Thursday, March 31, 2011

Squirrel, It's What's for Dinner

On Monday night, I happened to catch the tail end (pun intended) of Anthony Bourdain skinning a squirrel on his Travel Channel show, No Reservations. If you want to see the squirrel scene, click here. Note, this is not for the squeamish! The episode was focused on the Ozark Mountains, and was really fascinating, despite a good deal of animal killing – squirrels, raccoons and ducks, to name a few. They like their hunting in the Ozarks. And it makes sense given the rugged terrain and long tradition of living off the land. Tony enjoyed squirrel pot pie with a family, ate a roasted raccoon with a pack of coon hunters (including a few who had never eaten it before) and taught the duck hunters how to cook their prized mallard.

The show inspired me to disclose a deep-held secret. (Well, it’s no secret for those who grew up with me.) Here it is -- I’m part redneck. And by redneck, I don’t mean “trashy,” but rather “country.” I come from good stock – hard working, church-going folks whose necks were likely sunburned as they picked cotton, chopped wood and tended to vegetable gardens. Except for my Granny whose father owned a chicken hatchery and store, all of my grandparents grew up on farms. They also grew up during the Great Depression when times were particularly hard. Meat was a luxury item and certainly not something they expected to see on the table every night. They ate a lot of beans, cornbread, biscuits and fresh vegetables from the garden. And everyone, even my Granny who lived in "downtown" Coal Mountain, had a garden and some yard chickens. Before the age of convenience foods, it was very much a do-it-yourself culture.

Proof of my redneck childhood. (1980s Southern Gothic)
My dad’s people are from northern Gwinnett County near Buford. They can trace their roots back five generations – way back before Gwinnett was a suburban county of Atlanta. My grandmother Ovice, who just passed away last year at the age of 90, was born to sharecroppers and moved every few years to work someone else’s patch of land. Although she was one of the smartest women I ever knew, she only had a 7th grade education because the bus to the high school didn’t come out to where she lived. Papa had a 5th grade education because, as the oldest, he was needed to work at home. His daddy had a store, too, and there were acres upon acres of land that needed tending to. Even when my 62-year-old dad was growing up, Buford was still very much the country. They didn’t even have an indoor bathroom until he was in elementary school. And it’s not like they were indigent – it’s just how most everyone, except for the “town folks,” lived.

Sporting his Davy Crockett coon skin hat, Daddy used to roam the woods near where the Mall of Georgia is today, hunting for squirrels, rabbits, quail and other small game. He brought it home, skinned it and they ate it. Yes, my daddy ate squirrel. Grandmama usually fried it or made it into dumplings. When he was in 8th grade and learned in his biology class that squirrels were part of the rodent family (a.k.a. rats), he came home and broke the news to Grandmama. “Don’t you ever bring another one of those things in this house!” she scolded. And he didn’t. I guess he didn’t learn that rabbits were rodents, because they kept eating those. Funny how they are not met with such great disgust as the lowly squirrel!

Aren't I cute? - Gray Squirrel (image from
Flash forward to 1995 or so, long after my dad had grown up, gotten an office job and abandoned his hunting ways. I was home from college and my dad and brothers were eating lunch and watching squirrels frolic in the trees out back. I don’t remember a whole lot about it because I was so mortified, but somehow, I think my brothers dared him to shoot a squirrel and cook it. Not one to stand down from a challenge, he got his shotgun, took aim and shot a squirrel down from a tree. He got a sharp knife and proceeded to skin and dress it on the front porch. Like Grandmama, my mama didn’t want that thing in her house and she wasn’t about to cook it for him. He sat up a hot plate outside and cooked it in a little oil. Just to prove a point, Daddy tasted it. “Tastes like chicken,” he said proudly. I don’t even think my brothers tried it. Like I said, my memory is foggy because I think I must have been hiding somewhere. I did not watch the butchering and certainly did not taste it! However, I knew I was witnessing a really good story to tell one day.

We still laugh about the squirrel eating episode, though I still do feel a little sorry for that squirrel. I would not make a very good hunter. But, if people are going to hunt for sport, I’d prefer they actually do something useful with the animal. If there ever is a major food shortage or a zombie apocalypse, people like my dad will be in pretty good shape. Like Anthony Bourdain later tweeted, “Anyone who can skin, gut and cook squirrel should be proud. That's called useful in a pinch.”

While I’m not going cook a squirrel or share pictures from my latest squirrel creation, I looked through my cookbook collection and actually found a couple of recipes for squirrel to share with you (just in case you feel so inspired).

Squirrel Stew

2 squirrels, cut into pieces
1 large onion sliced
Pepper to taste
2 tbsp. butter
1 lb. stewed tomatoes
Pepper to Taste

Melt butter in saucepan over medium flame. Add onion and cook until transparent. Add tomatoes, simmer 5 minutes with the onion. Add squirrel and enough boiling water to cover. Season with salt and pepper, continue to cook until the meat is tender (at least one hour). Thicken with flour. This is also very good with rabbit.

From Family Favorites: Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, Meridian, Mississippi. Recipe by Eula Maude Britt. (This cookbook actually belongs to my friend Niki whose recent post about cooking without electricity pairs nicely with this post!)

Fried Squirrel and Gravy

2-3 dressed squirrels
2-3 cups flour (set 1-2 tbsp. aside for gravy)
2-3 cups milk
Oil/bacon fat

Rinse squirrel in cold water. Salt and pepper pieces and coat with flour. Heat about a half inch of oil/bacon fat in a cast iron skillet. Carefully drop pieces into hot oil, cover and let cook about 5 minutes on each side. Don’t overcook them. Then, put fired pieces in the top of a two-compartment steamer and bring to a boil. Steam for 25-30 minutes until tender. While the squirrel is steaming, pour off all but 3-4 tbsp. of the oil used to fry them. Mix the flour and milk with a whisk to break up lumps; heat the remaining oil and add milk/flour mixture. Stir until thickened. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve gravy over fried/steamed squirrel with fresh baked baking powder biscuits.

From My CDC Cookbook. (I love this cookbook that my husband was given when he first started working for the Centers for Disease Control. It is an employee cookbook with recipes from all over the world – this one was submitted by Ralph Cordell of Tennessee. He also smartly warns in a side note that urban squirrels should probably not be eaten because they tend to eat lead flashing around chimneys and vent pipes. If you’re going to go for squirrel, make it a country squirrel!)

So, there you go. Would you eat squirrel? Maybe you have some squirrel eating memories (or confessions) yourself. Or, perhaps you’re so disgusted by this post that you haven’t even read this far. I’d love to hear from you!


  1. I've been looking for that cookbook! Glad to know it wasn't lost in the move. What a fun post - I too was feeling a certain kinship with those Ozark folks the other night. I never personally experienced squirrel, but I know members of my immediate family who have.

  2. I hate to admit it, but we have squirrel in our freezer right now. I don't eat it, but Van will! Enjoyed the article.

  3. Wow, Rachel. . . Our histories are similar. Most of my family has been in Gwinnett & Walton counties since the 1700s. The latecomers arrived during the Cherokee land lotteries of the early part of the 1800s. Farmers and sharecroppers? Definitely. Our kinfolks likely knew one another. The primary difference that I see is that I actually ate squirrel as a kid. It wasn't an uncommon meal! Squirrel 'n' dumplins or fried, it's really not that bad. Just don't think about them being tree rats!

  4. Thanks, all!
    @Life, That cookbook is awesome. There's also a recipe for "Dove Jambalaya" in there. I will bring it to you next week.
    @Brenda, I love that Van is a squirrel eater. Somehow that doesn't surprise me! :)
    @Amber, We may be related somewhere way back! I hear squirrel n' dumplings are quite tasty. I would probably try it (but I'm not cooking it)! @Briarrose, Thanks so much for stopping by! I'm enjoying your blog!

  5. Rachel, I just found your blog, and I love it! I've been reading past entries, and I especially loved this one about the squirrels. Reading it made me very homesick for your family.