Day 7: Squirrel – Celebrate American Food History

They’re puckish, furry, skittish, with tiny wiggly noses. And darn good eating, according to a chorus of voices in old, as well as modern, American cookbooks.

What are they?

Why, squirrels of course.

Most people know of squirrel meat in traditional Brunswick Stew or Kentucky Burgoo. Many food writers have written on these two quintessential American game-rich stews, so aside from stating the obvious – that Brunswick Stew probably traces its origins to Native Americans who cooked a very similar dish and burgoo once referred to a plate of oatmeal served to English sailors – let’s just say that the two are kissing cousins and leave it at that.  A squirrel or two would definitely add a bit of so-called authenticity, given that until recently Americans lived a more rural life and hunting small game played a large role in supplying the table and the pantry.

In her cookbook, The Virginia House-wife (1824) Mrs. Randolph dropped a hint at the end of her Hare Soup that cooks could substitute squirrel for hare. A recipe for “Barbecued Squirrel” appeared in Marion Cabell Tyree’s Housekeeping in Old Virginia (1879):

To Barbecue Squirrel.

Put some slices of fat bacon in an oven. Lay the squirrels on them and lay two slices of bacon on the top. Put them in the oven and let them cook until done. Lay them on a dish and set near the fire. Take out the bacon, sprinkle one spoonful of flour in the gravy and let it brown. Then pour in one teacup of water, one tablespoonful of butter, and some tomato or walnut catsup. Let it cool, and then pour it over the squirrel.

But it’s “Smothered Squirrel” that’s risen to the top of the squirrel classics. “Smothered” simply means covering the meat in a rich brown gravy and cooking out the toughness. As Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote in Cross Creek Cookery (1942),when the cook is uncertain about the age of the animal in question, smothering is safe bet. I wondered how, barring a birth certificate, it might be possible to tell the age of a squirrel using the eyeball test, mine not the squirrel’s. And a dip into Joseph E. Dabney’s Smokehouse Ham, Spoonbread, & Scuppernong Wine (1998) answered my question. Right there, on page 237, Dabney writes:

“Fixing squirrel dumplings, Gary-Davis-style, is an art. First you should “grade” your squirrels into “fryers” and “boilers” in this manner: After you have skinned the squirrels, but before cutting them up, place a knife blade flat on the leg piece and see if the bone will bend. If so, keep it as a young “fryer” squirrel, and roll it in seasoned flour for “fried squirrel and gravy.” Squirrels that fail the leg-bending test are “boiler” or dumpling squirrels.”

Now the Gary Davis in question here lived in Fannin County, Georgia; he worked as conservation ranger in the Chattahoochee National Forest. His dumplings are the type that aren’t going to exactly blossom like roses in the squirrel gravy, being made of self-rising flour, lard, black pepper, and ice water. Made just like biscuits, these dumplings are cut into strips three inches long and three-fourths of inch thick. A real treat for Davis’s friends, just as this dish – “squirrel dumplings” – became a favorite culinary memory of both whites and black slaves in the antebellum period.  Sam Bowers Hilliard suggested that squirrel meat might not have been as plentiful in slave tables “since it usually was obtained with firearms. (Hog Meat and Hoecake, 1972, p. 79). Archaeological evidence points to squirrel bones found around slave cabins, and it could be that slaves were able to trap squirrels. Whatever the case, stew and dumplings can be traced to early English and other European meat stews cooked with blobs of dough.

Squirrels (Eichhorn) often ended up in Hasenpfeffer in the early American republic, when hare was unavailable. Note that hot pepper or paprika often made an appearance. Could be French, too.

So many influences. Not just one, but I still hold that the English swayed the pack.

But let’s go to Erma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking for the grand finale of this very brief, and not wholly detailed foray into game in American culinary history. My first copy of Joy includes the following illustration:

Squirrel diagram rs
Diagram of how to skin a squirrel, from Joy of Cooking 1964 (Photo of page 453 by C. Bertelsen)

My latest copy of Joy only includes a brief mention of squirrels as food, suggesting that any recipe for rabbit will well serve the isolated squirrel. And this is why:

“Small game animals – rabbit, squirrel, opossum porcupine, raccoon, woodchuck, beaver, armadillo, muskrat – are often the young hunter’s first quarry and as such have long been part of America’s culinary tradition. Small game remains plentiful in the United States, but as rural life with its legacy of hunting declines, so does the need to have a repertoire of recipes for these animals.” (Joy, 1997, 2006, p. 525)

Oh, there could be long and drawn-out tomes on this subject, but – for now – suffice it to say that this is not half-baked, as none of my posts are, but an attempt to raise questions, prod thoughts, and urge questioning of received wisdom.

Wiggly noses … .

Something interesting occurred to me as I re-read this post: we call the flesh of cattle “beef,” that of pigs “pork,” chickens become “poultry,” and deer equal “venison.” But then we have squirrel and its ilk, with no fancy, Frenchified words to describe their flesh … .

Note:  It’s soon to be a big, big day for Gherkins & Tomatoes – on July 28 G&T will celebrate eight (8) years (!) of writing about food and food history. Why, that’s 1,181 posts. Yes, there could – and should – have been more lots more, but we must take into account the time spent writing the mushroom book and other stuff.

To celebrate, I’ve decided to post a recipe a day until July 28, and not just any recipes. No, no quick tricks for the kitchen, no instant no-bake cheesecakes, sorry. Each day I will feature a small insight into American food history.

See the other days:

Day 1: Tuckahoe

Day 2: Oysters

Day 3: Chicken

Day 4: Corn

Day 5: Tomatoes

Day 6: Beef