Winner of the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award from the James Beard Foundation.
It starts every summer with the first ripening tomato. Maybe it's the early blush on a squat Cherokee Purple, or the lighter stripes of a Green Zebra turning pale yellow, or a lime Bush Beefsteak going gradually olive, then pink, then red. The effects of the sun on this single fruit carry the promise of summer, and the subtle message of whether it will be a good season for tomatoes, or even whether it will be a good summer overall. I watch the weather forecasts and gently squeeze with my fingertips to calculate the precise day I'll pluck it.
But without fail—sometimes the very day before I plan for this auspicious moment—I'm foiled. I'll climb to the roof to find the fruit's smooth surface violated, chiseled and gnawed by a honed set of incisors. The marauder is insolent and indiscriminate. Sometimes the fruit is discarded, half eaten, on the roof. Other times it remains hanging on the vine. Now this tomato becomes a sign of war. And the hostilities will have begun in my annual jihad with Sciurus carolinensis, aka the eastern gray squirrel. It's a war I've never won.
Last year the skirmishing started over a prolific yellow cherry plant. In late July I began to find the sweet mutilated marbles discarded two stories down on the front step. Others were cached in the soil of my cilantro bed. I found corpses every day until the escalation on August 1, 2011, when a low hanging, pleated red Brandywine was punctured and left hanging for the flies.
But the assault on my orange Roman Candle paste-tomato plant was Pearl Harbor.
For years I'd grown my tomatoes in buckets on the rooftop. It wasn't the best way to grow them, and my landlord didn't like it, but it's what I could do with the space. It worked if the conditions were right—just not for paste tomatoes. The restricted environment of the bucket isn't good for these varieties, and by late spring the tips of the new green fruit would be withered by blossom-end rot, a calcium deficiency that took most of them out. I don't bother with paste tomatoes anymore, but I'd mistakenly purchased the Roman Candle seedling.
By midsummer, against all expectations, healthy green fingers began lengthening off the vines and I began to entertain impossible hopes of a novel, thick, yellow sauce tossed with freshly cut noodles. The most promising of these specimens turned a vibrant shade of banana by August 8—when near dawn it was attacked, ripped from the vine, savaged in its lower quarter, and mounted on the parapet of the roof like a severed head.
I stood staring at the enemy's trophy, the familiar impotent rage rising. But the impulse to fall to my knees, gnash my teeth, and howl at the gods was stayed this time by a resolution I'd made earlier that spring. The squirrels may take my tomatoes and spit them back, but they would not go unanswered. The time had come to close the circle of life.
At some point we stopped eating squirrels in this country. Certainly the very first Americans ate them in abundance, as did the first European settlers, who cleared the ancient forests and issued bounties on the rodent plagues that ravaged their crops; in colonial Pennsylvania authorities offered hunters three pence per squirrel killed. It was the colonists' skill in bagging them with their long-barreled rifles that gave them an edge on the Redcoats during the Revolution.
In the mid-1800s mass squirrel cullings occurred in Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Kentucky. They often took the form of hunting contests in which thousands of animals were killed. Surely those squirrels wound up in the pots of community feeds. Different regions have different names for the massive stews simmered for harvest celebrations, some of which are still held today: the Brunswick stews of Virginia, the burgoos of Kentucky, the booyahs of Wisconsin, and chowders of southern Illinois. The recipes were similar, a thick, slow-cooked mishmash of meats and vegetables, more often than not featuring squirrel as the most important protein source. A well-circulated formula for Kentucky Burgoo Stew in the 1939 cookbook Fine Old Dixie Recipes calls for an astonishing 600 pounds of squirrel meat, "1 doz. to each 100 gals."
City swells didn't turn their nose up at squirrel either, even though it's a member of the order Rodentia and cousin to Rattus norvegicus, the reviled plague bringer and urban menace otherwise known as the Norway rat. In Chicago in 1879, among the broiled sandpipers and black bear hams on the multispecies menu of the Grand Pacific Hotel's 24th annual Great Game Dinner, there were four preparations of squirrel, including black, gray, and an ornamental "Fox Squirrel in Arbor." On the eve of the Great Depression, the Chicago Daily Tribune's Jane Eddington offered a recipe for Brunswick stew, which called for three cleaned, washed, and jointed squirrels. She acknowledged the difficulty the average urbanite might encounter sourcing the rodent, suggesting chicken, lamb, or veal as substitutes, though coyly noting, "I know of people who shoot squirrels almost in the boundaries of some of our cities, even the largest ones."
Even after the advent of processed and frozen foods, and disarticulated plastic-wrapped meat parts chilling under fluorescent lights, Americans kept eating squirrel, though you'd have to know a hunter to get any. A 1967 collection titled Game Cookery claimed that "each year well over 25 million pounds of this delicate meat appear on the tables of American households." That same year the Illinois Department of Natural Resources reported that hunters in the state had picked off over 2.5 million.
Even the venerable godfather of American cuisine approved. "Squirrel has been written about rapturously for years," he wrote in his James Beard's American Cookery. "And it has long been associated with elegant dining as well as with the simple food of the trapper and the nomad. Fortunately it is plentiful." Beard's recipe for Brunswick stew called for two to three squirrels, veal stock, and a half cup of Madeira.
But somewhere along the way, squirrel declined in popularity as a game animal, replaced by bigger quarry, such as deer and turkey, whose numbers had grown in the countryside as the number of humans dwindled. Mainstream views on squirrel eating began to drift toward disdainful—it became something hillbillies and rednecks did. In the late 90s a pair of Kentucky neurologists posited a link between eaters of squirrel brains—a time-honored delicacy among hunters—and the occurrence of a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a theoretical but terrifying new mad squirrel disease. (Peer review later deemed this connection unlikely.) And though noted woodsman and Motor City Madman Ted Nugent devoted a few pages of his wild game cookbook Kill It and Grill It to "Limbrat Etouffee" in 2002—written with a vengeance he typically reserves for sitting Democratic presidents—when the 75th-anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking was published four years later, for the first time in the book's history it didn't include an illustrated how-to for pulling the skin from a squirrel.
Squirrel eating may be making a comeback, however, at least among those with au courant appetites for sustainable, healthy, and locally sourced meats. CNN.com's food blog Eatocracy has encouraged readers to seek out sources of squirrel meat—"more earthy and sumptuous than the darkest turkey." Hunting and foraging authority Hank Shaw has spilled plenty of ink on this "gateway" prey, an abundant animal that hones the hunter's skill for bigger game. It's delicious too, he argues, its pink flesh more dense than a rabbit's, which takes on the nutty flavor of whatever it's been eating.
But think of Squirrel Nutkin, Rocket J. Squirrel, and Princess Sally Acorn. How could one eat such an adorable, puckish animal, so easily anthropomorphized? Ask British food writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: "I do not argue that we have an inalienable right to eat meat," he writes in The River Cottage Cookbook. "I do say however that, if we are going to make meat part of our diet, then wild meat is, for me, the least morally problematic of all. All meat is the product of a killing, and those of us who kill for the pot are merely taking responsibility for the manner of that killing. A squirrel may have a cuteness factor that makes some people shudder at the sight of its back legs crackling on a grill. But if those people have ever seen young calves and lambs playing in the fields, then why have they not applied the cuteness argument to their own carnivorous habits? For I have found that most of the people who seem to be upset by the eating of rabbits, squirrels, and the like are not vegetarians but town dwelling carnivores."
One early Saturday morning last August I was sitting at the bottom of a dry creek bed in southern Indiana with a small shotgun staring straight up into the trees, listening to a squirrel I couldn't see cutting on a nut. The branch on which it ate was almost directly above me some 30 yards. In the forest's otherwise echoing silence it sounded like two quarters rubbing together on the edges.
I'd been awake since before dawn, creeping around the woods with 19-year-old Forrest Turner, a horse trainer and aspiring agriculture student who'd grown up hunting squirrels, turkey, and deer in these woods. He'd already shot about 15 to 20 squirrels since the season started. We'd stepped as lightly as possible, staring up at the canopy slowly coming to light, looking for motion in the branches, and watching for acorn and hickory shells as they dropped from the sky. Much earlier we stood under a tall oak, and with a small shotgun I took my first and only shot on a squirrel directly above me. I missed. Over the course of the morning we'd stalked close to 15 gray and fox squirrels, and while Turner got a few shots off himself, we had no luck. Near midmorning, we were ready to call it a day, until we heard the telltale sound above us and gave it one more try.
I'd never hunted anything in my life, and Turner, an enthusiastic guide, wanted me to get my first squirrel. He left me in the creek bed and went off to pursue others. But as the sun rose higher it became apparent my prey wasn't going to offer me a shot. Turner returned and moved up the bank beyond the tree to flush it out. Taking aim with his scoped .22, he fired off two rounds in quick succession. The second connected, and the squirrel tumbled off the branch and fell to the bank, rolling down the slope almost to my boots. He'd shot it diagonally through the abdomen and the small eastern gray attempted to drag itself away through the leaves with its forelegs. I tried to put it out of its pain with a heel to the head but it wouldn't go easily. Turner finished the job, picked it up, and handed it to me in time to feel its pounding heart slow to a stop.
You can see why it's preferable to shoot a squirrel in the head, both for the sake of the animal and its meat. If that's a challenge for Turner, and a near impossibility for me, imagine what it's like to compete in the Great Washington County Shootout, an annual friends-and-family contest for which hunters are required to use long, heavy, single-sighted flintlock muzzle loaders, working reproductions of the same cumbersome rifles the American colonists used.
I shot one of these guns that afternoon at the home of Zen Caudill, a retired Seymour, Indiana, firefighter and the Shootout's host. He'd built his log-walled house and almost everything in it from the trees and stones surrounding the land at the bottom of the sylvan hollow where it sat. When Caudill hunted squirrels as a boy in Kentucky it wasn't for sport. It was to put food on the table. But he'd done well for himself—and he'd done it all by himself—a rigorously independent badass if there ever was one.
He packed the rifle with powder and shot and handed it to me. It was nearly as tall as I am, ridiculously heavy, with a hair trigger. As I took aim at a small hillock it went off before I could steady it. The chances of me hitting a nimble, camouflaged squirrel at any distance with this thing were almost nonexistent.
Caudill fabricated most of the guns used in the contest himself, and the hunters and their family members gathered at his spread at noon to count their kill, busting each other's chops as they arrived. "I see that one's got tire prints on him," one fellow shouted to another who'd brought in a single fox squirrel. The rules are simple: gray squirrels, which are craftier and tougher to get than foxes, carry a higher score, as do head shots over body shots. A head shot to a gray trumps all. Some dozen hunters took 17 squirrels that day, a mix of grays and the larger, slower foxes. As the men sat around eating fried chicken and potato salad, many complained that, so far, it had been a bad year for squirrel hunting in southern Indiana. Squirrels stay put in hickory trees, and the older ones chase the younger ones down to the lower branches. But hickories hadn't been producing so well last year. Walnuts were doing OK, but squirrels take the tougher nut to higher branches of satellite trees to eat, making them harder targets. In previous years the group had collectively taken as many as 70 squirrels in a single morning.
After lunch, they gradually rose and gathered around 69-year-old Jay Mellencamp—the uncle of the rock star—who took out his hunting knife and began skinning squirrels to confirm the head shots. No one's won more of these competitions than Mellencamp. His name has been engraved on the wooden winner's plaque eight times since 1987, when the Shootout began. He won the previous year's contest with a single head shot to a gray squirrel, but he didn't bag any that day.
Mellencamp was also a frequent champion of the skinning contests the group held in years when the collective kill was higher. That's why everyone stood back while he made a cut under the tail of each squirrel, planted his boot on it while gripping the hind legs, and peeled off the hide like a wet sock. He finished in less than ten minutes.
Caudill didn't do so well either that morning. He'd hit two grays in the body, but his adult son Matt got two head shots and won the day. Matt and his friend Nathan Knoblitt made short work of cleaning them, slitting their bellies open and whipping out their viscera.
I asked Knoblitt why Mellencamp cut off the heads when he was skinning them. Doesn't anybody eat them? "It tastes like every nut in the forest. It's full of flavor," he affirmed, but lots of folks stopped eating them for fear of mad squirrel disease. He then looked me straight in the eye and his face abruptly twitched and froze in a contorted rictus. I looked around uncomfortably and felt relieved when he started laughing.
Pretty much every squirrel recipe you can find is written on the assumption that cooks will obtain wild country squirrels like the ones the Indiana hunters sent me home with: animals fattened on acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and perhaps the odd nest egg or two. Nowhere does anyone advise the consumption of their far more fearless and omnivorous urban brethren. Why is that?
First there's the question of diet. City squirrels, faced with a relatively scarcer supply of tree nuts, supplement with the bounty of gardens and bird feeders, or scavenge what we cast away. They're rats with good PR, as the saying goes.
Rats at least know fear. City squirrels, on the other hand, know that the municipal code prevents you from drawing a bead on them with a muzzle loader. This emboldens the sort of bad behavior a Washington County squirrel wouldn't dream of. A squirrel (or maybe it was two) ran onto the field during two sold-out games of the National League Division Series at Busch Stadium in Saint Louis last fall—and scampered across home plate while the Cardinals' Skip Schumaker was at bat in the fifth inning of game four before leaping into the stands. One afternoon a few summers back I followed a furious rustling into the kitchen and found a plump squirrel perched atop the counter tearing into a bag of peanut M&M's. While my cat dozed in a corner, it stood on its hind legs and confronted me with a hideous moaning, quacking call—QUA-QUA-QUA—before retreating through the hole it had torn in the window screen. I can count dozens and dozens of them along the path of my morning run, recently blocked by a bushy-tail nibbling on a piece of toast.
Would eating a Dumpster-diving rodent addicted to cold pizza, hot dogs, and tomatoes be any worse than eating a battery chicken that lives its life in a square-foot space sustained on slaughterhouse waste and antibiotics? Do they pick up any diseases or parasites their country cousins don't?
"Most problematic issues can be taken care of by thorough cooking, so eating is going to be the least of your worries," says Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology for the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a specialist in the urban squirrel. He heads up Project Squirrel, a "citizen science" study that invites participants to log squirrel sightings on its website with the aim of gaining insights into the larger local ecosystem.
Sullivan didn't recoil when I asked if him if there was any reason not to eat city squirrels. Speaking strictly theoretically, he said it wouldn't be a bad idea at all—with proper management.
"People cry about how much corn it takes and how much land it takes to make a cow," he says, "and especially pigs, with their excretory fluids in our waterways and things. Well, squirrels don't have any of those issues. So why would we not be using those, say, from the health, environmental, ethical standpoint? I don't see any reason not to, other than this cultural hang-up."
The gray squirrel is remarkably prolific, Sullivan pointed out, sometimes breeding twice in a year with litters ranging in size from two to four pups. And it's resilient. "Squirrel populations can withstand relatively high levels of harvest without a significant decrease in abundance because of compensatory reproduction," biologists Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski write in North American Tree Squirrels, the authoritative work on the subject.
There are lots of complicating variables, but "one of the rules of thumb," says Sullivan, "is you can harvest something less than 80 percent of the squirrel population every year and have it bounce back." Roughly 80 percent of all squirrels don't make it past their first year, with most dying from predators and starvation. "They're selected for reproduction rather than longevity, unlike, say, elephants," he points out.
There's even a possibility, though purely hypothetical, that reducing the eastern gray squirrel's numbers in the city would improve biodiversity by encouraging the fox squirrel—which tends to get pushed around by the gray—to move in.
Sullivan is, in theory at least, a dauntless omnivore. There are plenty of invasive and overpopulated plant and animal species in and around the city for which persuasive arguments could be made for promoting them in our diets: Asian carp, Louisiana crayfish, and garlic mustard greens, to name a few. "The fact of the matter is that we have made a cultural decision to self-limit protein," he says. "That's a very arbitrary decision, and it's silly, ultimately. We have all these other options. Let's use 'em!"
Sullivan doesn't suggest this without caution. He points to the familiar case of the passenger pigeon, once so populous that its flocks blotted out the sky. The species was driven to extinction by habitat loss and hunting, and the last one died in captivity in 1914.
"We as humans have an amazing ability to destroy everything in our path," he says. "As a preindustrial and then industrial society we had a strong need for regulation of firearms and hunting and things like this within our cities. As cities have evolved, as species have adapted, as landscapes have stabilized, we've come to see that there are certain species that do really well amongst us: deer, Canada geese, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, and opossums. If we could really get over the cultural hang-ups, darn it, we should be eating rats too. And I'm excited about the idea of changing regulations and helping people realize that consumption of wild-born, wild-grown meats is OK, and harvesting of said meats in an urban environment is something we can do in a regulated way, safe for humans and humane for the harvested animal. We can't just have an anarchical harvesting of any game, under any circumstances, in any place. But I don't see why we can't have a regulated harvesting regime of all game of all species in all places, with the understanding that some species will be taken off the list."
The state Department of Natural Resources could regulate the harvesting of urban squirrels for food much in the way it does rural ones: issue licenses and set a daily bag limit (currently five) and seasonal possession limit (ten).
But even if it did, a squirrel is not a deer or a turkey, and though it may taste somewhat similar, it isn't a chicken either. Adult gray squirrels rarely grow over two pounds. Is there enough meat on a squirrel to satisfy any appetite? "A lot of people in the world would look at that carcass and say, 'Hey, that's a bonanza,'" Sullivan suggests.
My job as a food writer takes me to a lot of restaurants that serve rich foods that are hardly necessary, let alone healthy if eaten in excess. And that includes lots of meat. Two years ago I made a concerted effort to change my diet when I was off duty. I mastered portion control, and when not on the job I started eating mostly vegetarian. In that time I lost 35 pounds and I can once again touch my toes without losing my breath. I still love it, but don't crave meat as much anymore. I'm satisfied with less when I do eat it, and I appreciate it more. I'm not even close to endorsing a vegan diet. But collectively Americans, whose per capita meat consumption in 2011 was 216 pounds, could stand to eat a bit less.
Squirrels trapped by removal specialists aren't typically relocated to some paradisiacal nature preserve. They're euthanized. And unlike the squirrels that were ravaging colonial cornfields, nobody's making burgoo out of them.
But if I were to lose this swell gig, I'd need to replace the meat. If it came to that, why couldn't city squirrel be a plentiful, healthy, and nondestructive option?
Well, there are laws standing in the way. In Illinois the eastern gray squirrel is a protected species, along with domestic pigeons, striped skunks, bats, and dozens of other mammals and birds. It is illegal to hunt squirrels with a gun outside of the state-mandated season from August 1 to February 15, and it's illegal to trap them anytime for hunting purposes. And obviously it's illegal to hunt at all within the Chicago city limits—even if it's an animal that's gnawing through your power lines, chewing into your attic, and scrabbling above your head at five in the morning.
So what recourse do you have if squirrels are tormenting you? The city's Animal Care and Control department will remove nuisance wildlife from homes, but only if an officer actually sees it on the premises, which typically precludes removal of the squirrels and raccoons lurking in your attic or walls. In extreme circumstances department officials will leave a trap, and if they catch anything they'll take the animal to a wildlife rehabilitator, says Officer Carey Logan. "But we don't have the manpower to monitor those traps."
A private company with the proper state-issued permits to trap and remove wildlife can take care of that, but it's going to cost you. Brad Reiter of Critter Control of Chicago, the local franchise of the country's largest wildlife removal firm, says he traps more squirrels than any other animal, about 2,000 a year. But that can be expensive. Armando Martinez of Pest Control Chicagoland says if there's more than one squirrel involved, a typical job including house repairs can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000.
For anyone who doesn't take the killing of animals lightly, it should be pointed out that squirrels (and raccoons and skunks and bats and birds) trapped by removal specialists aren't typically relocated to some paradisiacal nature preserve. They're euthanized. And unlike the squirrels that were ravaging colonial cornfields, nobody's making burgoo out of them.
Popular culture is awash in dystopian survivalist fiction and film—World War Z, Contagion, The Road, to name a few recent examples. For the kids there's The Hunger Games. This appetite for apocalyptic anxiety in our diversions is curious, because these are scenarios that with some imagination don't seem any less frightening than those discussed in the documentary Collapse, in which former LAPD cop and prominent chain-smoking doomer Michael Ruppert asserts that the earth's resources have reached their peak ability to sustain industrial society. Grow a garden, he counsels. Save your seeds. The shit is coming down.
Why shouldn't we be at least a little bit paranoid? Last fall the Greater Chicago Food Depository released a report stating that 20.6 percent of Chicagoans are food insecure, meaning over half a million people in the city are unsure where their next meal is coming from, or they're not getting enough to eat every day, or they don't have any place to get it. Not long after, Wall Street reported its worst quarter since the 2008 meltdown, Tyson recalled 131,300 pounds of ground beef in 14 states, and a Listeria outbreak ensued after Colorado-grown cantaloupes were shipped to 25 states, sickening 146 people and killing at least 30. Last month an Associated Press survey of economists, think tanks, and academics reported the U.S. poverty rate is at its highest since 1965—and thanks to this summer of drought, the U.S. Agriculture Department says food prices will rise 3 to 4 percent. Right now, we're unable to pay our mortgages, find jobs, or fill the gas tank. How much longer until we're unable to feed ourselves?
Meanwhile, Alderman Lona Lane wanted to ban chickens in the 18th Ward, collective-food-production incubator Logan Square Kitchen closed in May after enduring 19 inspections over the prior two years from city inspectors who couldn't or wouldn't understand its business model, and police routinely harass pushcart vendors who support their families by cutting up fresh fruit and sprinkling it with lime juice and chili powder. The city remains hostile and uncomprehending toward small-scale private and commercial food producers precisely at a time when the economy needs them the most.
What if a real catastrophe occurred and trucks stopped delivering cases of pink-dyed farmed salmon fillets and barrels of ketchup-flavored corn syrup to Costco? Could you feed your family in the middle of a teeming, hungry metropolis? What would you do? What could you do? Would you turn away a meal of squirrel or pigeon or rat if you could catch it? Could you catch it?
Last December the Seattle Times reported that a local woman had begun regularly trapping and eating the squirrels that had been invading her home. In Washington it's legal for homeowners to trap and euthanize animals that are causing property damage (though the American Veterinary Medical Association considers her method of dispatching them—drowning—to be inhumane).
Thinking on the fringe: if things got really bad, could I feed my family on city squirrel? Build up a stash? Maybe make cross-rooftop trades with the neighbors—squirrel meat for matches, flour, and cooking oil?
The chef led me through the kitchen and onto the sun-dappled patio behind his restaurant. A meticulous student of southern food history, he took a dead squirrel by the tail and nailed it to a wooden railroad tie braced against the brick wall.
"Americans have gotten really, really weird about food in a very short period of time," he said. "Obviously, working in restaurants I work with a lot of immigrants, and they're not afraid of bones or weird animal parts."
He's not afraid of them either. He grew up hunting and eating squirrels. After a hunt it was nothing to cook up the squirrel heads along with the legs and saddle, crack open the skull, and eat the brain. When I asked if he would show me how to clean a squirrel he readily agreed.
He got started by cutting through the base of the tail, above the anus just until he hit skin, then cutting around the haunches of the hind legs and pulling on them hard until the hide peeled off, down to the forelegs and head. After working the "britches" off the hind legs he laid the squirrel on a table on its back, cut off its tiny penis and testes, and made an incision from its crotch to its neck.
"These organs are good stuff," he said, isolating the heart, liver, and kidneys from the rest of the respiratory and digestive tract. I hadn't planned on that. But after his demonstration I felt obligated to keep them. And the head too, though I knew it was going to take some fortitude to get over that hurdle.
At home I washed the carcass, clipped off the paws, and tried to singe the stray hairs that remained on the flesh. They were persistent, but I got most of them and put it all in a bag in the back of the refrigerator. Pink in plastic, except for its head, the squirrel had made the aesthetic and psychological metamorphosis from animal to meat. But maybe not completely. Later I was startled by what sounded like the rustling of the bag, as if the squirrel had come back to life. But it was only the coffee I'd left boiling on the stove. A not-unappetizing musky, meaty smell clung to my hands and cutting board.
A few nights later I took the meat out of the freezer and cut it into pieces, which I dusted in salt-and-pepper-seasoned flour. I seared it off and braised it in beer for an hour. It tasted like chicken thigh, lean and not at all tough after the long, slow cook. The eyes had turned a milky zombielike white, but still I pulled off a morsel of cheek meat as the cat watched, licking her lips.
I wasn't yet ready for the brain, but I did saute the heart, liver, and lungs. I burned them, so they were bitter, but the heart was the most palatable, with an almost beefy flavor.
Suffering no apparent ill effects, I saw no reason not to make a case for squirrel meat among my friends and colleagues. And I felt confident I could skin enough squirrels for a dinner party.
For an animal nobody is supposedly cooking anymore, its culinary versatility is well documented online and in the stacks of the Harold Washington Library Center. If you're hankering for smothered squirrel in pan gravy, homesteader's squirrel with cream gravy, crockpot squirrel, Hmong-style squirrel stew with eggplant, squirrel pie, squirrel dumplings, squirrel and broccoli casserole, squirrel curried, fricasseed, or barbecued, squirrel cakes, squirrel purloo, or the infamous squirrel melts, the recipes are at your fingertips. But of all those I found—apart from simple panfrying—burgoos and Brunswick stews seem the most common application. Maybe that's because the squirrel's relatively low meat yield demands a one-pot dish that can be extended with a variety of other meats and vegetables.
I was able to source a steady, humanely killed supply of city squirrels—I won't say where. I was just under the possession limit for squirrels in Illinois. It was time to make burgoo.
"The favor of your company is requested," read the invitation, "for the most local of harvest meals." I sent this to a healthy mix of 30 eaters both adventurous and particular, and set a date. On the menu: juleps made with the mint growing from my compost pile, coconut curry simmered with the mysterious squash that had taken over the backyard, dinosaur kale, cornbread, and the main event: a thick burgoo, featuring "heirloom tomato, tree nut, and alley-fattened wild caught game."
I didn't expect nearly all of the invitees to accept, but evidently curiosity about urban squirrel's viability as a protein source isn't merely a weird, solitary obsession. A few days before the event I defrosted and cut up the legs and saddles, seared them off in a pot, and deglazed it with Madeira, a la James Beard. I sauteed diced bacon, onions, and garlic, added homemade chicken stock and the squirrel pieces, and braised them slowly.
After three hours or so, the squirrel meat was falling off the bone, so I carefully removed the carcasses, let them cool, and then meticulously separated the meat from its tiny skeletal remains. It was painstaking work, and I was certain a few small fragments remained behind, but in the end I had nearly three and a half pounds of shredded, mostly boneless squirrel flesh. I added it back to the pot along with vegetables and herbs from my garden and the Green City Market—the last of my tomatoes, thyme, corn, potatoes, lima beans, and a few small hot chilies—and let it simmer until the vegetables began to break down. Then I cooled it. (Many recipes advise that a night in the refrigerator and then a slow reheating the following day helps the flavors harmonize.)
Acting on the advice of my butcher I made a paté with the offal, searing the diced hearts, livers, and kidneys, flambeing them briefly in bourbon, and mixing them into a pork and bread crumb matrix before pressing it into a terrine.
When the day arrived my guests brought their own contributions—garage-cured Serrano-style ham from a Slagel Farms pig, a classic midwestern relish tray with chopped liver, olives, pickles, and crudites, Michigan apple pies, and, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, a honey cake from a pastry chef. There was Chicago beer and Indiana bourbon, and I smoked a massive lamb shoulder, mutton barbecue being the traditional accompaniment to burgoo.
Low and slow cooking had deepened the stew into a roasty reddish brown, all the vegetables softening but for sweet, crunchy corn. Conventional burgoo wisdom says that when it's thick enough for the spoon to stand up in the pot by itself, it's ready. And with that, most of my guests dove in.
After the heads braised in mirepoix and sherry, a friend demonstrated with a nutcracker the proper technique for extracting a squirrel brain from its cranial cavity, and a half dozen of us popped them into our mouths. They looked like oversize walnuts and tasted slightly creamy, almost like a soft, roasted chestnut. We pulled out the tongues and cheeks, which contained the most concentrated expression of squirreliness. One guest described the meat from the head as "nutty"; others compared it to pork, duck, or lamb. To me this seemed like the very essence of the rodent. If squirrels grew to the size of pigs, you'd really have something.
I don't think folks were being overly kind when they praised the stew. Out of two gallons of burgoo, at the end of the night I was left with only a cup and a half. In short, with the help of a lamb shoulder and some vegetables, squirrel meat can indeed feed a crowd. If it was just me and my family we could survive on it for a week.
"It was so good that I got kinda depressed," my neighbor e-mailed later. "There are so many people who don't get enough protein and here is this menacing squirrel, there for the taking." She's a prolific gardener herself, with her own squirrel problem.
Some guests pointed out that the flavor of the squirrel itself was diminished or subsumed by the stew or muted by the spices in the paté. "I was expecting a more gamy flavor like an elk sausage or something," one reported. "But I thought it was more comparable to a turkey or duck."
"If I hadn't known in advance," said another, "I doubt I would have been able to tell. But I tasted the cheek and even that, while incredibly delicious, tasted like something between pork and lamb. I never would have guessed it was squirrel in a blind tasting."
Most guests communicated a general surprise that city squirrels didn't taste like the wild muskiness of bigger wild game. I don't think that's an indication that it was overseasoned. I think it's because squirrel doesn't have an assertive flavor to begin with, at least not one that corresponds with its brazen behavior.
Proverbially, it tastes like chicken.