I eat squirrels.
I thought I would just get that out there, since saying so tends to irk people- and not just vegetarians or animal activists. Even people who regularly consume meat without thinking twice have a strong automatic reaction against eating cute, fluffy-tailed critters. Especially the ones that are often the only wildlife most urban dwellers ever get to see.
As a food source, squirrels are a locavore's dream: abundant, sustainable, free-range. The ultimate local protein. I mean, if you live in the city, what other form of wild game can you catch in your own backyard? (Other than rats, of course, but I'm saving that one for the apocalypse.) Urban squirrels will eat human food-not to mention what feels like every single tomato from my garden-when they encounter it, but they prefer their natural diet of nuts, seeds, fruits, flowers, shoots, even fungi and insects. These are all abundantly available in Baltimore's parks and even many neighborhoods. Not to mention a much better diet than that consumed by the factory-farmed animals supplying the supermarket meat department.
It might seem sort of shocking now to talk about eating squirrel, but check out older editions of The Joy of Cooking or your grandma's recipe collection and you'll find abundant information for cooking "chicken of the trees."
Among animal-protein options, squirrel is a decent nutritional choice. A 100-gram serving of squirrel has 21 grams of protein-nearly half the daily recommended amount-and is low in fat and high in iron. (It is, alas, also relatively high in cholesterol.) Before it fell from modern favor, squirrel was a common dinner option-in part because they're everywhere, in abundant numbers. It's a prey species, resiliently repopulating itself through each mated pair churning out four to eight young each year, 80 percent of which don't make it past their first year due to predation. In other words, something's going to eat a squirrel, so it might as well be us.
Squirrel-eatin' is also good for the environment. The whole wild, free-range meat aspect means it's rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids-compounds conspicuously lacking in factory-farmed meat. To get these EFAs into our bodies in this age of chemically dependent agriculture, our food animals are fed ground-up fish to boost omega-3 content, and humans pop fish oil capsules-a major problem for the Chesapeake. Menhaden, a small oily fish that is the cornerstone of the bay's ecological web, have been systematically overfished for the past decade. They are vacuumed up from the bay by gigantic fishing boats and rendered into that fish oil and animal feed to the tune of 80,000 tons each year. Even the Chesapeake Bay Foundation warns that the menhaden population is now the lowest ever recorded and "without this little unsung hero, the bay's ecosystem would likely collapse." So, save the bay-eat a squirrel!
Until recently, I had eaten squirrel only a handful of times. This was mainly in Brunswick stew, where squirrel was but one of many ingredients. It was hard to appreciate the dark, rich, and complexly flavored meat when it swam among all the vegetables and seasonings, and so the squirrel population around my house remained safe. The first time I was served pan-braised squirrel on its own, however, my first thought was Holy Rocky and Bullwinkle, this is good! Followed quickly by, I have got to get some more.
The problem being: how to get some? In other countries, and even apparently some U.S. states, it's possible to buy squirrel from a butcher shop or even farmer's markets. Not so in Baltimore City or anywhere else in the state of Maryland, where it is illegal to sell wild game of any kind. That leaves getting it yourself or from someone who likes you enough to give you some for free. (Giving away game is legal.) Those holding a valid hunting license may bag six squirrels per day during the season, which runs Sept. 1 through the end of February. The folks I know who go after city squirrels use traps. Usually the humane "Havahart" style live trap, baited with peanut butter, although one intrepid eater of my acquaintance uses heavy-duty rat traps. The problem being that, while shooting squirrels in season is OK, trapping them is not ever allowed unless you get a special nuisance-abatement permit. (I don't know anyone who has ever done this.) Even if you're willing to disregard that little inconvenience of illegality, though, you still need to dispatch the live-trapped critter. I've been told the best way is by submerging them, trap and all, in a large tub of water.
Glossing over the finer points of where my most recent squirrels have come from, let's just get to the next step-dressing them. There are, of course, all kinds of instructional videos available online, but cleaning and skinning a squirrel is fairly straightforward. I experienced a moment of squeamish guilt the first time I held a dead squirrel in my hand-it was pretty cute-but the gutting was no harder than doing the same to a fish, and the skinning part was even sort of fun. (You make several strategic cuts, loosen the skin and then pull it, almost like slipping off the squirrel's jacket)..
Not that I am doing this for fun. When I hunt, killing has always been a regrettable but necessary final act. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver, though, "Living takes life." I firmly believe that anyone who eats meat should, at least once, be responsible for killing an animal that they are going to eat. And those of you who choose not to eat meat: Your hands are no cleaner. The chemicals and machinery required to produce your soybean substitutes claim abundant numbers of animal lives-and collateral bird, butterfly, and bee lives-far in excess of the mortal toll of one pasture-raised pig or cow, or wild deer. Or even, for that matter, a brace of squirrels.
Visit my blog, Baltivore, for a squirrel recipe that was given to me by an amazing Cajun cook named Mike Bienvenu, from Henderson, La.: baltivore.blogspot.com/2013/02/in-brown-gravy.html.