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Eating small game kept countless Southerners alive in the days before supermarkets and automobiles. Then, it became a punchline in the worst kind of jokes. Is it time to reconsider the flavors of squirrel and possum?


Story Gabe Bullard | Illustrations by Courtney Garvin

 
 

Soaked overnight in buttermilk, squirrel meat loses most of its gaminess.

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Dredged in flour, fried in bacon fat, and eaten off the bone, the flesh of America’s arboreal rodent at first invites the clichéd comparison to chicken, but not to any part of a chicken anyone can name. Even under a crisp exterior and mix of familiar spices, the shape, texture, and taste make it clear this is something wild. It’s a little tough, though not chewy, and the buttermilk doesn’t remove all the taste of wilderness. Getting the meat requires pulling apart bones and joints in a way that articulates just how small this animal is. A few bites in, all this leads to the unmistakable conclusion the meat can only be squirrel. It was when I bit into what could best be called the bicep of a cooked squirrel — extending the tiny arm to get the largest chunk between my teeth — that I connected the thing in my mouth with the thing I had startled out of a trash can behind my apartment building earlier that day.

I kept eating.

Minutes earlier, I’d watched Chef Jason Flores fry the squirrel. Flores is the executive chef at the Hilton Sedona Resort in Arizona, and he was in Washington to give a cooking demonstration called "Bringing the Outdoors In" at the Smithsonian. While I waited for Flores’ talk to start, I counted a few dozen onlookers, including a small crowd of kids in FFA jackets. A Smithsonian employee showed me a video on her phone of Flores carving the tiny skinless squirrel body and dropping the pieces in a bowl of buttermilk. A few minutes later, in a stage kitchen modeled like a cooking show’s set, curator Ashley Rose Young asked Flores what he would cook. Even though the menu was in the program, the crowd laughed when Flores proudly proclaimed “buttermilk-fried squirrel."

This is what eating squirrel is for most of us: a joke by default or a history lesson by design. A plate of squirrel belongs in the building that holds Abraham Lincoln’s hat, Julia Child’s kitchen, and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves. It’s an object that was once used daily, but whose value now lies in its novelty. Squirrels aren’t food anymore. They may be edible, but they aren’t palatable to diners who imagine squirrel pot pie as a punchline in a hillbilly joke book rather than an entry in a haute cuisine cookbook. When I told a friend my weekend plans involved eating squirrel, she made a roadkill joke. When I tell others my dad used to hunt squirrel, I see them try to calculate my age, adding a few decades.

"It’s an old-timey food," Flores told me after his demonstration, squirrel grease still in my mouth. "My grandparents, when they were coming through the Depression, ate that way. As time has moved on, I think some of those traditions have been lost. We forget about what is good."

 
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Flores is one of a handful of chefs reconsidering the squirrel. The Gordon Ramsay and the late Anthony Bourdain ate it on camera. Emily Rees Nunn put a recipe in her latest book.

“Chefs are really looking back at where they come from,” Flores, an Oklahoma native, says. “That’s where I come from.”

Even if chefs didn’t grow up with squirrels on the dinner table, the country did. Squirrel, possum, raccoon, turtle, and other small game were plentiful, popular, and, even high-end. But, as the nation matured, “it turned into one of these hillbilly-type foods,” Flores says. To cook small game now is to try and lift the stereotype — if that’s even possible.

"It’s kind of a tribute,” Flores says. “What’s old is new, man.”

 
 
 
 
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It’s not geographically or historically accurate to think of the squirrel as Southern. Even though its Latin name — Sciurus carolinensis — mentions a Southern state, the eastern grey squirrel has long been found in abundance across the eastern half of the country. And recipes for squirrel appear in cookbooks with no specific claim to our region. Cooks from all over offer recipes for the high and the low.

The 1887 White House Cookbook gives a recipe for squirrel soup — a favorite of President James Garfield. The 1908 book 365 Foreign Dishes has a recipe for a “French Squirrel Fricassée,” listed between “Italian Veal and Macaroni” and “Irish Mutton Stew.” In 1910, outdoorsman Horace Kephart put recipes for broiled, barbecued, and soup-ified squirrel in his Camp Cookery. Juliet Corson, writing in the 1888 book Family Living on $500 a Year: A Daily Reference Book for Young and Inexperienced Housewives, compares the taste of squirrel to poultry, "or rather of partridge." In its entry for squirrel, the venerable culinary glossary Larousse Gastronomique compares squirrel to rabbit in preparation, saying nothing of the taste.

Perhaps the most famous squirrel recipe — or at least the one an enthusiastic home cook with a taste for the odd is most likely to mention today — is in The Joy of Cooking, mid-century America’s kitchen mainstay. The early ’60s edition of the book offered recipes for squirrel and an illustrated guide for skinning them (the trick is to use a foot to hold the body in place as you pull off the pelt).

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The Joy of Cooking kept the recipe until 1997, well past the squirrel’s heyday as dinner. That same year, an article in The Lancet suggested that a group of Kentuckians had contracted Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (similar to mad cow) from eating squirrel brains. The New York Times dedicated a few paragraphs to explaining that people actually did this.

"Doesn't a person who eats roadkill rodent organs pretty much deserve to die?" Dave Barry asked in his column, for the Miami Herald, while the Times noted that roadkill sometimes made it into burgoo.

"If AIDS once seemed an affliction cooked up by country Baptists to punish city dwellers, here was the urbanite’s revenge: a disease, common only among squirrel-brain-eating hillbillies, that turned its victims into demented fools," Burkhard Bilger wrote in The New Yorker.

The jokes and the coverage treated the consumption of squirrel like a redneck quirk, rather than something encouraged in the most popular cookbook in the nation. Millions of Americans had a recipe for squirrel sitting on their shelves, but the squirrel had long stopped being an ingredient. It wasn’t the squirrels that changed: The urbanizing and suburbanizing of America in the early and mid 20th century coincided with the industrialization of the food system, and meat production had to be efficient for factory farms. The animals that could be bred for juicy cuts in herds and flocks — pigs, cows, chickens — were food. The rest was roadkill: trash-eating pests gnawing on the wires in the attic or begging for popcorn from an old man in the park. Published recipes for burgoo and Brunswick stew — two dishes that traditionally included squirrel — changed to feature meats available in the grocery store.

By necessity, shopping replaced hunting for protein procurement, and anyone who wanted a taste of squirrel had to hunt it — legally, game is quite difficult to sell. And with people moving to towns and cities, the percentage of Americans who hunted dropped: The U.S. population grew by 70 million between 1950 and 1990, but the number of hunters stayed around 13 to 16 million. And given the prevalence of deer on hunting grounds, the squirrel wasn’t always worth the trek outside, nutritionally. The number of squirrels killed by hunters each year dropped precipitously in the last quarter of the 20th century. The number of deer killed increased.

Small wonder, then, that “mad squirrel disease" brought out tired jokes about rural rubes. To hunt squirrel was to hunt something far more meager than the majestic deer (who would mount a squirrel’s head on a wall?). It’s a small reward that takes a lot of time and effort and isn’t that different from something that can be bought. It seems desperate. Squirrel — an animal that also lived across the Northeast — became tied to those who didn’t have money, who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) adapt to the grocery store, who, either through desperate necessity or twisted preference, ate the animals that ate the trash of the rest of the country.

It became a Southern cliché.

 
 
 
 
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"Even in West Virginia, you tell people you hunt squirrel, they think it’s a big rat," says Kyle Hamlin, whom I met through a squirrel hunters Facebook group.

On a still warm day in early fall, just outside of Harper’s Ferry, I went hunting with Hamlin and his dog — a young mountain feist named Panhandle Pip. The feist is a squirrel-hunting breed, and Pip has a champion pedigree. The goal was for Pip to smell a squirrel, chase it up a tree, then bark for Hamlin, who would pick the squirrel off with his .22 magnum. Hamlin grew up doing this, but in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia — where Hamlin now lives among a growing number of people who work in nearby Washington, D.C. — he says there’s "a big shock when I tell people I eat squirrel."

The hunt isn’t about the food.

“Nobody really squirrel hunts to provide for their family,” Hamlin says. To feed yourself on squirrel, you’d need to kill a few each day. Rather, this is time for Hamlin to train his dog, or to be with the young people he mentors in his job as a youth pastor. He imagines taking his son out hunting one day; squirrel is an easier starter game than deer — tracking them doesn’t require excessive silence, scent control, or long periods sitting still at dawn. To get a squirrel, it only takes a gun and a dog, and many hunters forgo the dog, keeping their eyes out for bushy tails, enjoying the stillness in the meantime. Hamlin and his fellow hunters are hobbyists, not hillbillies.   

As we trudge through the woods, I clumsily walk through spiderwebs while Hamlin and Pip move easily. I start to feel the weight of the city-dweller-goes-rural narrative, so I tell Hamlin (again) that my dad used to hunt squirrel and I ask (again) about the taste, which he compares to good, dark-meat chicken.

“It doesn’t get more organic than wild game,” he says.

I ask how he likes to cook it, then mention that I’ve spotted recipes in new cookbooks and that I’m hoping to eat some at the Smithsonian, prepared by a high-end chef. I ask how he would feel about this game becoming chic, and maybe popping up on menus.

"I think it’s awesome," he says. ”Everybody’s searching for that hidden treasure. Anytime someone finds something that's part of someone’s life and brings it to light, that’s a good thing."

 
 
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The squirrel has been hidden, but hidden by choice and by modernity. Hamlin and I find none on our hunt. I saw more squirrels on the road between Washington and West Virginia than I did in the woods. Pip barely had anything to bark at. After a couple hours, we walk back to the truck. Hamlin is parked near a sign that’s been used for target practice. There’s an old TV discarded at the edge of the woods, a bullet hole through the screen.

"You talk about The Bitter Southerner,” Hamlin says. “You’ve got hunters who come out here and have a good time, and you’ve got idiots who come and shoot things up. These are the stupid people who give everyone a bad name.”

On the drive into town, Hamlin keeps one eye on the road and another on the wildlife — spotting squirrel and deer and birds. Eventually, we arrive at the local library, where I’d planned to meet my wife for the drive home. Hamlin apologizes for the lack of a kill, then says the day wasn’t a total waste.

“I got outside, spent time with a new friend … I’m not disappointed.” At that, we shake hands, and I hop out of his truck. Before leaving, I stop by a farmer’s market and I look to see if there might be squirrel or game for sale. There isn’t, so I order a locally made kombucha for the road.

On the way back, I brush cobwebs off my coat, and we debate where to stop to eat. It’s all chains at this point. They’ve popped up among the new subdivisions between the city and the woods, selling burgers, salads, and fried chicken sandwiches — we could’ve been anywhere.

“There are so many foods that you can get at a grocery store that are kind of placeless,” says food cultural historian Sasha Gora. “Eating squirrel is a way of kind of putting place back into what’s going into a dish.”

In the case of Southern food, a lot of history goes into a dish, too. This isn’t as evident with squirrel as it is with another small game that was once just as common on Southern tables: the possum.

 
 
 
 
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Possum is far more Southern than squirrel — in habitat, in preparation, and in re-evaluation. Food historian Michael Twitty has described the birth of Southern food as “European dishes full of Native American ingredients” being “shaped by black hands.” Roast possum is such a dish. And besides being shaped by black hands, it’s been warped by white imagination.

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Like the squirrel, the possum’s scientific name is southern — Didelphis virginiana. The common name (opossum, technically) is of Native American origin. But the animal itself predates any humans in North America. It split evolutionarily around the time the dinosaurs were dying, and it hasn’t changed much since. The possum is singular in strange physiognomy: It has a prehensile tail that looks like a rat’s, opposable thumbs that look like a human’s, a set of over four dozen crocodile-like teeth, and a kangaroo-style pouch for carrying its young. It also moves slowly and can grow to be quite plump.

The 1821 Domestic Encyclopedia says possum meat is “as sweet and excellent as any other animal food.” Mrs. Elliot’s Housewife, published in 1870, calls roast possum with sweet potatoes a “favorite dish with Chapel Hill students in olden times.” Possum was such a delicacy in the South that Georgia Republicans killed 100 of them when William Howard Taft visited Atlanta shortly before his inauguration as president.

“Georgia’s most famous ’possum killer and cook, Col. Harry Fischer of Newnan, Ga., had secured a fat Coweta County ’possum which had been fattening for weeks and prepared it for the President-elect’s palate," The New York Times reported. This is a traditional way of preparing possum: After catching it (always in winter), cooks feed the animal on spices, milk, bread, water, or anything else that might clean its insides and fatten its meat. Then it’s roasted with sweet potatoes.

Not only was the commander-in-chief enjoying the dish commonly called “possum and taters,” so were his soldiers. The 1910 Manual for Army Cooks gives a recipe for feeding 60 men on 25 pounds of possum. The animals are to be air-dried overnight, stuffed "with an ordinary dressing" including sage, and, as always, served with sweet potatoes.

Kephart, in Camp Cookery, says possum "is not to be served without sweet potatoes, except in desperate extremity." (He also settles the spelling. "To call our possum an opossum, outside of a scientific treatise, is an affectation. Possum is his name wherever he is known and hunted this country over," Kephart writes.)

But with Southern origins come Southern prejudices. The side of sweet potatoes isn’t the only tradition Kephart keeps in his possum recipe. After the recipe, in describing an ideal drink to go with the meat, the author uses a racist slur to describe whoever might provide a possum-eater with ginger tea.

“Baked ’possum is the Christmas goose of the epicurean negro,” Margaret Warner Morley wrote in The Carolina Mountains in 1913. May Irwin’s Home Cooking in 1904 reprinted the lyrics to the minstrel song “De Possum Chase” before giving a recipe. An 1867 article in The Youth’s Companion leads with “’Possum hunting is one of the favorite night sports of the Southern negro” and follows with minstrel dialect from a character named Sambo.

The racist ideas around the possum, like so many racist ideas, came from slavery.

"Possum were the creatures most likely to be abroad after dark when slaves were able to go hunting, so they were a frequent catch,” Jessica B. Harris writes in The Welcome Table, before giving her recipe for possum and sweet potatoes, which she calls “perhaps the most evocative of all of the African-American main dishes from the period of enslavement.”

"The meat is quite succulent,” she continues, “and indeed many a nineteenth-century stereotype hinged on the assertion that African-Americans, though offered other meats, preferred possum.”

 
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Many white Americans also preferred possum. President Taft called his Georgia marsupial "the best dish I have tasted in weeks." Rather than change the stereotype, Taft’s preference drew praise. His supporters pushed a stuffed toy called Billy Possum as a rival to Theodore Roosevelt’s Teddy Bear. "The Possum Is Now Sacred to Taft," Life wryly proclaimed. "Mr. Roosevelt’s totem was the animal with the hug. Mr. Taft’s totem is the animal with the pocket. Prosperity is coming back."

A few weeks after his possum feast, Taft — who had courted black Republican votes — promised not to appoint any black Southerners to federal jobs in communities where it might cause racial unrest. His possum-fed army was segregated. If black and white Atlantans wanted to sit down to a meal together to talk about this, they’d have to do it at home: The city segregated restaurants by law in 1910.

The stamp of race and class remained on the possum as the American diet changed. Outsiders presumed poor Southerners, black or white, would eat possum out of a financial need borne of laziness, or an unreconstructed backwardness of taste and manners — Granny cooked plenty of it on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and even campaigned for “possum queen” — while in real life, wealthy and powerful white Southerners could eat their fill.

Possum was served by request in the House of Representatives’ kitchen at least into the 1920s. A House bookkeeper from Georgia caught a possum in the congressional offices in the 1940s and pronounced plans to fatten and eat it. In 1941, Arkansas congressman Clyde Ellis got a possum delivered to him from Bentonville (rather than eat it, he gave it to the zoo). The 1953 Esquire Handbook for Hosts offered squirrel and possum recipes to bachelors with the means to seek outdoorsy luxury in the Southern woods. In North Carolina, Governor Robert Scott held a black tie feast that served possum ribs and champagne in the late ’60s.

Scott’s banquets came on the brink of the transformation historian Bruce Schulman described as the shift from “Cotton Belt to Sun Belt.” Factories replaced farms, and a new population of white Southerners found economic prosperity. Suburbs sprang up. This coincided with a reddening of the South and an embracing of white nostalgia in country music, Southern rock, and TV shows like “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Many poor and black Southerners moved west and north. White nostalgia erased black contributions to the region’s culture. The possum showed up in soul food cookbooks but wasn’t available to serve outside the South. While in the South, a group called the Possum Growers and Breeders Association, which promoted the ranching and eating of possums, gave out bumper stickers and license plate frames encouraging people to “eat more possum.” It was an earnest request but also a euphemism for folksy determination to get through the hard parts of life without complaining. The slogan pushed against modernization. To put this on your car meant that maybe you drove a Toyota or a station wagon, but in your heart, it was an Oldsmobile Roadster with Granny’s rocking chair tied to the top.

 
 
 
 
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Who knows how many people actually ate possum when their cars told others to? But the phrase conveys the scrappiness needed to eat these animals today. It’s a rejection of what we’ve been told and what we’ve been sold.

“People eat in certain directions,” Flores says in the Smithsonian, surrounded by the nation’s antiques. “But that’s because that’s the way we write menus. If you have some exciting elements on your menu, some things that are a little bit off the wall, you’re going to get people to start eating them.”

Flores says he would put squirrel on his menu if he could source the meat. He knows he’d be criticized for selling poor people’s food in a high-end restaurant. He also knows it could catch on.

“You gotta challenge every day and work hard and try to bring new things to the people,” he says.

As for possum? “I think possum’s got a way to go,” Flores says, though he’s eaten and enjoyed it. “When you think classic roadkill, it’s a possum.” 

The possum’s image as roadkill or poor people’s food belies its right to be here. It’s a beneficial animal. Possums eat snakes and bugs. I’ve never heard of one destroying someone’s garden. They’re not prone to spreading disease like raccoons with their poisonous excrement or deer with their eponymous ticks. But the possum still has a bad image. Maybe it’s the terrifying appearance. Perhaps because it only comes out at night: It waddles out from rotten trees, it gets stuck under suburban porches, and it hides in trash cans at the end of the driveway. When captured, it opens its mouth like it’s screaming, but if it makes a sound, it inspires no terror. The possum’s key trait is deception: It plays dead when scared. It’s the only marsupial in the nation. It’s an untrustworthy loner.

Squirrels get the better reputation. They may pop out from gutters and trash piles to startle alleyway skulkers, but when we see a squirrel rummaging in a Big Mac box or darting across a power line, we see adaption and tenacity. There’s a graceful form to its dumpster diving. Squirrels can be pests, but we made them that way. To see one in the wild is to see a city dweller in a more natural state  — an old friend rejuvenated by country air. New recipes for squirrel say its meat tastes like the outdoors. 

The possum wouldn’t be so lowly by comparison if not for the racialized history of its capture and cooking. The history of the possum hunt is now largely as forgotten as the recipe for the gravy that would be served on top. But this is by no means an excuse to keep the past hidden.

 
 
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What we eat is part of who we are. We form our identities for ourselves and our homes based on the meals we have there. The foods we claim as our own are our links to the land and our past. But this changes. When we decide a dish is or isn’t food, we also make judgments about the people who eat it. Sometimes we forget the people who used to cook it. Chefs preparing squirrel or other small game today recognize that it’s possible to adapt to the new a little too quickly — that we can forget things along the way. But revivals and nostalgia too often overlook the harder truths of the past. When a food comes back, we should understand why it went away. It’s the difference between connecting to the past and trying to recreate it, between looking backward and moving forward — between eating possum and just telling other people to.

When Flores and I wrapped up, I walked outside onto the National Mall. There were food trucks around, and concession stands between me and the Capitol, where possum wasn’t on the menu. There were kids eating snacks, and squirrels picking up what they dropped. I’d gone in thinking of squirrels as not far removed from rats. Now, I saw them as food. I imagined sitting down to a meal of squirrel again, this time at a restaurant. Maybe it wouldn’t seem so exotic.

I didn’t see any possums. But I knew if they were here, they’d be back later.