Squirrel: Call it the other other white meat. The frisky arboreal rodent was on the menu at the La Luz de Jesus art gallery this weekend, where a big vat of squirrel chili bubbled in the back parking lot.
Ordinarily seen riffling through your garbage or raiding your bird feeders or squashed into a furry pulp on the side of the road, squirrels are an odd food choice. But not to taxidermists. Several were showing their work at the gallery, and in lieu of standard-issue art show–opening fare (crudités, salmon puffs, blah, blah, blah) they thought it might be more relevant — and amusing — to serve up wild game.
Minnesota taxidermist Scott Bibus remembers a class he took early in his career. They had skinned an elk, then fried up the discarded meat. No one found it weird to be mounting an elk while eating elk. "Without further ado, let's start skinning a squirrel," Bibus says.
How do you keep from getting sick while working with an animal? someone asks, as Bibus works. How do you not contract, oh, say, rabies?
"Well, the biggest thing is not to lick it," Bibus offers. "That's taxidermy rule No. 1."
If you simply must lick it, cook it first.
Coyotes make swift work of squirrels, but for human consumption, the creatures are labor-intensive. The bones are thin and splintery, like a small bird's. And while squirrel meat is dark, rich in iron and extremely lean, you don't get a whole lot of it: "They're athletic little suckers," Chef Winter Rosebudd says.
She brined the meat for 48 hours, sautéed it in garlic and butter, then braised it in beer.
"I used Coors Light," she notes. "You don't want too heavy a beer to hide the delicious, squirrelly flavor."
It took nearly a week to prepare the squirrel chili.
California has strict laws concerning squirrels. You can't legally hunt and kill a tree squirrel here, much less make spicy, delicious chili out of it. Ground squirrels are fair game but only during certain times of the year, and only if you have a permit.
So, for this affair, 10 squirrels were FedEx–ed overnight from Minnesota, where they were trapped and then promptly dispatched to rodent heaven via what curator Robert Marbury euphemistically calls "the immersion method."
It's been a great week, Chef Rosebudd says. From the minute the frozen squirrels arrived at her door, she's been going through serious soul-searching. She eats meat. It would be hypocritical for her to be squeamish about cooking rodents, she admits.
"After dealing with the squirrels, I realized why our lazy nation has chosen chicken, beef and pork as commercial meat," she adds. "Because those are easy to distribute on a mass scale. Squirrel is tough to deal with. You have to cook it thoroughly. It's a lot of work just to get the meat off the bones."
Among diners, conversation turns to strange animals they have eaten. One woman had eaten bear — she'd accidentally hit it with her car, took the carcass home, and barbecued it. It was the smelliest creature she'd ever roasted.
One erudite man disagrees; jellyfish smells the worst. He says that he makes it a point to eat one of every animal he comes across. He had never eaten squirrel before. But he sees them all the time here in Southern California. They were on his list.
Curator Marbury waxes poetic about the kudu he'd eaten on a trip to Africa. "It was beautiful," he says with a sigh. "So flavorful."
A young woman reasons that crows pecking at road-killed squirrels always seem to be enjoying themselves, so it must be yummy. She's always wondered what it tastes like.
Turns out, it tastes like turkey. Or rabbit. It's chewy and gamey, as you'd expect.
And, also, as you'd expect, even at an artsy event, many people refuse to eat it. For those sorts, Marbury insists on whipping up a batch of vegetarian tomato-based "mock squirrel" chili.
It's important to provide an alternative to the alternative.
EATING SQUIRREL (A LA CHEF WINTER ROSEBUDD)
• 10 squirrels (defrosted, skinned,
meat removed from bones then cut
into bite-size pieces)
• 48 cloves of garlic
• beer (Coors Light, preferably)
• tomato (canned)
• chicken, vegetable
or other light broth
• kidney beans
• chili peppers (fresh, roasted)
• onions (chopped)
• kosher salt & water (for brine)
• salt & pepper (for seasoning)
• bay leaves
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1. Brine the defrosted, skinned squirrels overnight in mixture of water, salt and bay leaf.
2. Heat butter. Add garlic and onions. Add squirrel meat. Cook until golden brown.
3. Add tomato, roasted chili peppers, broth, kidney beans, beer, oregano. Add salt & pepper to taste. Simmer for at least one hour.
Serves 15-20, depending on size of squirrels.