By Whitney Pipkin
Special to The Washington Post.
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.
American squirrel cuisine has something of an official birthplace in Virginia's Brunswick County, where in 1828 four of the critters, onions and stale bread went into a pot and became the dish known as Brunswick stew. The Irish Times reported in January 1997 that the "American habit of eating squirrel has arrived in Britain," chronicling a sampling of roasted squirrel and casseroles with herbs and chanterelles served at an estate owned by the Duke of Buccleuch. The U.K.-based Wild Meat supplies grey squirrel meat (an invasive species) to British grocers and sells online.
Cal Riggleman returned from two deployments with the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006 to start his own farm and family in Romney, next to the 80 acres of orchards farmed by his grandparents.
Now 31, he was just out of high school when he started Squirrel Fest with a few friends at his parents' house. It grew; when the number of attendees hit 250, Riggleman moved the operation to a commercial kitchen and warehouse he bought with a business partner two years ago. (His Bigg Riggs Farm sauces and jams are manufactured there.)
The free event coincides with the start of deer-hunting season — something folks here tend to appreciate.
"Makes me want to hit something on the way home!" Kevin Moore, a friend of Riggleman's, said as he cleaned his Squirrel Fest plate.
At 40, the Winchester, Va., resident couldn't believe he had waited this long to taste squirrel, or raccoon for that matter, given his childhood fondness for the taste of mud turtle. Moore found purpose in expanding his protein palate.
"With the current state of the presidency, we probably ought to get used to eating more wildlife," he said.
At first glance, the pieces of squirrel meat in the gravy could have been mistaken for dark turkey meat. Though chewy, it had the richness of duck without any fatty mouth feel. (Cal Riggleman shared his recipe, which will be tested and posted at www.washingtonpost.com/recipes as soon as possible, in about a week.)
Romney resident and regular Squirrel Fest attendee Patty Clark said she prefers vegetables but has been eating wild game most of her life.
"My family hunts like it's their religion," she said.
After a few bites, Clark recalled that some of the 20 squirrels that went into the gravy might have come from her property. She didn't seem to mind.
Hank Shaw, author of "Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast" (Rodale, 2011) who also blogs at Honest-Food.net, said shooting squirrels, which are "basically rats with better PR," is a rite of passage in traditional American hunting.
Shaw cut his own hunting teeth at the age of 32 by targeting squirrels, which he says are great shooting practice for beginners. If it sounds easy, remember that rural squirrels aren't nearly as daring as their urban relatives — the ones that skitter down the sidewalk just close enough to torment a dog on the leash.
Gray squirrel and fox squirrel hunting season opened in September for all counties in Maryland and the more rural counties of Virginia, including Loudoun and Prince William, and runs through the winter.
A high-powered pellet gun or .22-caliber pistol will take out a squirrel, Shaw said, though he finds a shotgun effective at the 50-foot range when leaves are still on the trees.
Skinning squirrels is not for the faint of heart. The elder Riggleman, who helped bag most of the squirrels for the gravy served at Squirrel Fest, suggests cutting off the critter's feet and head, slicing the skin down the back and peeling it open like a banana. Shaw said the task becomes much harder the longer you wait, and squirrel hides are known for their toughness.
You won't find squirrel on American restaurant menus or grocery shelves, because it's illegal to sell wild game in the United States. While rabbit and duck can be farmed for such uses, farming squirrel would be, well, comical. (Riggleman got a good laugh out of the idea, hunching over to demonstrate what he would look like "herding squirrels.") Shaw reports that the various types of squirrels taste mostly the same.
If the prospect of plumbing a cheap food source isn't inspiration enough, consider the meat's impressive nutritional profile.
Like plenty of animals that run for a living, squirrels are a low-fat source of protein, says Gabriella M. Petrick, an associate professor of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University who grew up outside Pittsburgh eating game.
A 3.5-ounce serving of squirrel has nearly 22 grams of protein and three grams of mostly "good fats" from its nut-centric diet, according to a nutritional analysis of game meat.
"It may be a little weird for most Americans," Petrick said. "But at the end of the day, people have been eating squirrel and small game for eons."
Pipkin, a freelance journalist who lives in Alexandria, Va., blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.