This July Bloomsbury will publish Pat Willard's new nonfiction book America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA—the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define American Food
. In 1935, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) dispatched great writers such as Eudora Welty and Ralph Ellison to document the roots of American regional cuisine. The anticipated book was never published, but Willard follows in their footsteps, visiting such things as a booyah cook-off in Minnesota, a political feast in Mississippi, a watermelon festival in Oklahoma, and a sheepherders ball in Idaho.
Here’s a little taste:
In the early days—and they weren’t too far back, either—squirrel meat was one of the chief ingredients thrown into Brunswick and booyah pots. The main reason for this is because there were so many squirrels around and, in the spring and fall when a lot of community events take place, they’re out and about so much that they may as well just jump into the pot. Many people in quite a few sections of the country continue to consider squirrel a delicacy, no different than a rabbit to a Frenchman. A wild, bushytail squirrel tastes like what it has grown up eating—nuts and berries: bag a squirrel nesting by a pear or apple orchard and the meat will be sweetly redolent of fruit. (This is why it’s not such a good idea to hunt city squirrels, even though they’re easier to catch, considering their habit of sitting right down next to you on a park bench: at best, they’re liable to taste just like pretzels and hotdogs buns.)
The meat on a young squirrel is tender and best cooked simply—pan-fried, perhaps, with a little wine sauce on the side. Grilling is good, too. Stir-fried squirrel heads is another delicacy because of the tender cheek and neck meat—and, of course, the tiny scoop of brain that goes down in one swallow just like an oyster before you have time to worry about mad-squirrel disease or anything else like that. For both Brunswick stew and booya, you want an older squirrel—the long cooking will make the meat almost melt together with the vegetables and broth.
You never could find squirrel meat in the local butcher shop and it surely isn’t offered in supermarkets. That’s why Brunswick or booya benefits often started with a squirrel hunt. But the hunts don’t happen anymore, not for community benefits at least, because government officials have a thing about unregulated wild meat (re: mad-squirrel disease) consumed at public events.
Still, hunts before compiling a vat of either dish for friends and family are known to occur and some game and wildlife reporters claim they are on the increase, if only because squirrel hunting is reckoned to be a lot of fun. Apparently, it has all the elements that makes hunting the thrill that it’s supposed to be: markmanship, woodsmanship, scouting, observing tracking signs, camouflage, sitting still, stalking, preparing game for the table, and, of course, bragging-rights. A good squirrel hunter will tell you the most important and pleasurable aspect of all these, is getting a chance to sit still, your back against a comfortable tree in a quiet forest just listening to the woodsy noises around you.
Local hunters—hunters, that is, living within a thousand mile radius of Brooklyn, New York—who were willing to take a completely gun-scared, antsy-pants novice along with them and then cook up a mess of Brunswick stew or booya, did not prove easy to find.
While the search was on, I tried to get over my gun-shyness at a local practice range and proved surprisingly capable (although the kick-back of a hunting rifle, even a light-weight one, is not something easily gotten comfortable with), but then I heard from the instructor how squirrels were commonly hunted: scoping them out by looking for forging mothers, then picking the hell out of all the squeaking critters that scurry from the nearby nest. By the time I found someone in West Virginia who was willing to do a relative a favor and take me into the woods, I couldn’t get around the fact that what were good sport and a scrumptious dinner to some, were cute, defenseless families to me.
Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. To learn more about Pat and her books, visit: patwillard.com.