James Werrell

January 9, 2009

What am I going to do with this thing?

I have a dilemma. I have a squirrel in my house.

No, it's not what you think. He's not galloping around in the attic or trying to chew his way through our wiring system.

He's in the freezer. Headless, gutless, skinless, frozen.

My son brought me the squirrel, making me promise I wouldn't eat it without him. No problem there. I just hope there's enough for both of us.

I have never eaten squirrel (that I know of), and I'm not reluctant to try it. My wife, however, said she is not interested.

She is resistant to eating anything cute or anything in the rodent family.

I point out to her that people have been eating squirrels since we lived in caves. Also, squirrels eat nothing but nuts, so they must taste good.

But she isn't budging. I, on the other hand, am a little more omnivorous. If millions of people eat squirrel meat on a regular basis, why shouldn't I give it a try?

Any squeamishness about eating squirrel must seem singularly weird to the thousands of hunters who enjoy squirrel stew and other squirrel delicacies all the time. I understand, for example, that the original recipe for Brunswick stew called for squirrel meat.

According to an article my daughter recently sent me, squirrel also is the hot new dish in England. The New York Times story noted that squirrel is selling in farmers' markets, pubs and even elegant restaurants "as fast as gamekeepers and hunters can bring it in."

Part of this newfound popularity is the result of gustatory curiosity. Another part derives from the traditional English fondness for animals -- live ones, that is.

It might seem contradictory to eat squirrels because you love them, but there is a good explanation: North American gray squirrels, the ones in our backyards and attics, are crowding out the native British red squirrels, the cute ones with the tufted ears featured in Beatrix Potter books.

The larger grays take over the reds' habitat and, worse, spread a virus called squirrel parapox, which is harmless to humans and gray squirrels but deadly to the red squirrels. So, in 2006, a "Save Our Squirrels" campaign was launched to rescue the British reds.

The campaign also adopted the ingenious tactic of urging Britons to eat gray squirrels. The motto: "Save a red, eat a gray!"

British chefs naturally picked up on the idea and began featuring squirrel on the menu. One recipe calls for squirrel braised with ham hock, mushrooms, shallots and fresh herbs.

A recipe like that, of course, could make a boiled shoe taste good. There is, however, a reason why we don't ordinarily see squirrel in the meat section of the grocery store.

Chefs and butchers talk about the difficulty of skinning squirrels and of getting meat off the bone. Taste allegedly ranges from something like dark turkey meat to oily and gamy wild thing.

My dilemma is how to cook my squirrel so I can actually tell what it tastes like. I figure the recipe should be something simple, a basic stew with corn and potatoes in chicken stock, salt and pepper, maybe some rosemary. And bacon, which makes anything taste better.

And when everything is nice and tender, throw out the squirrel and chow down ... naw, just kidding, I really am going to eat this squirrel. But I certainly am not going to do it alone.

Feeling hungry, son?

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