The Bunnies of Wartime: A World War II-era DIY meat manual resurfaces

October 15, 2010

book review by Novella Carpenter
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

KEEPING POULTRY AND RABBITS ON SCRAPS is a small, conveniently pocket-sized paperback, with thick bands of green running along the top and bottom, and a single illustration of a dancing penguin. The penguin is dancing, one surmises, because there are no instructions for how to raise and kill its species — unlike the chickens, ducks, and rabbits mentioned inside.

The handbook was first published in the UK in 1941. Bombs were being dropped on England, soldiers were fighting Fascists in far-off lands, and rationing of food was being enforced in most households. I like to think that, while the bombs were hailing down from the sky, some little lady was in the kitchen, crossing herself and stirring a batch of home-made chicken layer mash — a copy of Keeping Poultry and Rabbits on Scraps at her side.

The book tells how to raise hens on a mixture of government-issued “Balancer meal” combined with scraps like potatoes, fish waste, and stale bread, and how to keep them alive via coop building, chick rearing, and disease prevention. And then it explains the best way to dispatch them — though the description seems sparse compared with the description of how to kill a rabbit, which comes with photographs of the killing and cleaning process. That section’s author, Claude Goodchild, is an unabashed meat rabbit booster: “The production of rabbit flesh is the most economical means of bridging our present meat difficulty,” he writes. A meat difficulty. Well put, Claude.

Raising animals makes me think that all hell could break loose and I’d still have some eggs to fry, a stewing hen for the pot, or a rabbit stew.

Now, why would I want to know how to improvise livestock feed if I had to? Because lately I’ve been feeling a kinship with that WWII–era chicken lady. No literal bombs are falling over my apartment in Oakland, California — but everything is not entirely right either. There’s an oil spill. There’s massive unemployment. There’s the sense that the entire infrastructure of our government may crumble any day now.

And that’s where raising animals comes in. It makes me feel self-sufficient. It makes me think that all hell could break loose and I’d still have some eggs to fry, a stewing hen for the pot, or a rabbit stew. Assuming I still had electricity or a gas stove. But this is a quibble.

That Penguin rereleased this book in 2008 was prescient. I imagine they had it on the list as a novelty item, destined for the bathroom. But with the financial crisis still unfurling and so many more disasters brewing, I have a feeling the book will increasingly end up in our kitchens, earmarked and battered.

NOVELLA CARPENTER is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. She raises rabbits, chickens, ducks, goats, and bees near downtown Oakland, and blogs about it at

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

Leave a Reply