Squirrel isn’t a dish that routinely appears on the average American table—and it looks like we might be missing out on a good thing. Food experts point out squirrel is an environmentally responsible meal: a sustainable, healthy, and local source of meat with an appealing nutty flavor that comes from a life spent stuffing oneself on hickory nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, and almonds. What’s not to like about a tasty plate (or bowl) of squirrel?
Still, squirrel isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Squirrels are rodents, after all, relatives of voles, shrews, mice, and rats. That bothers people.
Today squirrel is popular for the most part only among wild-game enthusiasts (check out these recipes); and in the hands of Montreal celebrity chef Martin Picard, star of the Canadian Food Network’s “The Wild Chef,” who promotes such back-to-nature meals as squirrel sushi and beaver tail simmered in cream and pig’s blood.
However, historically, squirrels have been on the human dinner menu ever since people figured out how to catch them. Traditionally they’ve been fried, roasted, or consumed in Brunswick stew, a slow-cooked dish of squirrel and veggies that may have originated with Native Americans.
Alternatively, it came from Brunswick County, Virginia, invented on the fly in 1828 for a hungry hunting party by their African American chef Jimmy Matthews. When the venison intended for dinner was found to be spoiled, the creative Matthews concocted a prototypic stew of squirrel, onions, butter, and stale bread.
Or it may have been invented in Brunswick, Georgia, which town claims to have the very iron kettle in which the first Brunswick stew was simmered in 1898.
Or it may even be of royal lineage: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Cross Creek Cookery (1942) mentions that it was a favorite of Queen Victoria and may have come to Buckingham Palace from Braunschweig (Brunswick), Germany.
Squirrel was a staple of American cookbooks well into the 20th Century. James Beard’s classic American Cookery, originally published in 1972, included recipes for Brunswick stew (two or three squirrels, veal stock, and half a cup of Madeira, along with corn, lima beans, tomatoes, and okra) and squirrel fricassee. (Squirrel, wrote Beard, “has long been associated with elegant dining as well as the simple food of the trapper and the nomad.”) Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking featured squirrel in all editions through 1996, including illustrated step-by-step instructions for peeling off the furry hide, a process facilitated by holding down the squirrel’s tail with a boot.
By the mid-20th Century, however, the culinary squirrel was in decline—in part because it was considered a dish for backwoods hicks; in part because hunters were turning to increasingly bigger game, such as wild turkeys and deer.
Squirrel cuisine took a further hit in the 1990s after neurologists Joseph Berger and Eric Weisman published a paper in The Lancet based on a smattering of cases in Kentucky suggesting that the local custom of eating squirrel brains might be associated with the development of spongiform encephalopathy—a mad-squirrel version of mad-cow disease. Though further analyses indicated that this was extremely unlikely, public jitters largely put the kibosh on squirrel consumption. Brunswick stew, late-20th-Century-style, was commonly made with pork or chicken.
By 2008, however, squirrel was back—at least in Britain, where advocates were touting it as the ultimate ethical meal.
American gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) were introduced to Britain in the 1870s and ever since, being large, aggressive, and prolific, have been wreaking havoc on the indigenous red squirrel population. Today it’s estimated that there are some two and a half million American grays in the UK as opposed to a mere 10,000 to 15,000 British reds, a situation that has native squirrel lovers up in arms. One solution, according to Britain’s Save Our Squirrels campaign, is to eat the interlopers. Backed by the motto “Save a red, eat a gray!,” British butchers and restaurants have seen an upsurge in the demand for squirrel, with recipes proliferating for everything from squirrel burgers to squirrel-and-hazelnut pâté, Rajasthani squirrel curry, and braised squirrel with bacon and porcini.
Americans might do well to follow the British example. Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology at Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and founder of the citizen-science study Project Squirrel, points out that squirrels are so populous and prolific that up to 80 percent of the population could be harvested each year with no ill effects, thus providing an excellent source of local meat for a wide range of consumers. The average environmental impact of a squirrel is diddlysquat compared, for example, to that of the average hamburger.
All things considered, it might just be time to consider putting the squirrel back in our Brunswick stew.