I don’t like to brag about the things that I have, in the past, put into my mouth. That would be unseemly.
I mention this only because I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I am one of those squeamish types you see in restaurants sending the vichyssoise back because she specifically asked for it to be chilled to 37 degrees and this is clearly only chilled to 39. So, while I am generally a pretty good sport, gustatorially speaking, and am willing to eat vichyssoise at a whole range of temperatures, the truth of the matter is that I do not want to eat a squirrel.
And yet I am – apparently – going to.
This is a quote from a book by Rebecca Sharpless that I read, completely by accident: “Historian Donna Gabaccia observed, ‘Psychologists tell us that food and language are the cultural traits humans learn first and the ones that they change with greatest reluctance. Humans cannot easily lose their accents after about the age of twelve; similarly, the food they ate as children forever defines familiarity and comfort.’ As individuals become imprinted with their food preferences, so do entire societies. Food delineates a culture, demonstrating who is and is not a part of that culture and expressing status and prestige.”
So, basically, I’m screwed. I would be a fool to try to fight against that type of scholarly certitude. If I’m going to delineate my hillbilly culture, it is clear that, sooner or later, I am going to have to eat the quintessential dish of my people.
(There is a gossamer-thin vision from my childhood, floating through the random byways of my memory – a cabin, bare plank walls, a woman’s hands missing one finger, an iron skillet, a skinned squirrel.)
“I probably can’t even find squirrel meat,” I said (hopefully) to my husband.
“Let’s google it!” he said, kind of gleefully. (Is this some kind of payback for that unfortunate incident with his toothbrush? I swear it was an accident!)
“I found a place,” he gloated after about a millisecond. Fortunately, he had only found a customer review for a bulk frozen meat distributor that said, “Have had BBQ squirrel that was better.” Not a good review for the bulk frozen meat. But no matter how you look at it, this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of squirrel meat, either.
We could not rustle up any squirrel meat on the internet, as it turned out.
My friend Janie is a noted scholar of Elizabethan literature. As such, she has a deep familiarity with stories of gruesome and gory tragedy. Naturally, I turned to her in my time of need. “Janie,” I sighed, “I’m afraid that I’m going to need some squirrel meat.”
“For god’s sake, why?” Janie said.
That is just the sort of penetrating and insightful question that I had hoped Janie would bring to the proceedings. However, she jumped right on the case and within 20 minutes had half a dozen squirrel recipes she found on the goddamn internet and a news article entitled “Man Tries to Cook Squirrel with Blowtorch; Burns Down Apartment Complex” with an attached picture of flames shooting up into the sky. According the article, the unidentified (for obvious reasons) chef was “attempting to singe the hair off the varmint.” It used the word “varmint.”
Janie and I decided to buy our squirrel already cleaned.
The grocery store near my house had nothing – endless rows of boneless, skinless chicken breasts and packages of microwaveable turkey bacon. Janie and I decided that we would have to go either much higher or much lower on the socio-economic scale to find what we were looking for. Our thinking was that higher on the scale, we would venture into the world of exotic adventure eating and “game.” And at the lower end of the scale, we would find, well, the lower end. We started lower, at a grocery store out on the edge of town near the airport.
At first, things looked promising and I was truly worried that we would score. There was an enormous refrigerated bin filled with packages labeled “Hearts and Gizzards (Mostly Gizzards)”.
“Is it better to have a higher proportion of gizzards?” Janie asked.
“I would presume so,” I said, slightly taken aback as that is exactly the type of information that I had expected a noted scholar of Elizabethan literature to possess. “What’s a hock?” Janie asked me, rooting through the packages of various other animal parts. From the looks of it, it was in any case not a squirrel.
We were clearly out of our depth here. But the helpful grocery store employee who was restocking hocks didn’t turn a hair when I inquired after squirrel, bless her heart, and, although this particular store did not carry them, she thoughtfully suggested a meat market down in the pawn shop part of town. It advertised “butt rub” on a sign on the door and stocked every part of the pig (including feet, ears, and the ubiquitous hocks) as well as frog legs, various elk parts, and whole skinned rabbits that looked like tiny little shrink-wrapped porn stars there in the freezer case. But no squirrel.
“I’d have to check with our suppliers,” the helpful woman behind the counter said.
Having seen “Deliverance” at an impressionable age, I tried very hard not to mentally picture their suppliers. It was enough that Janie was seriously considering buying a tub of butt rub. (Let me just say, as an informational aside, that if you are ever looking for someone to make a whole series of highly erudite and entertaining butt rub jokes, noted scholars of Elizabethan literature are unquestionably the way to go.)
We decided to try our luck higher on the social scale and drove to Whole Foods where the butcher/personal meat shopper/individual meat management consultant did a bug-eyed combination of spit-take and heart attack when we asked for squirrel and then tried to sell us some free range chipotle turkey sausage instead because they had no squirrel meat and would not – ever – be getting any in.
“Why not?” I whined, looking petulant as a way of covering my overwhelming relief.
“Well, ma’am,” he said. “I guess probably because not too many people want to eat it.”
And that’s it, really. That’s the whole point. In this society that we live in now, you can never have anything unless lots of other people want it, too.
The Industrial Revolution came late to the South – stymied by slavery – but it did eventually come. All along the rivers, cotton mills sprang up with company towns built around them. Mountain people came down out of the hollers and the backwoods to work in the textile factories and learn a new life, regulated by the factory whistle and the time clock and the debt peonage of the company store. They learned that the seasons didn’t matter anymore and that every day from now on would be the same as the day before, the same as the day after. They learned to eat bread from packages and beans from cans and meat made in factories – all bought on credit at the company store. This was mass culture and we still live in it now.
Only some people didn’t. The hillbillies stayed put up in the mountains, resisting the siren call of cash wages, cheap consumer goods, and regular shifts in the factory. And they paid a price for that resistance – despair, poverty, violence, ridicule. But the people who left the hills paid a price, too. The same price, in fact.
This is the thing about squirrel meat and hillbillies: they ate squirrels and whatever else they could find up in the mountains rather than come down into the factories and never see anything different or live any way different or be anything different or even eat anything different again. At least up in the backwoods, there’s no time clock, no factory whistle, no company store. At least up in the backwoods, you are not just one of the mass.
Maybe squirrel meat tastes like freedom. I wouldn’t know.
Kathy Giuffre was born and raised in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas where her family goes back at least five generations. She is the author of “An Afternoon in Summer: My Year in the South Seas” and lives in Colorado with her husband and two sons.