What is it about a food that causes us to either love it or hate it? While there are simplistic and obvious answers, such as an individual not enjoying the taste of a given food or finding its texture unappealing, other answers are more complex. Some of these complexities revolve around personal and societal taboos, aversions, and uncertainties, while others are the domain of economic and affluence factors. Another group of answers falls into the category of forgotten tradition and, frankly, a lack of care. Take squirrel, for example.
Why don’t more people eat it?
Plenty of people eat and enjoy its relative, rabbit. Rabbit is available at nearly every grocery store I’ve ever been in. So, I ask again, why don’t we eat (more) squirrel? Factors relating to affluence, the economics tied to the industrial and green revolutions, and a coerced regulatory aversion all contributed to the collective disavowal of eating squirrel in America.
Rebecca Rupp said it best in a National Geographic article published in 2016 about eating squirrel: “It was considered a dish for backwoods hicks.” This is a damn shame. Squirrel is a free-roaming, forage-fed animal that is hardy, reproduces readily, and adapts well to virtually any environment it inhabits. With all the hoopla and emphasis many of us put around eating local, organic, free-range, and grass-fed foods, we should be doing more than buying solely based on a marketing label. We should be eating seasonally, and focusing on naturally abundant foods that have adapted to the environment, which we’ve changed so drastically. Squirrel (and pigeon, but that is another story) is the food that fits this construct.
There is a storied history of eating squirrel in the United States. Brunswick stew, a delicious and notorious American invention that traditionally featured squirrel as its core protein, has been enjoyed here since—depending on whom you ask—either the 1820s or 1890s. There’s also plenty of evidence to place it much further back in history by connecting it to the food traditions of various Native American tribes.
The Joy of Cooking had a section devoted to using squirrel in our kitchens for over 60 years until it was removed in the 1990s, as did Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book. Many highly regarded and award-winning chefs, such as my friend and Cleveland chef Jonathon Sawyer, have served squirrel. And let’s not overlook the nearly 2 million small game hunters and their families who enjoy squirrel for its culinary versatility. It can be smoked, roasted, ground, braised, and even turned into fantastic charcuterie.
Squirrel was so popular in America during our first 100 years as a country that both presidents William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield had it featured on menus at the White House. Harrison was quoted as stating that Squirrel Burgoo, a dish similar to Brunswick stew, was among his favorite foods, while Garfield enjoyed squirrel soup. Harrison spent many years on his farm in Ohio, which at that time was the frontier, and most likely ate squirrel frequently. All one has to do is scatter some dried corn on the ground and sit. Within a few minutes, a fresh dinner could be procured. Artemas Ward wrote of squirrel in the 1911 edition of The Grocer’s Encyclopedia, stating that it is “esteemed by many people as among the most desirable of small game animals, all varieties—black, red, grey, etc.—being equally acceptable.”
Further reflection on the diets of Americans during this period gives us great insight into how we ate. Two of our modern favorites, chicken and beef, were hardly eaten. Why eat the animal for one meal when its eggs and milk could provide many meals? It wasn’t until the 1920s that chicken farmers produced meat for our growing appetites. The reality is that for the majority of our history wild game—squirrel being one of the foremost—was what made up the meat in “meat and potatoes” for most Americans. Currently, there is a wave of interest in the eating of squirrel in the United Kingdom. It has been billed as the “ultimate ethical meal,” according to the headline of a story that published in The Guardian in 2008. In the U.K., eating squirrel has become so popular that wild game butcher shops (Yes, they have those there! I’m ridiculously envious.) can’t keep it in stock. Squirrel simply sells out the moment it is put into the meat case. At an average of £3.50 ($4.90) for a whole squirrel, it’s easy to see why this delicious meat sells so quickly. Living in Ohio, however, you’ll either have to hunt your own or ask a friend who hunts to get you some squirrel. We aren’t as fortunate as the British, for we don’t have wild game meat markets in America.
I don’t feel the need to emphasize how abundant squirrel is. You can simply look out your window as you read this, and chances are one of these undervalued and delicious creatures is likely within view. I am, however, compelled to urge you to think about the choices you make when it comes to food. Are you simply eating what your grocer wants to sell you, or are you eating foods that can make a difference economically and environmentally?