Young and Hungry

The Real Reason Why Squirrel Meat Isn’t Used in Brunswick Stew Anymore

About two years ago, I wrote a column on Brunswick stew and how difficult it was to find the real thing, even in Virginia, one of two states that claim to be the birthplace of the hearty hash of smoked meats and practically every vegetable that hasn't gone to rot in your pantry. Most of the research I found back then noted that the original meat in Brunswick stew was squirrel, which had long since been replaced by chicken (or sometimes rabbit), no doubt due to the fact that you didn't have to chase down a backyard varmint to prepare the dish.

Well, not so fast. The other day, I was skimming through Mark Kurlansky's latest, The Food of a Younger Land, yet another book based on the old (and unpublished) WPA "America Eats" project, when I tripped upon the author's intro to an essay titled, "Sergeant Saunders' Virginia Brunswick Stew." In his intro, Kurlansky writes:

Brunswick stew traditionally used squirrel, but not the nervous fluffy rodents of city parks. The tradition was to eat the little animal that glides from tree to tree in the Appalachian forests, the flying squirrel. It is interesting that the recipes collected for America Eats of both burgoo and Brunswick stew play down the role of squirrel. The flying squirrel that lives among the vanishing hardwood trees of unclogged old-growth forests was already becoming scarce in the 1940s and is today endangered.

Interestingly enough, the Bush administration, in its final months, took the flying squirrel off the endangered species list, causing a small uproar among environmentalists who claimed the animal's population had not recovered sufficiently to merit such a move. There's since been a call to put the flying squirrel back on the list.

Either way, there's obviously no reason to go back to the "original" Brunswick stew meat.

Photo by Charles Steck

  • Ramon

    Mark your calendar for Nov. 7th, and take a ride 2 hours down I-95 to the Richmond, Va. Brunswick Stew Festival. I went every year when I lived in the burbs of Richmond. It's a blast-don't recall if anyone used squirrel, but chicken and rabbit? Oh yeah!
    You can buy ticket to sample from some 30 or more stews, then after 1pm, you can buy you favorite in quarts. Folks come from all around with coolers waiting in their cars.

  • Mike Riggs

    Every batch of Brunswick Stew that my grandmother made--and she made quite a few between the time I was old enough to hunt and when I went to college--contained gray squirrels my cousins and I killed with my grandfather's antique double-barrel 410 shotgun.

  • NovaNicole

    Don't eat the Flying Squirrels! They're so cute!

  • monkeyrotica

    The only thing that tastes better than Rocky is Bullwinkle, preferrably garnished with mooseberries.

  • misterbeal

    Mark Kurlansky, a native of Connecticut, may prefer Brunswick stew made with flying squirrels, and it may be delicious for all I know. But Southern boys in my day shot gray squirrels with a .22 rifle for Brunswick stew. Stew can be made with all kinds of meat or just plain vegetables, but old-fashioned Brunswick stew was made with squirrel meat

  • squirrel

    I really like the romantic notion you portray of only eating the rare (because of human incroachment) flying squirrel. Very convienent for some one who couldn't clean a "nervous little animal" even if he could find one in the backyard. I however will continue the tradition of eating what nature provides. The available game and veggies go in brunswick stew. Regardless of what book you skimmed. Have fun in your backyard, and writing your columns. Try to get off the concrete one day this month.

  • Angelo Ibleto

    The subject "Squirrels" Got my attention. In Italy we have RED tree squirrels. In the area in which I come from these cute creature diet is 100 pine nuts. During hunting season for years and years as teenager, there was NO Sunday dinner the we did not have mother's fresh made pasta soaked in squirrels pasta sauce. The flavor and the meat from them was absolutely amazing.
    In CA. never shot a squirrel, the color GRAY, never was too appetite to me.