ROMNEY, W. Va. — The news that another critter has been added to this year's Squirrel Fest buffet fails to impress at least one arriving guest.
"I don't want no 'coon," he says, even as he meets the man who supplied it and is told how it will be prepared.
Not to worry. Tangy rabbit nachos, a vegetarian lasagna, potato soup, a salsa-inspired raccoon dip and fried raccoon did not divert attention from the headliner at the 13th event of its kind held the Sunday before Thanksgiving: a giant vat of squirrel gravy, lightly caramel-colored and smooth on the surface, with shreds and chunks of long-cooked meat waiting to be ladled up and onto biscuits and baked potatoes.
In this 250-year-old seat of Hampshire County with a population of 2,000, where vegetable farmers turn in their hoes for hunting gear as the weather turns cold, small-game season is a big deal. Squirrel hunting in particular.
Residential squirrels help themselves to bird feeders or scamper into attics. But hungry rural squirrels can wreak havoc on a farm. Squirrel Fest host Calvin Riggleman, son of Gary Riggleman (the raccoon meat raconteur) says the bushy-tailed Sciurus carolinensis digs up newly planted seeds and munches away at apples ripe for the picking at his 85-acre farm. A boom in the squirrel populations of some Northeast states this year led to sizable crop losses on orchards in Vermont and New York, according to recent Associated Press reports.
While pest experts use chemicals to control squirrels, the farmers here have a sustainable solution.
"I'm not sure why there's a season for squirrel," says Cal's mother, Linda Riggleman, who has been making squirrel gravy for years. "We never have run out." The gravy's a standby; last year, Riggleman made squirrel potpie for the fest and did, in fact, run out.