I Love West Virginia
I LOVE WEST VIRGINIA, it’s the most beautiful state in the lower 48. And professionally, because of the state’s topography, makes it the most obvious example of Darwin’s Island Theory. Tiny little hamlets and towns comprise West Virginia and the pockets of culture preserved by its steep hillsides are legendary, especially when it comes to music, but also when it comes to food.
The story below I wrote originally for a friend’s anthology called Chewed. I was sent a half-eaten squirrel chew toy, purportedly mangled by someone’s dog, and was told to give them 700 words of backstory. I did, and inspired by my many trips to WV, it feels right to share with you in this format. Best of all, it has a great squirrel recipe included, enjoy.
Squirrel: A Cautionary Tale
I knew I wanted to eat it. Why wouldn’t I? I had joyfully devoured this primeval delicacy years before, in the hollers of West Virginia and yeah, it was really good. Never shy away from a plump squirrel, that’s my motto.
I know what you’re thinking. And to answer your question, this squirrel has nothing in common with a NYC Central Park squirrel. Those little bastards are vicious and Lord only knows what they are eating, or what squirrel-borne pathogens they could pass my way. This squirrel was different. This squirrel was local… born, raised, fed and eventually taking the long dirt nap, all in the backyard of my house in Minnesota. He ate apples I tossed him in the winter, berries from my garden in summer. Diet dictates flavor!
So one day in late October, small game license in hand, when preparation met with opportunity, I culled the herd and dispatched the biggest fattest sweetest, fruit-and-nut fed squirrel of them all. This was locavorism of the highest order. Zero mile dieting more or less. I skinned and butchered him, roasted the head in the fireplace, engaging the most far reaching places of my lizardy consciousness as I cracked the skull and prized out the brain, splashed it with sea salt and a squeeze of lemon and enjoyed every blissfully creamy, meat buttery moment. The rest of him? Well, fried squirrel is something my friends at the Snowshoe Lodge and Adventures at The Gorge gave me a lust for, so lunch was a no-brainer. Pun intended. Weeks later a treat arrived in the mail from the local taxidermist, so up on the shelf went my little squirrel. In full view through the glass enclosed porch of all the other critters in the woods. Top of the food chain baby! But my delightfully articulated symbolic gesture was short lived. The pooch, drawn to the latest incarnation as much as I was to the first, somehow got him down. And yes, the dog clearly enjoyed his chew toy as much as I enjoyed his warm blooded doppelganger.
Take your squirrel and skin it, clean it, rinse it in several changes of cold water and pat it dry. Cut it into fifths (two front quarters, two rear quarters and one central piece of the saddle).
Let it soak in a cup or more of buttermilk for as little as 2 hours or as much as 24.
Remove the squirrel from the buttermilk and let it drip dry for a moment, then season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Dredge it in flour lightly seasoned with salt and pepper and place pieces on a piece of wax paper.
Place a large cast iron skillet over medium heat and add rendered fresh lard (vegetable oil will do in a pinch), to fill to a depth of about a half inch.
Heat the fat to 375 degrees, or until a piece of squirrel sizzles well when it’s slipped into the pan.
Fry pieces for 5-6 minutes, until walnut brown, drain on paper towel, season, allow fried squirrel to rest a few minutes and enjoy.