Is squirrel the perfect austerity dish?
- 27 November 2010
- From the section US & Canada
Grey squirrels are ubiquitous in North America - scurrying across our lawns and up our trees, burying nuts and taunting our tantalised dogs.
Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, squirrels are cute, furry and, apparently, very edible.
The notion of stewed squirrel may not tempt everybody's taste buds, but in an age of tightening belts and financial severity, the humble abundance of the squirrel is causing some to reconsider its epicurean virtue.
American hunter William Hovey Smith, a self-described outdoor enthusiast, loves a spot of squirrel stew, made of course from critters he hunts himself.
"It is certainly a very American dish. We've eaten it since colonial days. In fact sometimes, during hard times, a lot of people primarily subsisted from squirrel meat, just for want of anything better," Mr Smith says.
Born and bred in the state of Georgia, he lives on a property that has been in his family since the 1700s. The house was once an orderly cotton plantation but now the sprawling estate is overgrown with brush and pine trees, making it an ideal hunting ground.
Although the squirrels that dot New York's Central Park have no qualms about scampering toward a picnic blanket or eating from a tourist's hand, wild bush squirrels are quick and evasive.
They are best hunted the old-fashioned way - with a rifle and a dog.
His hunter's eye roving, Mr Smith scans his property on a rainy day in November. At his side, his dog's nose twitches.
He has used a variety of weapons to hunt squirrels in the past, including shotguns, handguns, air rifles and even crossbows.
Today, his weapon of choice is a single-shot muzzle-loaded rifle, packed with loose gun powder and a ball.
The kill is a blur. He spots a squirrel, fires, and seconds later his "faithful hound" has retrieved the dead squirrel.
"This is a nice big one. Nice long tail, weighs about 2lb or so. That's a little large for a squirrel," Mr Smith says of the North American grey squirrel he has caught.
A very American dish
Back in the kitchen, as he skins and prepares the dead rodent, Mr Smith explains that squirrel-eating is an American tradition of sorts.
Squirrels, like deer, were an obvious catch for the early settlers who cleared the virgin forests for agriculture in the 1700s. To this day, squirrel stew is not uncommon in the American South.
While some may blanch at the thought of eating a rodent, many food-lovers point out that its cousin, the rabbit, is already widely eaten. In the UK, chefs have been known to whip up apparently delectable squirrel offerings, including pate.
Eating squirrel also raises fewer of the ethical and environmental questions that industrially farmed meats do.
Wearing gloves, Mr Smith first cuts off the tail and four legs using game shears, then strips the hide with a pocket knife with a 3in (7.6cm) blade. The gloves are important, protecting him from "nasties", as he calls blood-borne viruses.
"I do not cook the squirrel heads, although my mother dearly loved them - squirrel brains," he recalls. "They have a nutty taste."
Mr Smith boils the squirrel until the meat separates from the bone, then stews the flesh with canned corn, onion, tomato, bell peppers, salt and pepper. Sometimes he makes squirrel dumplings instead of stew.
"Squirrel stew has a very distinctly sweet flavour," he says, likening it to stewed pork, which also tastes sweet even without the addition of sugars.
"It's a quite pleasant tasting dish and I would not be afraid to offer it to the Queen," he says, before quipping, "Y'all are overrun with squirrels in England. You need to eat some of them!"