Maren brings you rare or fun recipes and news of funky, out-of-the-way places to dine or buy treats. She is a teacher, mom, and foodie.
"Squirrel is the best meat I ever tasted," confessed my Aunt Margie. "Dad would go out with his gun early in the morning and if he got squirrels, Mother would fry them up for breakfast . . ." she shared as we toured around the Altoona, Pennsylvania, and surrounding Blair County. We were co-adventurers on a Morgan genealogy road trip, my octogenarian aunt and I.
Which led me, a suburban, non-hunting type of gal, on my quest to taste this epic king of meats: fried squirrel.
Scoring Safe Squirrel Meat
This is a primo concern. I have always lived in suburbs or cities and no one in my immediate family ever hunted. Squirrel meat is not offered in my local grocery stores and I am cautiously skeptical about buying meat online from unknown sources.
But, since I had decided that tasting fried squirrel was on my bucket list, I put out the word to the three hunters I know: "I would really like to taste squirrel. If you ever get one, could you please give it to me?"
A year later, great friend J. Houser surprised me with three of the little bushy tailed mammals, already gutted, skinned, and frozen. Wow! Eternal thanks to you, buddy!
Imagining Gramma's Recipe
Gramma Anna Morgan's fried squirrel breakfast recipe was not handed down. Furthermore, she and Aunt Margie are now living in Heaven and are unavailable to consult.
So, I eagerly scoured the internet for recipes and chose a relatively uncomplicated version.
Squirrels are buff, lean, jumping machines. Therefore, their meat is primarily tough muscle. Several friends advised me to marinate the little fellows in water for several hours before frying in order to soften and tenderize them.
I chose the largest squirrel, placed it in a large, deep pot of lightly salted water, and put it in the refrigerator. This was combination thawing and marinating time.
A question soon popped into my mind: according to Aunt Margie's story, the breakfast squirrels were eaten an hour or so after being shot, so . . . is fresh, warm squirrel meat softer and more tender than thawed squirrel?
I cannot picture my Gramma, trying to feed children and husband breakfast, marinating the meat.
But, maybe she did?
Recipe 1: Breaded Fried Squirrel
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Deep skillet or frying pan
- Tongs and slotted spatula
- Timer or watch
- Shallow bowl
- 1 entire skinned, gutted squirrel
- 2 cups milk
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- Crisco, enough that when melted fills a skillet 1/2 inch "deep"
Step 1. After I completed the salt water thawing and marinating, I discarded the water and hacked the squirrel into six pieces. Then, I marinated the meat a second time: combining the milk and garlic powder and soaking the meat in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. (I realize that my Gramma would never have even owned garlic powder, but I added this for myself. I think I was operating out of fascination and fear about how this would taste, so I added a spice I like.)
Step 2. While the squirrel enjoyed "marinade number two," I prepared the simple breading. l combined the flour with salt and freshly ground black pepper in a shallow bowl that would be easy to drag meat pieces through. (Gramma certainly did not have a pepper grinder. She would have used the ground spice in a tin purchased from the grocery. But again, I was doing some self-care for my taste buds.)
Step 3. After the breading was thoroughly mixed, I started to slowly heat a cup of Crisco brand shortening in my deep skillet. Slowly—low heat—is the key for this moment. No one wants to start a grease fire.
Step 4. As the Crisco melted, I dredged (dragged) the squirrel pieces through the breading. I was pleasantly surprised how well the flour stuck to the wet meat. As I turned the pieces to get completely covered, all the flour stayed where previously dredged.
Step 5. Now that I could give it my full attention, I turned the heat under the skillet to medium high. When a tiny drop of water flicked into the melted shortening sizzled, the Crisco was hot enough. I gently lowered each breaded piece of meat into the hot oil using a spatula. Then I set a timer for 10 minutes.
After five minutes of frying, the dish was smelling heavenly. I couldn't wait.
Step 6. After 10 minutes of cooking on one side, I used tongs to turn each piece to fry the other side. At this point, it was necessary to slightly reduce the stove heat setting a little because the skillet and oil were retaining a lot of heat.
Step 7. After 5 or so minutes, the squirrel pieces looked done. I turned off the heat, moved the skillet to a cold burner, and used tongs to move the cooked squirrel to a plate. I did NOT use paper towels or anything to soak up grease because I was afraid of knocking off breading.
Verdict on Trial One
Trial one made a delicious meat dish. It tasted as heavenly as it had smelled. The crunchy breading was perfect. I fell in love
However, over the next few days I reflected on the entire experience. I decided I needed to conduct a second trial with a simpler recipe using the two remaining squirrels in my freezer.
I'll Never Know for Sure, But . . .
I was genuinely thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to cook and taste squirrel meat. I thought about my Aunt Margie and my Gramma Anna Morgan and tried to imagine the kitchen at breakfast time in the mid-1920s and later.
Aunt Margie was born in 1923 to my 19-year-old newlywed Gramma. I never got to see the house where she, Aunt Lillian, and my dad started their lives, but I heard about it.
The newlyweds' first home, possessions, and all the baby clothes prepared for their first-born was destroyed by a fire. Gramma and PapPap quickly found a second home to rent within the Altoona city limits. It had gas lights (yes, gas running through the walls to fixtures in many rooms) and a coal stove in the kitchen. This was the setting of my Aunt Margie's early childhood fried squirrel breakfasts.
I'm sure that it was modest because my grandparents were just starting out, they were blessed with a family a little sooner than they might have expected, and had a child every two years for a bit of time after welcoming Margie into their family.
Aunt Margie told me that Gramma would hang all the wet laundry on parallel clothes lines streaking across the kitchen ceiling because it was the warmest room in the house. Gramma was a resourceful woman full of common sense!
The kitchen was lit by kerosene lanterns - either because there was no gas light or, highly likely, because kerosene was cheaper. That's where Aunt Margie did her grammar school homework - in the kitchen by lantern light.
For those readers who have never visited Altoona, it is a city dropped in the middle of the Appalachian Mountains. The hilly forests surround any land that wasn't cleared for a railroad yard or a house. Therefore, it's very easy to imagine PapPap conveniently walking or driving his jalopy a short way to find prime squirrel hunting spots. And, he did.
But . . .
I thought about how life must have been during the time period that Aunt Margie could remember.
Imagining Gramma's Life
In the time of the remembered "Squirrel Breakfasts," Gramma would have been breastfeeding the youngest child. If that child was still in diapers, Gramma had cloth diapers to constantly wash with an ancient machine and wringer located in her kitchen. Then, she'd be hanging these plus her regular laundry to air dry in the kitchen. If she wasn't nursing, she was probably pregnant, which can sap a mother of energy.
Hungry kids, hungry husband . . . this required efficiency in getting breakfast made.
I just couldn't picture her fussing with all the steps I took in my first effort frying a squirrel.
First, I can't see her taking the time to do tenderizing marinades with water. I marinated because I had frozen, thawed meat. But, I am ruling it out as her method.
Second, Gramma would not have wasted precious milk in a marinade. Not at all.
Third, I return to the time needed to cook the squirrels. I doubt Gramma would have slowed preparation down by breading the little fellows. However, we will never know. I consulted Aunt Margie's children and they did not have any intelligence to share about the fried squirrel eaten by their mother.
So, I resolved to cook my remaining treasure of squirrel meat in a way I envision is closer to what my Gramma would have done.
Recipe 2: Faster, Simpler Fried Squirrel
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Deep skillet or frying pan with a lid
- Tongs and slotted spatula
- Timer or watch
- 2 entire skinned, gutted squirrels
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- 2 Tablespoons saved bacon grease
- 2 to 3 Tablespoons Crisco
Step 1. Because I had frozen meat, I did the salt water thawing and marinating. Let's say my gramma would not have done this. Then, I chopped each squirrel into six pieces.
Step 2. I put the bacon grease and Crisco brand shortening in my deep skillet. Because I could give my full attention to it, I melted it on medium to medium-high heat. Vigilant monitoring meant no grease fire.
Step 3. When the melted grease and Crisco reached that sweet spot of sizzling when a tiny drop of water was flicked into it, I turned the heat up the tiniest notch. Then, I quickly lowered each piece of meat into the hot oil using the spatula. Next, I set a timer for 5 minutes. (Note: five minutes, not ten.)
Step 4. At 5 minutes, I turned the heat down to medium and I covered the skillet with its lid. So, the squirrel is now both steaming and frying. I set the timer for another 5 minutes for checking the meat.
Step 5. At the next timer buzz, I removed the lid and inspected the squirrel for doneness on the first side. I turned over each piece of meat with tongs and kept the lid off. After five or so minutes, the squirrel pieces looked completely cooked. I turned off the heat, moved the skillet to a cold burner, and used tongs to move the cooked squirrel to a plate.
I did NOT use paper towels or anything to soak up grease because that is the sort of resource-using, time-wasting behavior I cannot imagine my Gramma doing.
Comparison and Take-Aways
My second batch of fried squirrel was tasty. I sprinkled on a dusting of table salt and ground black pepper, which would have been on the kitchen table at Gramma's house. The closest way to describe the taste (to me) is like dark turkey meat with a little hint of calves liver. It was greasy and the salt made it similar to so many salty-greasy comfort foods that we Americans enjoy.
In contrast, the first breaded batch was "out of all imagining" delicious! However, I think that was from the Crisco-infused crunchy breading. It could have been any meat underneath the crunch: chicken turkey, veal, squirrel. I loved the outside of the dish.
What does this mean for Aunt Margie's strong memories?
I think that however Gramma Morgan prepared the squirrel, Aunt Margie felt the love of her father going out into the dawn to provide for his family, the love of her mother cooking the squirrel in whatever fashion, and the family bonded over hot, fresh food in the morning.
I may not have discovered the king of meats for my palate, but I discovered an experience from my family's past. That makes fried squirrel pretty danged special to me.
© 2021 Maren Elizabeth Morgan