Talk about culinary irony: Rabbit meat is in short supply.
Despite the critters' proclivity to reproduce, demand for rabbit meat has surged in recent years and breeders are struggling to supply the many trendy restaurants adding it to their menus.
"We could easily be doing 1,000 a week. The demand is there," said Langis Anctil, whose Champlain Valley Rabbitry farm here is working full tilt to raise that many bunnies a month.
Of course, it's not that rabbits don't reproduce fast enough -- it is just an 11-week cycle from birth to broiler. The problem is that there aren't enough producers.
It is a $10 million industry -- stitched mostly from a patchwork of small farms and hobbyists -- so small the government barely tracks it.
For restaurants such as Minibar, a posh tapas-style eatery in Los Angeles that offered a popular rabbit sausage since opening nearly two years ago, this has meant serious supply problems.
"We would find a purveyor with the product at the right price, but then they'd run out and we'd find another and then they would run out, and that's what it's been like for about eight months," said owner Ravel Centeno-Rodrigues.
"Finally, we took it off the menu."
The number of producers has been in a steady decline since rabbit's heyday about 60 years ago. That's when a wartime meat shortage led the federal government to urge people to switch to rabbit, making it a common offering in grocers' meat cases. But as the supply of red meat and chicken improved, rabbit fell from favor.
Rabbit meat industry insiders blame its decline for so many years on an undeserved bad rap. Though farm-raised rabbit tastes like -- surprise! -- tender chicken, it has a reputation as a tough and gamey meat (probably because wild rabbit generally is).
The Easter Bunny syndrome -- a reluctance by many Americans to eat animals that are cute and fuzzy -- hasn't helped, either, according to Pat Lamar, president of the Professional Rabbit Meat Association.
But it seems the bad reputation is fading, and fuzzy is becoming fabulous. Today, rabbit is in restaurants from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine.
In 2004, the United States imported more than 1 million pounds of rabbit meat -- mostly from China -- a near doubling from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Much of that ends up in specialty shops and restaurants, which have begun serving rabbit in such dishes as North African tagines, mixed grill, smoked sausages and salads.
"Rabbit probably at one point was more risque than offal" innards, said Shea Gallante, chef at Cru, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant in New York that offers rabbit sausage with gnocchi.
"Nowadays it's so common people think, 'Do I have the rabbit appetizer or do I have the calf's heart?' "
Kate Krader, a senior editor at Food & Wine magazine, sees rabbit on menus everywhere and attributes the renewed interest to the growth in bistro-style restaurants, which focus on rustic fare, including wild game.
What is impressive about the growth is that unlike beef and pork, there is no marketing effort behind it, she said.
Part of the appeal is health. Rabbit is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Americans also are traveling more widely and encountering rabbit on European menus, especially in France and Italy. And American chefs are ever on the watch for new tastes and textures.
As rabbit becomes more common in U.S. restaurants, Krader thinks it is likely to show up in more grocers, many of which already offer such exotics as ostrich and buffalo meat.
Rabbit is common in specialty food shops in large cities, and is creeping into mainstream grocers. Publix supermarkets offers rabbit at 250 of its 800 stores in the Southeast.
The meat has not fared as well in the grocers in the Northeast, however, where poor sales recently prompted Hannaford Bros. Co. to pull it from the shelves of its 146 stores after five months.
Such setbacks haven't slowed the industry much. At Pel-Freez, the nation's largest rabbit meat processor, work once slowed to part time much of the year. Now it is all the Rogers, Ark., company can do to keep pace.
The hodgepodge nature of the industry complicates the work flow. Because so many rabbit breeders are small-time farmers who go in and out of the business, companies such as Pel-Freez must constantly look for new suppliers.
It also isn't easy on the breeding end. Rabbits can have high mortality rates, and a dearth of processors means many breeders must rely on "bunny runners" to transport the animals to slaughter, sometimes many states away.
Anctil gets around that by processing his own rabbits -- snapping their necks, skinning and gutting them. Despite a steady stream of chefs and culinary students visiting his remote farm, he seems surprised by his success.
He said he regrets only that he cannot keep the rabbits on his farm a bit longer, fattening them up a bit more. He slaughters them when they reach about three pounds. The market just won't wait longer.
"They move so fast we don't have time to get them bigger," he said.