by Mike Sula
I've had some interesting experiences procuring, cooking, and eating squirrels. I'd like to tell you about them sometime, but for now let me relate just one. Last October I went squirrel hunting in southern Indiana with a guy named Forrest Turner. A horse trainer, agricultural student, rabid country music fan, and a more-than-able woodsman, he's also the nephew of maple syrup baron Tim Burton, who introduced us.
Turner and I spent a morning out in the woods behind Burton's Maplewood Farm stalking tree rats. He grew up hunting squirrels, turkey, and deer in those woods. He'd already shot about 15 to 20 squirrels since the season started. We stepped as lightly as possible, staring up at the canopy slowly coming to light, looking for motion in the branches, and watching for acorn and hickory shells as they dropped from the sky. Early in the day we stood under a tall oak, and with a small shotgun I took my first and only shot at a squirrel directly above. I missed. Over the course of the morning we stalked close to fifteen gray and fox squirrels, and while Turner got a few shots off, we had no luck. Near midmorning, we were about to call it a day when we heard the telltale sound of a squirrel "cutting" on a nut (it sounds like the edges of two quarters rubbing together).
I'd never hunted anything in my life, and Turner, an enthusiastic guide, wanted me to get my first squirrel. He left me in the creek bed to wait it out, and went off to pursue others. But as the sun rose higher it became apparent my prey wasn't going to offer me a shot. So Turner moved up the bank beyond the tree to flush it out. Taking aim with his scoped .22, he fired off two rounds in quick succession. The second connected, and the squirrel tumbled off the branch and fell to the bank, rolling down the slope almost to my boots.
We talked to a bunch of other hunters at a gathering later that day, and they all seemed to agree it had been a tough year for squirrel hunting, probably because the hickories weren't producing much. Anyway, I told Turner I wanted to make burgoo for Soup and Bread at the Hideout this year and he agreed to help me.
What's burgoo, you say? The word might derive from the French ragout, and sailors in British Royal Navy ate a gruel of oatmeal and water they called burgoo during the Napoleonic wars. But neither was anything like the stew of vegetable and game meats that came to be called burgoo in the U.S.
Different regions have different names for the massive stews simmered for harvest celebrations, some of which are still held today: the Brunswick stews of Virginia,, the booyahs of Wisconsin, chowders of Southern Illinois, and the burgoos of Kentucky. The recipes were similar: a thick, slow-cooked mishmash of meats and vegetables, more often than not featuring squirrel as the most important (though not always by volume) protein source. A well circulated formula for Kentucky Burgoo Stew in the 1939 cookbook Fine Old Dixie Recipes calls for 600 pounds of squirrel meat, “1 doz. to each 100 gals.
No chance of getting that many, but Turner sent Uncle Tim up with a bunch of squirrel hind legs and forelegs he'd had in the freezer, and as a bonus, a goodly number of gorgeous venison tenderloins (and a giant tupperware container of his Aunt Angie's maple syrup baked beans).
After a slow braise, squirrel meat starts to fall off the bone. So I seared the legs off first and cooked them low and slow in chicken stock for a couple hours before fishing out and pulling the meat off the bones. You have to be really careful here because the bones are tiny.
Next, I seared off chunks of the venison, sweated some bacon, onions, garlic, carrots, and celery in the fond, added some fava beans and potatoes, bay leaf, fresh thyme, and cayenne pepper. I added back the braising stock, and then some, a bottle of Goose Island Nut Brown Ale that showed up in my mailbox, the pulled squirrel meat, the seared venison, and let it go. For two days.
Squirrel meat tastes like turkey, rabbit, or really good, free range chicken thigh. It's gateway game, but this particular burgoo was venison-dominant. I was worried about using the tenderloins—this leanest of cuts from the leanest of animals—in a slow-cooked stew, but it worked out fine. The steaky chunks of meat stayed tender and held together, while the squirrel meat broke down and helped thicken the stew. They say it isn't burgoo until the spoon stands up in the pot, and that certainly helped.
The burgoo and the beans disappeared quickly at Wednesday's final Soup and Bread of the 2012 season, many thanks to Forrest Turner, and Tim and Angie Burton. And many props to the talented soup cooks in my company: Ellen Malloy and Grant Kessler, farmer Vera Videnovich, Christine Citkowksi from Sunday Dinner, Richard Black, Lauren Falasz; Mare Swallow of Steve Albini Voice, and the folks from Swim Cafe. Next year, bird's nest soup.