Venison, one of the original free-range foods
Three plump gray squirrels from an early season hunt in Lyon County had provided the main ingredient for a pot of Slate Run Squirrel Stew, which, when coupled with crusty sourdough bread and a bold red wine, yields a stunningly good meal. A non-hunting, urban-reared colleague and friend was apparently skeptical after reading an account of the hunt and the savory dish that had resulted from it.
“Hey, Gary,” he said in a slight brogue that betrayed his New York roots. “Do people really eat squirrels?”
The question was posed without a hint of sarcasm or disdain. The idea of dining on squirrel or any wild animal was simply foreign to him.
I acknowledged that, yes some people do eat squirrels.
“Have you eaten a squirrel?”
“Yes. Many times.”
He seemed genuinely puzzled and a bit disturbed.
“Isn’t it like eating a rat?”
I gave the most honest response I could muster.
“I don’t know. I’ve never eaten a rat. But no, I doubt that it’s anything like eatinga rat.”
“So they’re good to eat?”
“A lot depends on how it’s prepared, of course. But yes. Very good.”
“What other wild stuff have you eaten?”
This caused me to give pause because the list is somewhat long and varied. Some dishes were surprisingly delicious. Most were satisfying. A few were only marginally edible, but this probably resulted from improper care in the field and/or the kitchen. I am an ardent and wholesale supporter of hunting, fishing, hunters and fishermen but also hold that wild game should not be wasted. If you kill it, use it. Or provide it to someone who will.
What other wild stuff had I eaten? I offered a selected list, seeing no benefit in trying to explain having, at various times and in diverse places, munched on alligator and rattlesnake, shark and snapping turtle, goat and raccoon, grasshopper and mayflies, bear and wild hog, carp and sheepshead.
“Deer, turkey, duck, geese, elk,” I told him. “Quail and pheasant. Dove. Rabbit. Grouse. Different types of fish. Crappie. Bass. Trout. Bluegill. Sea bass. Lemon fish. Walleye. Pike. I’ve never had moose. Or muskie.”
“Muskellunge. It’s a fish.”
“And you liked all of that stuff?”
“Most of it, yeah.”
Like most folks, my friend obtains his poultry, beef and fish from the local market. I buy most of my poultry, beef and fish from the local market, too—most, but not all.Supplementing the grocery cart with wild game varies the menu and, properly prepared, enriches the dish in which it is used. Game and fish are the original organic, free-range foods.
November is fill-your-freezer-with-venison month in Kentucky. It’s when hunters across the Commonwealth put thousands of pounds of deer meat on ice. Deer season has been open since early September, but most deer are taken during the modern gun hunt, which opens Nov. 8 and runs for 16 days in counties zoned 1 and 2 and 10 days in zone 3 and 4 counties.
According to Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the Commonwealth’s deer herd is estimated at about 1 million animals. The deer hunter success rate hovers around 35 percent. Hunters will bag about 100,000 deer this month. That will roughly translate into approximately 4 million pounds of venison—an enormous amount of lean, healthy wild meat. Among hunters (and their friends and neighbors), deer have become a food resource. Many hunters also donate a deer to Hunters for the Hungry or a similar organization, which supplies venison to food banks, shelters and others in need. The growing interest in eating wild prompted the state game agency to offer a basic deer hunting and meat processing class last year (see fw.ky.gov). The program started small, but has grown as interest soared.
“Our first introduction to deer hunting and [meat] processing class filled quickly, so we scheduled some more,” said program organizer Jason Nally. “There’s a lot of interest.”
Venison isn’t the only item on the wild menu, of course. Squirrels, plentiful and fairly easy to come by, have been a wild game staple for generations. Here’s the recipe for Slate Run Squirrel Stew from Sylvia Bashline’s The Bounty of the Earth Cookbook:
Slate Run Squirrel Stew
3 squirrels, cut into serving pieces
4 tablespoons butter
2 large onions, sliced
2 large tomatoes, chopped (about 2 cups)
2 cups beef bouillon
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon tarragon
Dash of red pepper
2 carrots, sliced
2 celery stalks, chopped
1. Dredge squirrel pieces in flour and brown in butter in a Dutch oven. Add onions and sauté for a few minutes.
2. Add tomatoes, bouillon, salt, tarragon and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes. Add carrots and celery. Cover and simmer for another 40 minutes or until meat and vegetables are tender.
3. Serve with crusty bread and a bold merlot or cabernet.