Squirrel stew

These rats of the canopy are multiplying all over Sacramento. Why not put them to good use?

The squirrels are starting to look a little better every year—not really because of anything they’re doing differently, but in light of the economic situation at least 99 percent of the rest of us are in. I figure it’s only a matter of time before the squirrel population in at least some parts of Sacramento goes into noticeable decline.

So here are a few helpful hints.

The first thing you need to understand about squirrels is that they are really rats of the canopy. This is based on the scientific facts that both will eat damned near anything, and both will gnaw on anything else until it becomes a fire hazard.

The key difference is that squirrels are somewhat more edible.

I can’t tell you what a rat tastes like, and I hope it never comes to that. But eating a squirrel, while difficult, need not be considered impossible. In fact, with only a small adjustment to one’s expectations and a somewhat larger adjustment to one’s cooking skills, just about anybody can learn to enjoy squirrel, rather than simply endure it as one of the inevitable stations of declining empire.

A second key fact to bear in mind is that many cultures, including various American subcultures, eat squirrel to this day. Obviously, they have worked at the problem and at least come to an acceptable compromise, so all we need do is absorb a few more quirks into our infinitely flexible national persona.

As far as that goes, hardly an American pioneer made it through youth without becoming an expert hunter of squirrels, and this is equally true for nearly any European transplant or native of the continent, as far as I know.

Manifest Destiny itself relied on squirrels to feed the teeming masses in the absence of larger game, which was not uncommon with the woods full of pioneers. Daniel Boone, for instance, is said to have made it a specialty to “bark” his targeted tree rodents, because the 50-caliber musket ball used in his legendary Kentucky rifle, right on target, would punch a saucer full of meat out of a creature assembled by the tablespoon. Barking required hitting the squirrel’s perch, usually a tree branch, near enough the squirrel’s beady but pestilent eyes to stun the creature with shrapnel, then dashing across the woodland floor, when it fell, before it blinked itself awake and administering a coup de grâce.

As youths, of course, we hunted squirrel. This was decades ago and hardly seemed odd at the time. Many a junior-high lunch hour was spent comparing notes on squirrel habitat, weapons of choice and ammo. Once in a while, we got one.

We had an uncle who had grown up in the Depression, so naturally he knew all about cooking squirrel. He “zimmered” it. The little bodies were jointed into clumps of miniature anatomy: a leg bent sharply under taut ligaments, streaks of fat, bones more bird than animal. It bubbled along in the pan with some onions, apparently some milk and splashes of wine—probably white—and lots of black pepper. The uncle was of the old school, meaning he had learned his cookery at a logging camp, more or less as punishment, and left open a standing offer to hand over his culinary duties as effective prior retort to any criticism.

Thus, we ate squirrel as well, ate least once or twice. It was tougher than an A&W burger, probably not as tough as a shoe. But somewhere between those extremes, improved but not perfected by the uncle, the wine, the onions, the atmosphere and the 10-mile hike over steep mountain trails required to fill a pan with squirrel bits. We chewed our squirrel and learned to like it.

The point is, they are reproducing and multiplying all over town, while things just get tougher for everyone else. They steal every pecan from the pecan tree before it ripens, and they do the same thing to the walnut. Which is all well and good, as far that goes. But then they go after the strawberries and the loganberries, which I don’t think is right.

I don’t mean to imply that anyone should try anything illegal, immoral or in any way out of line. But if a squirrel should be killed—say by falling from a tree—and one still hasn’t quite caught up on the bills, one should at least consider whether it would have wanted its life to have any meaning, where the word “meaning” means “contributing to the survival of somebody bigger than you, who owns a car and more than one pair of pants.”

The meaning of the word “zimmer,” we were told, is “accept the inevitable.” It is from an obscure American dialect. Just like most of us.