Chicken of the trees | Food & Drink Feature | Chicago Reader

Chicken of the trees 

The rural eastern gray squirrel has long been a valued food source, but what about its urban cousin?

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Squirrel burgoo
  • Squirrel burgoo—a stew that's done when the spoon stands up
  • Michael Boyd

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.

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