No, squirrel does not taste like chicken. It tastes like . . . squirrel.
“It’s a sweet kind of taste,” said Curtis Taylor, West Virginia’s chief of wildlife resources. “It’s my favorite game food. And trust me, I’ve had everything.”
Any serious discussion of squirrel — which is what we do during Squirrel Week: discuss squirrels seriously — must address the subject of eating squirrels. For much of our country’s history, squirrels were not cute little critters seemingly put on Earth to amuse us with their antics. They were food. In some places, they still are.
Curtis has been hunting squirrel since he was 6, which was 51 years ago. He grew up in McDowell County in southern West Virginia.
“Typically, the way young hunters — male and female — started was on squirrels and, to a lesser degree, rabbits,” Curtis said. The opening day of squirrel season each September was a much-anticipated event.
Squirrels aren’t as big a deal now, and Curtis thinks that’s a shame: “Nowadays, it seems all the kids get a compound bow and a tree stand, and they want to kill a deer.”
West Virginia game officials would like young hunters to be introduced to squirrels first, so they open squirrel season two weeks before deer season — not because they have something against squirrels but because squirrels teach neophytes about the woods in a way that other game doesn’t.
“Squirrel hunting requires a fairly good degree of woodsmanship — especially tree identification — where deer hunting does not,” Curtis said. “You can climb up in a stand and not know one tree from another.”
Curtis said that in places where it’s legal to bait deer, some parents will spread corn, stick their kid in a tree stand and come back at dark.
“What has the kid learned?” he sighed. “Nothing.”
But to be a successful squirrel hunter you have to know a maple from an oak, a hickory from a poplar.
“If you’re sitting in a stand of maples and yellow poplar waiting on a squirrel, you’re going to be waiting awhile,” Curtis said. That’s because those trees don’t produce nuts.
And you need to learn how to behave in a forest, how to be quiet and observant, how to recognize the calls of squirrels — and then mimic them.
Rural squirrels are a lot more suspicious than urban ones. You would be, too, if people shot at you from September to January. When I visited the Roadkill Cookoff last fall in Marlinton, W.Va., I didn’t see a single squirrel frolicking in the little park that was the festival’s setting. They don’t associate people with handouts.
Proof of that was browning with bacon in a cast iron pan: 10 squirrels’ worth of meat, no piece bigger than my thumb. Students from Pocahontas County High School were making squirrel gumbo, just one of the many recipes you’ll find in cookbooks. Others include baked squirrel, crumb-coated squirrel, Squirrel Mulligan, squirrel and rice bake, squirrel in onion sauce, brandied squirrel with vermouth, squirrel Cantonese, squirrel pot pie, butterflied grilled squirrel (with peanut butter dipping sauce), barbecued squirrel, fricasseed squirrel, squirrel balls . . .
Curtis said the real divide between old school and new school is whether or not you eat the brain. “When I was growing up, if you had brought back a squirrel you shot in the head, you were going to get a stern talking to from your grandma,” he said. “You ruined the best part.”
Squirrel hunters know not to take squirrels from pine forests — the meat tastes like turpentine from all the pine cones they eat — and to wait till after the first freeze to go hunting. The freeze kills warbles, the larval stage of a bot fly that can grow under a squirrel’s skin. (Trust me when I say you should not Google “warbles” before eating squirrel.)
The daily limit for squirrel in most nearby states is six a day. Curtis said he took 30 during the most recent season. And what did he do with them?
“I ate them,” he said. “I brought them into the office and fed everyone squirrel, biscuits and gravy.”
When was the last time someone in your office did that?