Who says there's anything wrong with eating squirrel?
Photo courtesy Brenda Bowling
Fried squirrel recipe
It's nice to see our part of the country get some recognition for our culinary treasures. It's one thing for those of us who live in and love Kentucky – and elsewhere in Appalachia – to sing the praises of local food traditions, but it's always kind of nice to have that validated by others. The Bon Appétit! Bon Appalachia! map and website launched this summer will make it easier for travelers to discover some of the bounty tucked away in hill and holler. That initiative seems to have inspired a writer from D.C. to take to the back roads and byways to explore Appalachian fare for a story in The Wall Street Journal. And it was a nice story. I was troubled, though, by the headline and deck:
Skip the fried-squirrel jokes—this region could be the next big dining destination. And a multistate road trip is the way to explore it
Now, I know that the writer likely had little – if any – input on those lines. And I doubt the editor who penned them had any malice. As a freelancer, I get that you have to lure people in with provocative headlines. Frequently my own stories get the exact same treatment, leaving me cringing when the pieces run. That's the way it is. But that doesn't mean I'm ok with it.
The insertion of a (Yes) in front of Culinary Road Trip Through Appalachia tells us – the reader – that you – the publication – know we're going to find it shocking that someone would consider Appalachia as a place prone to culinary delights. It tells us that even though it seems unlikely that you'll find anything good to eat, well you're cool enough to venture here to make “discoveries” anyway. The thing is, all it really does is sound condescending. And it doesn't get better with the next line: “Skip the fried-squirrel jokes—this region could be the next big dining destination.”
Wait – eating squirrel is a joke? I didn't get the memo! I got seven kinds of fired up at this jab at all of us uncouth squirrel-chowing folks in Appalachia, but after cooling down a bit I wondered if it is, in fact, a joke. I haven't had it myself since I was a kid (in Ohio) after all. Luckily most of my friends make their living in the food world, so I turned to them to ask for squirrel recipes, not divulging that what I really wanted to know was if they'd scoff.
The replies came flying in, the first two from Louisville chefs who've cooked at the James Beard house in New York. Bobby Benjamin, formerly chef at Kentucky's only five-diamond restaurant, led with his recollection of braised squirrel as a kid in Rhode Island. “I would love to do that all over again,” he said.
Dallas McGarity, chef and partner at a fine dining Louisville restaurant reminisced about his grandmother's fried squirrel covered in rabbit gravy and caramelized onions over white rice down in the low country of South Carolina.
Ryan Rogers, the French Culinary Institute-trained chef of a wildly popular BBQ place weighed in with his choice method: Braised with figs, Armagnac, coffee, and black walnuts.
From over in Eastern Kentucky, Aaron Brouwer, who runs a cafe in the Red River Gorge featuring local and organic foods, I got this advice: “I've skinned them and halved them like a chicken and grilled them. I think my favorite way is braising a few and only to the point that the meat is fork tender but still holding to the bone.” Aaron prefers young, female, grey squirrels. “If you accidentally shoot an old, male fox squirrel, good luck enjoying that,” he warned.
By now I was craving squirrel.
Friends and family contributed, too, many with memories of family hunting or cooking squirrel. My mom unearthed a treasure – a 1976 book of old recipes in a book her dad's cousin, Alice Eller Coffey, compiled as a fundraiser for their Jabez church. Sadly the cover is long gone, so I don't have the name of the book, but contained among instructions for lye soap, washing fluid, preserving eggs, churning butter, groundhog, poke greens, balsam bitters, liniment, metheglin (spiced mead), sassafras tea, persimmon beer and dandelion wine were several recipes for our little friend the squirrel. Think fried squirrel, squirrel stew, and Brunswick stew featuring squirrel (with instructions noting that if your menfolk fail to bag the game there's always chicken). I called my mom immediately.
She remembered well the first time she – unknowingly – had squirrel, at her grandmother's house. “I lapped up a big plate of it and asked for more chicken and dumplings. Everybody laughed,” she said, “but that's exactly what it tasted like.” And while I like to think I'm an adventurous eater – fried worms! crickets! lamb balls! – my great-grandma wins hands down. “She loved the brains,” my mom said. “She'd crack the head open and suck them out.”
And then she reminded of the time I had squirrel. A dim memory lurked but I thought I'd either imagined it or maybe my dad had fed me the story later, as a joke. But nope, turns out it was true. Married heartrendingly young, my parents were flat poor raising an infant and a five-year old me back at the end of the 1970s. One night on the way home from work, my dad ran over a squirrel, my mom explained. He brought it home, skinned it, and with my mom at work and his kitchen knowledge extending only to making spaghetti, called my mom's mom for cooking instructions. She walked him through how to fry it.
That night I sat down to fried, road-kill squirrel for dinner.
Much of the world's best food can trace its origins back to times of desperation and need. As luxe as something like duck confit might seem now, at one time it was just an example of how to keep food preserved for leaner times without refrigeration. Squirrel, not possessing a French pedigree, lacks gourmet appeal.
But maybe it's time to change that. Bacon wasn't always the hedonistic delight and marketing engine it is now. Offal is cool thanks to the Bourdains of the world (my great-grandma was ahead of you there, Tony). Why not make squirrel the new lard? I'm picturing burly chefs tattooed with squirrel butchery diagrams; special squirrel-devoted issues of food magazines, #EverythingIsBetterWithSquirrel trending on Twitter; fried squirrel throwdowns on television; and fistfights at Whole Foods when they stock the meat counter with local, tree-raised squirrel.
Then again, maybe let's not. Some things might be better left as they are. As long as it's relegated to a punch line to beef up headlines, there's more for you and me. Now then, who's cooking squirrel tonight?
Fried Squirrel recipe
From a 1976 collection in a Jabez, Kentucky church cookbook compiled by Alice Eller Coffey
Soak in salt water several hours.
Cut into serving pieces.
Roll in flour seasoned with pepper.
Place in skillet with hot fat. Fry until tender and golden brown (from 20-30 minutes).
If your squirrel is tough you can stew it and add dumplings the same as you would chicken.