Squirrels, rabbits and other world events

This mural is on the wall of a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. / Photo by Jonathan Levy for AFR

A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at my local Legion Post saloon. OK, it was around noon and the only ‘whooping’ came from the guy who just hit for three hundred bucks on the scratch-off ticket lottery machine. He bought drinks for the house, all five guys.

This interlude of sudden largess interrupted a discussion of the merits of rabbit versus squirrel for dinner.

Conversations on wild fish, fowl and game are regularly mixed with chatter about football, NASCAR and how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. There are serious hunters, fresh and saltwater fishermen who frequent the joint. And guys who couldn’t slap together a decent peanut butter and jelly sandwich are the first to extol the merits of their recipe for hog jowls.

An Algonquin Round Table discourse it ain’t, save perhaps the hand basket part. The bon mots traded are of the extreme salty variety; even Dorothy Parker would blush. Which is a shaky segue to how much salt you have to add to a boiling muskrat to draw out the blood.

That’s where the bar talk went until we circled back to rabbits and squirrels as the culinary choice du jour for supper, which we plain folk call it instead of “dinner.” I never saw a British movie where the butler announces “supper” is served.

I had a newspaper friend whose wife and family lived on raised rabbits during hard times. She never wanted to see one on her plate again.

We hunted rabbits with beagles in Pennsylvania back in my youth and they went into the cook pot. But I’m a pheasant hunter for the past 30 years and was blessed with two fine Brittany Spaniels, now gone, and chasing rabbits was verboten. I buy a rabbit on occasion from the local Amish farmers’ market. Tastes like chicken, but it’s about six bucks or more a pound.

I’ve yet to see squirrel behind the meat cases, probably has something to do with pesky legal rules.

So when I have a hankering for squirrel pot pie, allegedly a favorite of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson and Jefferson Davis, I head up to the woods of Pennsylvania with my trusty .22 Henry and pot a few, if I can shoot straight. These critters are small targets and are relatively easy to bag with a shotgun, but it’s not as sporting as the .22. Besides, that’s the way I hunted the wily bushytails as a kid, and a single projectile doesn’t mess up as much meat.

The only problem with squirrels as a potential meal is that it requires removing the skin. I can eat skin fried on fish fillets, but a furry pot pie? Not happening.

Google “how to skin a squirrel” on You Tube and you’ll find an easy and clean way as well as a guy who pretty much makes a mess of it.

I swear I can skin a whitetail deer (and I did just that this season after I hung it from a pine limb at my cabin) in less time than I can skin a limit of squirrels. These days I just take the hindquarters, thigh meat and leave the rest to the ‘coons and foxes.

Squirrel pie is no big deal to prepare, and great on the table for hoary winter nights when the wind howls and you put on a coat to fetch more wood for the fireplace.

In the old days, a proper squirrel pot pie took some doing. It involved cooking the meat slowly with whatever your taste buds craved – garlic, basil, moonshine.

Today, I get a stock going then take out the slow cooker (aka Crock-Pot). I love slow cookers. I believe you can take an old hunting boot, toss in some fresh carrots, onions, mushrooms and gravy and after seven hours you’ll have a boot you can cut with a plastic fork.

So I toss the squirrel into the crock pot, add the stock, gravy, a dash of marsala and let it simmer. It’s done when it peels off the bone. Then you use the meat, cut up of course, to fit however many squirrel pies you want to make.

You can go really commando and make piecrust from scratch, use the carrots, peas and corn from your garden and concoct homemade gravy. Let me know when you do this so I can visit you on the Little House on the Prairie.

You have the squirrel meat that was garnered on the up and up. Then you buy canned peas, carrots, corn kernels and gravy and Pillsbury pie crusts.

I like to make little pot pies, using 16- or 20-ounce round containers.

I layer squirrel meat, veggies, gravy, use top and bottom crusts and put them in the oven, with air vents in the top crusts, at whatever temperature the Pillsbury people suggest.

The toughest part of the drill for newfound fans of wild game is going forth to harvest it.

“Tree rats” are not the species of critters you want as ingredients for your pot pie. You’re looking for woodland wanderers feeding on nature’s mast crop. That means a hunting license or a good friend willing to share his harvest.

I mentioned to my neighbor at my hunting camp in Pennsylvania that squirrel pot pie was a tough sell back home to many house party guests.

“Tell them they don’t know what they’re missing,” he said but paused and added, “Never mind, more pot pie for me.”

–By Rick Methot








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One Response to Squirrels, rabbits and other world events

  1. Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
    Domenica Marchetti January 7, 2013 at 8:04 am #

    Rick, I loved this essay ~ but I still feel squeamish about squirrel. In my Italian family I ate rabbit occasionally when I was growing up. I didn’t particularly like it, but in recent years I’ve had some delicious rabbit dishes while traveling in Italy: larded with pancetta and roasted (seasoned with plenty of rosemary), ragu’ over pappardelle etc. To me it tastes less like chicken and more like a cross between turkey and pork. At least the ones in Italy do. I’m curious about squirrel but I’m not sure I’d be able to overcome my aversion to the idea.