Published January 22, 2012
Some consider squirrel to be the best meat in the woods. On my journey as a chef, I have come to think that it may be the best meat period. The phrase, “You are what you eat,” befits a squirrel as it does a Spanish acorn-fed pig that are prized so highly by those with means.
But when you think about it, squirrels are hoarders, and after having feasted on a grove of pecans or acorns, their meat is nutty and sweet, buttery and tender. And so a fat, nut-fed squirrel is not only better tasting than any meat in the woods, it can be even better tasting, and much more economical than that Spanish pig that sells for one hundred seventy dollars per pound.
If you were to tell that to a group of my stiletto-heeled pals on a warm Manhattan evening—which I have done—you would be met with textbook female gasps and sideways glances. Those squirrels linger around the soot-covered fire escapes of their studio apartments. Aren’t they really tree rats?
But the truth is that squirrel hunting is more American than apple pie, than Babe Ruth, than a twenty-dollar Manhattan. Whole traditions have formed around these squirrels; guns have been crafted in their honor. Few things are more intertwined with American history and tradition.
Squirrel is, in fact, one of the most popular game animals in the eastern United States.
In fact, the most recent report from the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation finds that there are 1.8 million hunters of squirrels in our country.
I didn’t grow up hunting. In fact, it didn’t occur to me that it was an important part of being human until I became a chef and was directed to slaughter turkeys for a well-known restaurant’s dinner service.
It was a terrifying notion at first, but in the end, as I did it, it made a kind of sense I could feel deep within my marrow, the kind that makes me want to be a true omnivore.
In that moment I realized that while it was remarkable to meet the food artisans who brought ingredients into these high-end restaurants I worked at, it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to take part in every part of the process, I wanted to pay the full karmic price of the meal. And so I set out to learn how to hunt.
Even as a city chef turned hunter, the popularity of the squirrel surprises me still, perhaps because I had never understood squirrel, or had never cared to until now. But as I have crossed the bridge from city-chef to hunter-chef I have discovered all of those towns, tucked-away, linked by the spines of narrow roads, where children skip school on the opening day of squirrel season.
I have learned too that more than any other kind of hunting, squirrel hunting says something about a person. It may seem from the outside that there isn’t much to a squirrel. But in pursuit of a squirrel, you learn things, such as how to follow the gentle rhythms of the woods, just as you do in pursuit of deer or on a walk in nature.
America has never been a land of rabbit eaters the way that we have been squirrel eaters—or chicken and beef eaters. We leave that to China, Italy, Spain, and France, and are instead content with our squirrel.
There is something about the squirrel that resonated with us from the beginning, that propelled us to craft special guns and seek keen dogs. We go into detail for squirrel.
A squirrel lives for six to seven years, whereas a cottontail lives for only one. The texture of squirrel meat is denser, the color grayer, and the flavor more complex because of this.
Squirrels are wanderers, sometimes ground dwelling and social, living in well-developed colonies; or sometimes tree dwelling and solitary. Squirrels persevere, hoard, and make dietary sacrifices to survive. Maybe the early pioneers saw a bit of themselves in squirrels. Or maybe these animals just tasted better.
Either way, this meat has somehow never reached our elite dinner tables. It has never gained favor with the palates of kings abroad, the way it has here among certain Americans.
I’m happy to say I have crossed over and become one of those Americans. Eating squirrel that I’ve harvested with my own hands, in fact, makes me feel distinctly more American and undoubtedly more human.