Earlier this month, an issue of Chicago Reader's Mike Sula proclaimed that the meat of the climbing, scurrying, nut-eating mammals that urbanites encounter daily was the "Chicken of the Trees." Well, New York City has squirrels, too. And so, in today's New York Post, Sara Pepitone shares the story of urban hunter Steven Rinella, who has a memoir out September 4. It's called Meat Eater.
According to Pepitone, Rinella "grew up hunting and eating squirrel" in his rural town of Twin Lake, Michigan. When squirrels started to steal food from his Brooklyn garden, he decided he would just eat them. This isn't legal, exactly, but there appear to be loopholes, per Pepitone:
Hunting squirrel by trap is technically illegal in New York state (and the state-approved methods of capture — by hunting bow or firearm — are banned in New York City) — but, since they are nuisance animals, according to the state’s Environmental Conservation Law, they may be killed at any time in any manner by the owners or occupants if they are injuring property.
Fine, fine, one man's garden pest is another's large bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. But where does hunting and cooking squirrel fit into the culinary zeitgeist these days, exactly? It's certainly not the first time we've discussed "urban forager" types. In fact, they've been something of a novelty for years, along with dumpster divers, freegans and other folks who live off the land in places you might not expect the land to have much to offer, namely cities. Rinella says it's just something he's used to—“Squirrel was a thing people ate where I lived. It was part of the culinary lexicon,” he tells Pepitone.
Back in 2009, The New York Times published a trend piece by Marlena Spieler on squirrel-eating, though it focused on the culinary choice in Britain, not the U.S.A. In Seattle, there's been talk of squirrel-eating from 2011. Many Southerners and those who live in rural parts of the country have been eating it for far longer, according to a 2010 roundup from The Week. Earlier this month came Sula's piece in Chicago Reader, along with a cover decorated with the sectioned-off diagram of a squirrel and its various edible parts. Even Rinella's "powerful fashionista wife" has been convinced. Is squirrel simply mainstream? If the squirrels are eating pizza, must the humans eat the squirrels?
It tastes like chicken, according to nearly everyone.
Nonetheless. The main problem is one of PR—chicken tastes like chicken, too, and it's not squirrel!—though Rinella appears to have made the leap of acceptance. Pepitone writes, "The city is teeming with animals that can be eaten, according to Rinella, including unprotected species like English sparrows, starlings and — yes — pigeons that can be taken at any time without limit (though, as with squirrels, there’s a gray area in terms of legal methods for capturing them)." Also, fish and turtles, and maybe even turkey.
This is not just eating, it's conservation, according to Rinella, but then, it's his job, too. Along with his book, he's host of a show on the Sportsman Channel called MeatEater. If all goes badly, he's got a freezer full of "big game" to fall back on. But maybe the culinary zeitgeist is this: What was once strange or unusual or even unappetizing is destined to someday become artisanal or, at least, to entrance some section of the experimental food-eating population. Per The Post:
“Urbanites tend to view eating as an event, a form of entertainment,” he says. “They want things that are new, refreshing, mind-bending. It’s not a huge stretch for them to take their food interests in a new direction with wild game.”
Basically, we're going to get to the point that we've all become so civilized we're too bored not to eat squirrel that we've caught in our nearby parks and tomato gardens and skinned ourselves in our one-room studios. Isn't that progress? For those tempted now, Pepitone's piece includes tips on bagging your meal and Rinella's special recipe for lemon-thyme squirrel.