In her new book, "From the Family Kitchen," Gena Philibert-Ortega explores the value of our food heritage and the importance of leaving a legacy for future generations. Among some of the old recipes found in the book is a method for cooking squirrels, although dated 1894 in Los Angeles, this cook's squirrels came from the market. Not so for my ancestors. According to my Uncle Jesse, who spent a great deal of time with his grandparents, Grandpa Durham was a squirrel hunter. I never thought to ask what he did with all those squirrels -- I suppose he could have sold or traded them, but I they probably ate a good few, as well. Grandma and Grandpa Durham migrated from Alabama to Texas soon after they were married in 1872. For many of the pioneers migrating West across America, squirrel was on the menu. Cookbook author Hank Shaw calls squirrels the "chicken of the trees."
Squirrel and rabbit, they say, are interchangeable, and apparently so is chicken, according to some of the recipes I came across in my newspaper search. In fact, newspapers are great place to look for old recipes (and social customs of every variety), especially if you have access to a digitized collection that lets you limit your search in multiple ways such the Newspapers & Publications on Ancestry.com. Giving it the old college try, I thought I'd see what kind of squirrel recipes I could find. On the search page for the newspaper collection, I entered only my location of interest "Texas, USA" and two keywords, "recipes, squirrel." Among the many entries was a 1935 recipe from the Port Arthur News, Port Arthur, Texas, for Brunswick Stew (an original squirrel recipe), and a little farther down in the same article a recipe for Squirrel Pie. In searching for recipes, you could also narrow the search by date, or even by ethnicity using the Collection Priority drop-down menu.
And true to the addage, "waste not want not," every bit of the squirrel was used. In addition to providing a meal, the skins might have been sold or personally used. Squirrel tail was (and is) used as a lure to catch fish (it was also used in the stew); the skins were used to make make banjo strings; squirrel pelts were used for hats, vests and blankets (and later, even fashionable women's coats); and the hide could also be tanned and made into a soft leather for pouches and other uses. And remember, this is history -- today it may seem almost barbaric, but for our ancestors, in many cases it was survival.