Correction to This Article
- In the Jan. 30 Food section, a recipe for Brunswick stew called for pieces of rabbit with the skin on. The rabbit should be skinless. The corrected recipe appears in Recipe Finder at
Kitchen Stories

It All Started With a Squirrel

There's rabbit, but no squirrel, in Bonny Wolf's version of Brunswick Stew.
There's rabbit, but no squirrel, in Bonny Wolf's version of Brunswick Stew. (Photo By Renee Comet/styled By Lisa Cherkasky For The Washington Post)
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By Bonny Wolf
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I think I actually have eaten squirrel. It was not intentional. But about 30 years ago, I was invited to a game dinner in New Jersey and had Brunswick stew. I remember discreetly picking out what I assumed was buckshot. As my husband and I were the token non-hunters at the table, I didn't ask a lot of questions.

Today, Rick Methot, the hunter-host, says I'm crazy: There never would have been buckshot in a squirrel dish. " 'Buckshot' is often used in the mainstream press as a one-size-fits-all pellet," he says. But "buckshot is used for deer. Hence the name, no doubt."

I stand corrected, although not before getting a short course in different shot sizes. Rick is a little more evasive about exactly what meat he used. The stew was delicious, whatever was in it.

I knew nothing about hunting then and know little more now. I'm sure, however, that I felt morally superior to anyone who, in my view, went into the woods to kill Bambi's mother. Like many former 23-year-olds, I've mellowed with age. I still have never touched a gun and don't expect to. I do, however, love to cook and eat game. It's been an evolutionary process.

After that dinner at Rick's, I went to France and ate rabbit. We were served delicious wild boar ragu at a dinner party. One year I cooked a wild turkey for Thanksgiving. Then I began to see bison on menus and at the meat market.

That one confused me. I grew up near the Great Plains, where all schoolchildren learn that 60 million American bison were hunted almost to extinction by the end of the 19th century. So what's with the buffalo meat?

Fear of fat brought back the buffalo. Like most wild game, buffalo are lean. Farmers had begun to raise buffalo for meat high in protein but low in cholesterol and fat.

And it wasn't just buffalo. Deer, antelope, boar, rabbit, pheasant, quail and other originally wild species are raised on farms and ranches throughout the United States. Farm-raised game is available at many specialty markets and through upscale gourmet mail-order sources.

Much farm-raised game ranges freely over large pieces of land. Most is raised without hormones or other drugs and is subject to government inspection. Farmers and ranchers who raise game seem interested in sustainability and efficient use of scarce resources.

There was, of course, a time when wild game was a major part of the American diet. Native Americans were hunters, and the colonists left an England where landed gentry had hunting preserves to supply their tables. They arrived in the New World to find all the wild animals they could eat -- belonging to no one. They hunted so enthusiastically that they almost exhausted the supply.

The farm-raised-game movement is bringing many of those animals back. Game shot in the wild by hunters, however, cannot be sold in the United States.

While much game is raised for commercial sale, I have never seen squirrel on the list, although its virtues are extolled by many. "Squirrel has been written about rapturously for years," wrote James Beard. "It has long been associated with elegant dining as well as with the simple food of the trapper and the nomad." I have never been able to get aboard that boat.

If you want to eat squirrel, you'll need a hunter as a friend. Rick doesn't hunt squirrels anymore. "They're a pain in the neck to skin," he says. However, this season he got a deer, which he skinned and butchered himself, along with pheasants and a few ducks. His freezer provides throughout the winter.

Rick butchers his deer into steaks and roasts, and he grinds some of the meat for chili and meatballs. He bakes quail in wine sauce and makes pheasant and venison pot pies. He tried to make venison sausages -- an extremely tasty use of deer meat -- but "it was a debacle and a mess as well as labor-intensive," he says. "Best left to the pros."

Last year my nephew's father-in-law brought back 100 pounds of caribou from the tundra of far-northern Quebec and kept a 30-pound leg for Christmas dinner at his Baltimore home. He brined it in a mixture that included apple cider vinegar, juniper berries, peppercorns, celery, carrots, bay leaves and thyme. Before cooking, he applied a brown-sugar rub to form a crust on the meat. Then he smoked it for about six hours. My sister-in-law said it was a memorable meal.

There are lovely ingredients that complement game cooking. Juniper berries and mushrooms, apples and blood oranges, chestnuts and truffles all serve to either cut through or stand up to the earthy (some say gamy) taste of game.

With the easy availability of farm-raised game and the increasingly adventurous American palate, I decided to put together my own game dinner, 30-something years after my initiation at Rick's. Because I don't hunt, I had to rely on the bounty of the market for a somewhat tame game dinner.

We started with hard-cooked quail eggs with whitefish caviar. To cook the tiny, speckled eggs, place them in cold water, bring to a boil, remove the pan from the heat, cover and let sit for seven minutes. It took more than an hour to peel two dozen incredibly thin-shelled eggs, easily the hardest part of the meal preparation.

Next, duck pâté. Easy: I went to the store. Many other wild-meat pâtés are available at specialty markets and online. I got mine at Harris Teeter.

The first course was grilled pheasant salad, with mixed greens, a citrus cream sauce and a few toasted pecans. (There would have been more pecans had I not burned most of them.) I wanted to try pheasant because M.F.K. Fisher called it "one of the most delicious things to eat that man has invented." She was right.

When I went shopping for my game meal, the butcher display cases at Eastern Market were loaded with venison: steaks, loins, stew meat, sausages. I settled on a venison tenderloin, a deep-red piece with no visible fat. This is a tender cut, so I took care not to over-marinate or overcook it. After about 20 minutes in the oven, it was the desired pink inside.

Wild rice with mushrooms was a natural side dish, and I tossed persimmons into green beans for color. Dessert was chocolate "moose."

Although it had no real place on the menu, I also wanted to honor my introduction to game by making a Brunswick stew, full of corn and lima beans. Wouldn't you know, it was everyone's favorite. Full disclaimer: I couldn't go all the way. I made it with rabbit.

Bonny Wolf, host of NPR's "Kitchen Window" podcast and author of "Talking With My Mouth Full," can be reached Her Kitchen Stories column appears monthly.

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