-all recipe – game, booze, chilli pepper, and bitter chocolate in one pot.


Serves 4

1 rabbit
70g bitter chocolate
1 onion
1 carrot
A handful of almonds
1 small glass of dry Marsala
Extra virgin olive oil
Black pepper or chilli pepper, to taste

For the marinade:

300ml red wine
1 glass of wine vinegar
1 carrot
1 onion
1 celery stalk
A small cinnamon stick
2 cloves
3 juniper berries
2 bay leaves
5 sage leaves
2 garlic cloves
1 lemon, cut in wedges


Clean the rabbit and cut it into small pieces.

Prepare the marinade in a large bowl: put the pieces of rabbit in it and pour in the wine and vinegar, then add the chopped celery, sliced onion and carrot, a pinch of salt, the lemon and all the herbs and spices. Leave to marinate in the fridge for a few hours, preferably overnight, turning occasionally. After this time, drain the rabbit pieces, dry them and lightly flour them.

Chop an onion and sauté it briefly in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of oil. Add the rabbit pieces and let them brown evenly, then add the chopped carrot and salt and deglaze with Marsala wine. Cook for about 10 minutes, then pour in half a glassful of the marinade strained through a colander and add the almonds. Cook, adding more liquid from the marinade if necessary: five minutes before the rabbit is ready, over a very low heat, add the coarsely chopped chocolate and a grinding of chilli (or black) pepper, stir to mix well and cover the pan. Serve the rabbit piping hot.


Our feast the next night – a communal dinner, with our neighbors and their kids joining us – is solemn. The children, who when they’d heard the words “chocolate rabbit” had hopeful fantasies of Easter egg hunts dancing through their heads, are puzzled but willing. They are all still young enough to try anything. The stew, with its dark molé-like sauce, its hints of cinnamon and clove, is rich, strange, unsettling. Our dreams that night are fevered.


“How could you eat a bunny? They’re so cute,” my friend objects when I tell her the story of Monsieur Bascou’s rabbits.

I ponder. It’s an interesting question. If we are going to eat living creatures, do we avoid the ones we find appealing, the ones that could be household pets? To put it more crudely, should we only eat what we dislike? Is eating an animal an act of violence, disassociation, conquest, or can we also regard our prey with gratitude, respect?


After six years living on the vineyard in French Catalonia, my husband and I bought our own house further north.

On autumn and winter weekends, the surrounding fields are overrun with hunters’ wooden high chairs, men in orange vests, baying hounds, the crack of guns. Our new neighbours are more upright, law-abiding than the Catalans, nobody would dream of tramping through your front yard with a rifle cocked.

One Sunday they kill a boar in the cornfield below our house. Gilles, the next-door farmer who is secretary of the hunt, offers us a cut of the spoils. I’m already wondering how to deal with the boar’s bristles, imagining myself barricaded once again in the kitchen, this time with a more fearsome, better-armed opponent. Tusks! I experience the familiar tangle of fellow-feeling and bloodlust; I love boars and I want to eat them. When Gilles delivers us a plastic-wrapped slice of generic flesh, the swell of adrenaline, of dread-terror-excitement, abruptly ebbs away.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were vegetarian. Adam was allowed to name the animals, but not to eat them. It’s only after the flood, when God exterminates all creation except for Noah and his crew, that there is a new covenant and God tells Noah, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.”**

The biblical God is murderous, and we are too.

You might say that humans are allowed to eat animals precisely so that we don’t eat each other.

As I get older, I find it increasingly hard to explain my own consumption of meat – to justify why another creature should
die just so I can experience for the hundredth time the complex sensory delight of pork-belly ramen. But self-disapprobation only makes my carnivorousness fiercer. Two weeks of vegetables and I’m practically ready to eat my dog.

Some day I’d like to own my bloodiness a little more honestly and learn not just to skin but to raise and kill what I eat. In the carnivore kingdom, as in Bascou’s shop, tot es bo.


* Catalan for “Everything’s good at Bascou’s.”

** Genesis 9 : 3


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here