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Eating squirrels

By Irving Dean
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I consider myself open-minded and possessed of an adventurous palate, but I haven’t eaten squirrel yet and am reasonably sure I don’t want to.

Squirrels are rodents, like rats. Wouldn’t want to eat one of those either. I know they serve guinea pigs in parts of Latin America and South America. Doesn’t make me want to eat one.

As a kid, I was even suspicious of the candy known as Squirrel Nut Zippers.

I think it’s commendable that people over the ages developed recipes to get protein into their diets from game that was available in their environment. But I still shuddered when Granny Clampett of “The Beverly Hillbillies” talked about making possum stew. If it came down to it, I think I’d choose malnutrition over possum.

What brings this up is an intriguing article in The New York Times the other day about the growing popularity of squirrel meat in England. “... [I]n farmers’ markets, butcher shops, village pubs and elegant restaurants, squirrel is selling as fast as gamekeepers and hunters can bring it in,” writes Marlena Spieler.

Spieler reports that not only are people interested in eating squirrel because of the “curiosity and novelty,” but also because of the environment. There are, she says, millions of squirrels “rampaging through England, Scotland and Wales at any given time,” and they need to be culled regularly. As a result, hunters provide butchers, restaurants and pate and pastry makers with a regular supply of the meat.

The ecological considerations grow out of the war between native red squirrels and the gray squirrels “introduced from North America over the past century.” The gray squirrels take over the reds’ habitats and they also infect them with parapox that is harmless to the grays but fatal to the indigenous reds. Lately, though, the reds have been developing a resistance to the disease, Spieler reports.

The article raised many questions in my mind, not the least of which: Who introduced gray squirrels from North America? Was it an experiment of some kind, or did some of them hitch a ride on the QE II?

Can one find squirrel meat here commercially? Does it taste like chicken?

Of course people in this country have been eating squirrel forever, notably in the South. And they’re in seemingly limitless supply. That’s why it’s okay to hunt squirrels in New York state. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Web site, red squirrels are among the “unprotected” species of small game that can be taken at any time and without limit. Porcupine and woodchucks are in the same class. (You do need a hunting license if you plan to hunt squirrels with a bow or firearm, which pretty much sums up how you would hunt squirrels, unless you’re good with a slingshot or plan to climb a tree and throttle the little suckers.)

I don’t like squirrels much. Never bought into any of that Beatrix Potter treacle about lovable little red squirrels. I spent too many winters trying to find ways to keep them out of my bird feeders to view them as lovable or cute. So you’d think I’d find eating squirrels a good thing.

Squirrel recipes

I did do some research on squirrel recipes and wasn’t surprised to find that they take some special preparations because they’re sinewy little creatures whose meat can be tough if not properly prepared. This may involve brining them or soaking them in a vinegar and water combination, changing the liquid from time to time, or storing them in brine for a few days in the refrigerator, as you would with rabbits “to take away the too wild taste,” according to the recipes at epicurean.com.

On the Web site bowhunting.net, I found recipes for squirrel stew – the first ingredient is “1 squirrel quartered” -- and for squirrel pie, which begins with: “Clean, skin and cut two squirrels into small pieces.” You then soak the squirrel meat in the salted or vinegary water, changing the liquid several times, then saute the squirrel meat in pork or bacon fat. The stew is slow-cooked, and the recipe warns that “older squirrels may require cooking longer.”

A lot of spices and vegetables go into these stews and, in some cases, some white wine. To me, that’s a lot of work – skinning and cleaning a squirrel, chopping it up and soaking it in vinegar-water, then sauteing it in fat, slow-cooking it with spices and vegetables to produce something I didn’t want to eat in the first place.

Epicurean.com also offers a recipe for Brunswick squirrel stew “for a crowd.” It calls for “about 70 squirrels, cut up,” along with 2 large stewing chickens, 2 ½ lbs. of salt pork and a gallon of shredded cabbage (optional), among other ingredients. It makes 15 gallons of stew.

Do you eat squirrel meat? Have a favorite recipe for it or other game that you’d like to share? Post below or write to foodforum@dailygazette.net.

 

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