Not to worry. Tangy rabbit nachos, a vegetarian lasagna, potato soup, a salsa-inspired raccoon dip and fried raccoon did not divert attention from the headliner at the 13th event of its kind held the Sunday before Thanksgiving: a giant vat of squirrel gravy, lightly caramel-colored and smooth on the surface, with shreds and chunks of long-cooked meat waiting to be ladled up and onto biscuits and baked potatoes.
In this 250-year-old seat of Hampshire County with a population of 2,000, where vegetable farmers turn in their hoes for hunting gear as the weather turns cold, small-game season is a big deal. Squirrel hunting in particular.
Residential squirrels help themselves to bird feeders or scamper into attics. But hungry rural squirrels can wreak havoc on a farm. Squirrel Fest host Calvin Riggleman, son of Gary Riggleman (the raccoon meat raconteur) says the bushy-tailed Sciurus carolinensis digs up newly planted seeds and munches away at apples ripe for the picking at his 85-acre farm. A boom in the squirrel populations of some Northeast states this year led to sizable crop losses on orchards in Vermont and New York, according to recent Associated Press reports.
While pest experts use chemicals to control squirrels, the farmers here have a sustainable solution.
“I’m not sure why there’s a season for squirrel,” says Cal’s mother, Linda Riggleman, who has been making squirrel gravy for years. “We never have run out.” The gravy’s a standby; last year, Riggleman made squirrel potpie for the fest and did, in fact, run out.
American squirrel cuisine has something of an official birthplace in Virginia’s Brunswick County, where in 1828 four of the critters, onions and stale bread went into a pot and became the dish known as Brunswick stew. The Irish Times reported in January 1997 that the “American habit of eating squirrel has arrived in Britain,” chronicling a sampling of roasted squirrel and casseroles with herbs and chanterelles served at an estate owned by the Duke of Buccleuch. The U.K.-based Wild Meat supplies grey squirrel meat (an invasive species) to British grocers and sells online.
Cal Riggleman returned from two deployments with the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006 to start his own farm and family in Romney, next to the 80 acres of orchards farmed by his grandparents.
Now 31, he was just out of high school when he started Squirrel Fest with a few friends at his parents’ house. It grew; when the number of attendees hit 250, Riggleman moved the operation to a commercial kitchen and warehouse he bought with a business partner two years ago. (His Bigg Riggs Farm sauces and jams are manufactured there.)
The free event coincides with the start of deer-hunting season — something folks here tend to appreciate.
“Makes me want to hit something on the way home!” Kevin Moore, a friend of Riggleman’s, said as he cleaned his Squirrel Fest plate.