This post is part of Protein Angst, a series on the environmental and nutritional complexities of high-protein foods. Our goal is to publish a range of perspectives on these very heated topics. Add your feedback and story suggestions here.
There are people around who remember the days when squirrel was a more commonly served meat on the American table than chicken. The Kentucky Long Rifle, with its long barrel and small caliber, was designed for squirrel hunting (the smaller the caliber, the more squirrel left to take home after shooting one.)
The ideal shot was aimed not at the squirrel, but at the tree branch directly below it, so that the animal would be killed by the concussion of the bullet instead of the bullet itself. Historians say that this is what won the Revolutionary war; even the most highly trained British soldiers were no match for squirrel killers trained by hunger.
Until recent decades, Americans ate squirrel meat because it was cheap, plentiful, and there, according to Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. Domesticated animals may have been easier to catch, but, in the days before the industrialization of farming, they were expensive to raise and feed. “When Herbert Hoover promised a chicken in every pot, that was a big deal,” Shaw adds. The first edition of The Joy of Cooking, published in 1931, was heavy on the squirrel. As it moved into later and later editions, Hoover’s promise was fulfilled (by other politicians, if not Hoover himself) and chicken gradually replaced squirrel.
Shaw shot his first squirrel when he was working as a reporter for a daily paper in Minnesota. He’d made it through an underpaid stint as a cub reporter in Long Island by catching and eating his own fish. When he arrived in Minnesota, though, he could not help but take note of the squirrels. The state has such a vibrant squirrel scene that a cottage industry has grown up around trapping and removing ones that have moved into people’s homes. Shaw bought a few books about squirrel hunting off the internet, applied for a license to hunt them, and got to it.
In doing so, he placed himself on the vanguard of the re-squirreling of the American diet. Squirrel-eating has been trendy in Great Britain for half a decade now — spurred by a nationalistic fervor to kill as many as possible of the invasive American gray squirrel, which is outcompeting the domestic red squirrel (the latter had the good fortune to star in a Beatrix Potter book, one of the best ways to cement your status as charismatic megafauna).
In America, though, a surge in the deer population, especially east of the Rockies, has led most hunters to drift towards larger prey. “Our farming practices are ideal for whitetail,” says Shaw, who says that the whitetail in particular is becoming so habituated to humans that it is verging on domestication. “So are subdivisions.”
Squirrel meat may have its charms but hunting deer appeals to people on a primal level, says Shaw. “If you look at human evolution, people think that humans developed skills like running, big brains, and motor skills to hunt large animals. We’ve been hunting deer since before we were fully human.” That, says Shaw, and “if little Susie’s first animal is a whitetail deer that makes a hell of a better picture.”
The shift has left the squirrel hunting to the immigrant populations like the Hmong, who hunt squirrels in America because they’re the closest thing to the ones they hunted in the mountains of Southeast Asia. And it’s left them to people like Shaw — idealists who believe that, if you’re going to eat meat, it’s more noble (and thrifty) to kill whatever protein happens to be closest to home.
It’s hard to imagine more sustainable local game — squirrels are abundant, far from endangered, and don’t even require refrigeration the way that big game does. The standard rule of thumb is that one squirrel = enough meat for one dinner for one person. The squirrel is road food — the kind of prey that fed cross-country hikers, in the days before MRE and freeze-dried lentils. Squirrel is like the drive-through cheeseburger of the forest — albeit a cheeseburger that needs to be gutted first.
They’re also delicious, mostly because they eat nuts. “Rabbits — they’re grass eaters. The flavor is milder. Squirrels taste like something,” says Shaw. “It’s gamey in a good way.”
Biologically speaking, the squirrel family is an old one. According to the fossil record, it originated in North America around 36 million years ago, and then proceeded to scuttle across land bridges and conjoined continents to settle in Eurasia, Africa, and North and South America. That’s an impressive amount of territory to settle without human assistance, especially over millions of years of significant climate fluctuations. In other words: Squirrels are badasses.
Some parts of the United States never lost their taste for squirrel. In the mid-’90s, about 11 people in Kentucky came down with a disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob. The cases temporarily illuminated a still ardent regional love of squirrel brains — one that cut across all levels of society.
“Someone comes by the house with just the head of a squirrel,” Erick Weisman told The New York Times back in 1997, describing the scene. Weisman is clinical director of the Neurobehavioral Institute, where the patients were treated. The gift giver, Weisman continued, gave it to the matriarch of the family, who “shaved the fur off the top of the head and fried the head whole. The skull was cracked open at the dinner table and the brains were sucked out.” Alternately, he added, the brains were often scrambled with white gravy, or eggs.
Squirrel brains aren’t the only thing that most hunters avoid. Ground squirrels — like prairie dogs, and chipmunks — can carry the Bubonic Plague. “And that’s not,” says Shaw, “good eatin’.”
What does the future hold for squirrel eating? On Shaw’s book tour this autumn, he was pleasantly surprised to find that squirrel eating was still alive and well in the South. And squirrel was not the only rodent either to persist as a regional delicacy. In Delaware and Maryland, people wanted to talk muskrat, so much so that he thought he was being set up, until he read that it was for sale at local markets. He hasn’t caught much squirrel himself since moving to northern California — the squirrels aren’t as plentiful but the ducks are many. Still, once or twice a year, he’ll catch one for nostalgia’s sake. He cooks it in a simple braise, with white wine and chicken broth.
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