By Elka Karl
Forget apple pie: Squirrel may win the title as the most American of dishes. Squirrel sustained this country’s earliest settlers and was commonly found on the 19th century menus of the grandest of hotels — even the White House. President William Henry Harrison listed Squirrel Burgoo — a thick meat and vegetable stew — as one of his favorite foods, while famously finicky eater James Garfield gave squirrel soup his highest praise.
Up until 1975, The Joy of Cooking included an illustration and description of proper squirrel skinning within its pages. But in the past four decades, squirrel cuisine has dwindled to a rarity, even among hunting families. While eating gray squirrel was a staple of this writer’s childhood diet, when I ate pulled barbecue squirrel five years ago at a Christmas Eve dinner, it was more of a novelty than a menu staple. And that’s unfortunate.
The Ultimate Ethical Meat?
Locavores, listen up: if you want to eat non-GMO, antiobiotic- and hormone-free, lean, free range, local, healthy meat, you need to look up. Limb chicken, as squirrels are affectionately known in many hunting circles, is arguably better than grassfed beef or organic pork when it comes to planetary health.
This isn’t to suggest that squirrels should be eaten instead of beef, but rather in tandem. In fact, many small beef and dairy farms are ideally positioned to create the perfect squirrel habitat. Large ruminants, moving through hardwood forests, graze and trample undergrowth, creating the type of park-like habitat ideally suited to squirrel populations. So enjoy your free range hamburger, but try it with a side of squirrel pie.
How does it taste, you ask? Would it be trite to say it tastes like chicken? Because it does taste a bit like chicken: the darkest of juicy, dark thigh meat, with some nuttiness and gamey flavors added to the mix. It’s good. Believe me: I wouldn’t be telling you to eat it if it wasn’t delicious.
The Littlest Prey
Even though their menu popularity may be dwindling, squirrels are the most popular small game quarry with 1.7 million hunters stalking squirrels, according to the 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation.
If we’re talking about hunting urban squirrels (though I’ll take an acorn-fattened squirrel over a trash-can-and-peanuts-fattened squirrel any day of the week), there are legal issues that probably make it more hassle than it’s worth. Hunting a country squirrel has less restrictions, but it’s certainly no breeze. A 22 rifle shot to the head is the cleanest and most humane way to dispatch one. It’s no easy shot, though — squirrels are small and wily!
Even when the shot is clean, skinning squirrel isn’t the easiest of tasks. While skilled hunters can skin a squirrel in less than two minutes, most mere mortals or weekend squirrel warriors should expect to dedicate considerably more time. For best results, use a razor sharp knife to cut the hide at the base of the tail, cutting through the tailbone between the joints and keeping the hide intact. Then step on the severed tail and hide, pull the hind legs, one in each hand, straight up. The hide should peel off the body leaving a cleanly muscled carcass.
Of course, if all of this sounds like too much for you, making friends with hunters may be your best bet. By crowdsourcing your friends and family, you will likely find yourself within a few degrees of separation from a squirrel hunter willing to share game or even teach you the ropes.
After stalking, hunting, and skinning your squirrels, a great recipe is needed to show off your ingredients. And while simplicity has its time and place, for the ultimate showcase of your quarry, we suggest something fancier. Try chef Daniel Nelson’s recipe for Rack of Squirrel á la Forestiere, reprinted from Wild Gourmet: Naturally Healthy Game, Fish and Fowl Recipes for Everyday Chefs. (Pick up a copy for your favorite game-eating home chef, stat. This book is full of amazing recipes for venison, duck, rabbit, squirrel and more.)