A Dish Fit for a King

One of my favorite cookbooks for colonial recipes is _The Backcountry Housewife_ by Kay Moss and Katherine Hoffman. I like the feel of the book, the plain-talking way of describing the dishes and cooking methods of the Carolina back country in the eighteenth century. One recipe which caught my eye is Jugged Hare, so I decided to try it. As I've delved into the lifestyle of the eighteenth-century hunter, I've come to enjoy cooking some of the dishes of the time, and this seemed a good opportunity to combine those interests.

A problem immediately arose, that of procuring the hare, since the rabbit season won't open for three months. Not to worry, though, since squirrel season opened yesterday, and I saw no reason the dish couldn't be made with squirrels, instead. That turned out to be correct.

Just like the famous recipe for cubed moose which starts out, "Cube one moose", my first job was to catch two squirrels. You have to plug them before you can jug them, after all, so I hit the woods shortly after dawn, yesterday morning, intent on doing just that.

When I arrived at the woods right at sunrise, it seemed I was in for a wet day. Low, dark clouds were scurrying by, the wind was gusty and fitful, and the air was full of mist and sprinkles of rain. Blankets of mist lay over many of the fields, and the wet, green world was beautiful. Even though I was hunting with a flintlock smoothbore, I was actually hoping for rain, because hunting squirrels in the rain is one of my favorite things. I enjoy the challenge posed by the conditions. Spotting squirrels when the tree tops are dancing, hearing them when rain is creating a background of noise is difficult, but it's satisfying if you can pull it off. Making the flintlock fire in the rain is a skill I learned long ago, and I enjoy proving that to myself whenever the opportunity presents itself.

I've never been a very active shooter, since hunting is my main interest, and you don't shoot much while doing that. This year, I have shot even less than usual, having not been out since the end of April, when I killed my spring turkey. It felt good to don my colonial rig, and as I loaded the smoothbore before starting the hunt, I could feel myself slipping into colonial mode. Checking the flint and priming the pan, I slipped away from the car, anticipating a long, pleasant day in the woods. Soft swish of moccasins in the weeds, the totally comfortable feel of my well tested gear draped around me, the reassuring weight of the Carolina smoothbore on my arm. It's good to be back, back in the woods, backwards in time.

Knowing the lay of the land on my farm, the easy, quiet, way to travel through the woods and the location of most of the nut trees which might attract squirrels is an advantage, and I already had a plan of action in my head when I began the hunt. I would start in a small woods lot I call the triangle, and I would only have to travel about a hundred yards from the car to get there. The approach is along a line of trees in an old fence row, and there are some hickory and walnut trees in the line, so I hunted toward the woods. About fifty yards along I came to the first hickory and was pleased to see some nuts on it. That doesn't happen every year.

Standing there trying to estimate the nut crop and looking for cuttings or other signs squirrels had been using the tree, movement caught my eye, and I saw a squirrel moving steadily toward the hickory tree, and toward me. I raised the gun, and when it was about twenty yards out, dropped the hammer. Instant ignition, that most pleasant of all things to a flintlock shooter, a puff of smoke, and the squirrel dropped straight down, dead before it hit the ground. Well, now, a good start, the first squirrel on the ground after hunting only five minutes.

Feeling satisfied, I reloaded the gun then retrieved the squirrel, a big boar fox squirrel, and slipped it into my game bag. A pleasant weight.

Sliding very slowly along, senses alert and enjoying the cool, unsettled morning, I continued down the tree line. Fifty yards further along, almost at the triangle, I stopped once again to study a tall hickory with many nuts visible on it. These early signs might mean a productive year for the nut trees and a good squirrel season. Good. As I turned away to continue toward the woods, only a few yards away, now, I heard something. Even with the wind blowing noisily in the trees, my 'squirrel sense', honed by many years of doing this very thing, was working full time, and I knew instantly that what I had heard was a piece of a hickory hull dropping from the tree. They make a series of sounds as they strike several leaves on the way down, and it's a sound easily identified by experienced squirrel hunters. More solid than dewdrops shaken loose, sharper and more intermittent than raindrops, they sound like... well, like a squirrel cutting. Sure enough, watching the tree, I spotted the tell-tale movement of the leaves as the pieces dropped through them, saw the small pieces falling, backlighted by the warm, early morning light. Following those little shaking movements higher, ever higher, I located the exact spot they were coming from, near the top of the tall hickory, out in the smaller limbs. I couldn't see the squirrel, but I could see its tail, so I took the shot. Down it came, once again already dead. Reloading, I went to retrieve my prize and found a fat sow fox squirrel. More weight in the game bag.

Well, if that's not something. I came out anticipating a whole day of wandering the woods, attempting to collect my supper, and my supper is already in the bag although I have been hunting only thirty minutes. The perfect definition of ambivalence, I would say. I have my two squirrels required for the recipe, but I'm not ready to quit hunting. Reluctant to give it up, I moved a few yards into the triangle, found a comfortable root to sit on, leaned back against the tree and spent the next hour just watching, listening, feeling the mist and wind. Great.

The cleaned squirrels were each cut into six pieces and refrigerated in salt water overnight, then it was time to make the dish. As instructed by the original recipe from colonial days, the squirrels were put into a redware bean pot. The original says to lard the meat with little strips of bacon, but I elected to just drape a couple of slices of salt cured, smoked bacon over the pieces once they were in the pot. Salt, pepper and a half-teaspoon (two blades) of mace were sprinkled on top. An onion was stuck with a dozen whole cloves and added to the pot, then a bundle of 'sweet herbs', which, for me, consisted of basil, purple basil, mint, lemon mint and sour grass. The sour grass, or sorrel, I collected from the yard and added on a whim, just to see the effect. No additional liquid was added.

The top of the pot was then tied closed with a piece of cloth, "so that nothing can get in". A second pot, large enough to hold the squirrel pot, was placed on the fire, the squirrel pot set down into it and water added nearly to the top of the second pot. The water was brought to a slow boil and the squirrel cooked in this way for about five hours, water being adding as needed. The original recipe said that three hours would finish the dish, but they were dealing with easily cooked hares, not large, mature fox squirrels, which are well known to take extra cooking to tenderize. In the end, the meat was falling off the bone... just right.

What do you eat with jugged squirrel? Hmmmm... One of my favorite side dishes of the colonial type is my version of Three Sisters... cubed butternut squash, fresh yellow corn cut off the cob and baby green lima beans, all cooked together with only some butter, salt and pepper. This seemed appropriate to accompany the squirrel, as did hot, freshly made biscuits. Right on both counts. A good sauce for the meat was made from the liquid collected in the pot by adding a dollop of butter and a little flour, adjusting the seasoning and heating until thickened. A dash of Madeira wine, with its own rich colonial history, rounded out the flavor nicely. To add to the colonial feel and flavor of the meal, I chose to drink hot gunpowder tea, the history of which also stretches back to colonial times. It was a good decision, and it rounded out a very good meal.

Seasoning of food was done differently in the eighteenth century, as anyone who tries their recipes will soon discover. Nutmeg, which we mostly think of today as a spice for sweets, was commonly used on meats in those days. The mace in this recipe added that type of taste, but it worked very well. The meat was tender and flavorful, and the sauce was highly seasoned, almost spicy. Delectable with the hot, crusty biscuits.

The verdict? Hey, those old folks knew how to fix a dish "fit to set before the King". And the Queen and I appreciate it.

I couldn't begin to count the meals I've made of squirrels. Likewise, the squirrel hunts stretch back to my very young childhood. Nothing spectacular about either, or about this particular hunt and meal, from one point of view. From my vantage point, though, this was a very special dish. Hunting squirrels with a flintlock fowler, dressed in a colonial outfit made almost entirely by my own hands, then preparing the dish myself from a colonial recipe and with a colonial method... well, it feels good. Old fashioned, simple, unassuming and good.

Copyright © B. E. Spencer 2001 All rights reserved.

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