A Squirrel Stew Receipt

On a warm August Saturday, sneak into the woods in the early morning, dressed in the costume of a settler of 1778, and carrying a .30 caliber flintlock squirrel rifle. If it has rained the night before, leaving the trees saturated and dripping, the ground wet and silent, and the air full of early morning mist, so much the better. Pay little attention to the soft yellow glow of the steamy air, for it will distract you from your mission. Ignore the moccasins and leggings wet from walking in the weeds; they will dry tomorrow.

Listen carefully for the sounds of squirrels cutting or moving out of their night nests, looking for breakfast. Pay particular attention to the area around the hickory and walnut trees, and don't be fooled into thinking the shower of water falling from the trees with the slightest breeze is your quarry. When you find a young boar fox squirrel cutting on a walnut high in the tree and 20 yards away, shoot him in the head, offhand. Have confidence---the rifle is a tack-driver, and will do its job if you do yours. When he tumbles down, don't forget to reload quickly, as there might be hostiles about.

You may notice that as you hunt you feel a little strange, that you are too relaxed, that your shoulders feel light, as if a load had been lifted from them, that you find yourself concentrating totally on the hunt. Don't worry, the feeling is temporary and will go away within two days when you return to the settlement.

With your squirrel in hand, find a secluded nook in the woods somewhere, a place with the feel of being far away from it all, with a supply of dead wood around, and some beauty to it. A smooth spot of ground for your bedroll would be welcome. So would a log to sit on. Set up your camp, simple as it is, and get comfortable. No matter how great you are feeling now, keep the whistling to a minimum.

Scout around in the wet woods, rounding up hanging wood and the smallest pieces of dead cedar you can find. Break out your fire starting kit, lay your firewood out so it is handy, and build a small teepee of the cedar. Empty the pan of the flintlock, plug the touchhole with a bird feather, and lay a piece of charcloth in it. Close the frizzen, cock, set and fire the lock. When the sparks catch in the charcloth, take it out and fold it into your cedar bark tinder and blow steadily on it, holding it high so the smoke won't get in your eyes. When it catches, put it into the teepee and feed it until you have a steady fire going.

When coals have developed, put your only pot on to boil some sassafras tea, and toast an ear of sweet white corn and a chunk of homemade bread, both from your haversack, on a stick until golden brown. Sit on a log and have your breakfast, listening to the birds, admiring the view and relaxing after your exertions.

Add larger wood to the fire. Clean and cut up the squirrel and put it to boil with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Be certain the pot is setting steady over the coals, or you may have baked squirrel. While the pot boils, put a small leaf on a dead tree about 25 yards away and fire your rifle at it offhand, just for the fun of it, for a dozen shots or so. As you clean your rifle, take a close look at it. Notice the beautiful golden sheen of the tiger stripe maple, the patina on all the brass furniture and inlays, the delicate, graceful lines. Throw it to your shoulder and feel how naturally it falls into place and lines up with the eye. Hard to tell if it's just a utilitarian tool or a work of art, isn't it? It's both, of course. Get out your tomahawk and practice sticking a spot on the tree. Don't quit until you can hit the spot most of the time. That skill may save your life someday.

Now, break out your copy of John Locke and, sitting leaned back against a tree, read for a while to refresh in your mind the great good fortune you have had to live in this country. Offer a word of thanks to all those wise good men to whom you owe such a debt. When the squirrel has simmered for 1 1/2 hours or so, rummage in your haversack for two small potatoes and an onion. Chop these into the stew and cook for another 45 minutes. While you wait, gather up a supply of wood sufficient for the night fire.

Cut the kernels off an ear of the corn into the stew, and check the seasonings. Tear off another chunk of bread and toast it on the stick, pour a cup of cool water from your gourd canteen, and by that time the stew will be finished, the meat falling off the bones, steamy hot and refreshing. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. A word of thanks to the spirit of the squirrel might be appropriate.

Clean the pot and put some water and coffee into it. Boil for 10 minutes, then pour a little cold water down the side of the pan to settle the grounds and immediately pour yourself a hot, clear cup of delicious coffee. That will top off the stew perfectly. If you are in the mood, light up your clay pipe.

After you have set and sipped the coffee for a while, just relaxing and being glad you came, hike 1/2 mile to the small lake. Spend an hour shooting at a rock, watching fish jump, being amazed at the antics of the Eastern kingfisher that lives there. Hike back to camp in the approaching evening, enjoying the view from the hill. Notice how misty the air is, how the occasional small sunbeam breaking through the overcast lights up a spot on the ground, how the green hills and woods change to blue, then purple, in the distance. Enjoy the cool, overcast and humid day. Take your time. There is no reason to do anything but what comes into your head, at your own pace. The day belongs to you.

In the early evening, meander over to the field nearby and watch two gorgeous red whitetail does browse and then bed down right in front of you, obviously feeling secure and well fed. Stand absolutely still for 20 minutes. Though they are close and you are completely out in the open, they will let you share a small part of their daily life. How different from the three you saw in the woods while squirrel hunting this morning, blowing in alarm and bouncing off through the woods, flags waving.

Notice the redtail hawk that flies away in front of you as you return to camp, staying low to the ground. Not at all like the one you saw in the morning, circling and screaming at the top of his voice.

Back in camp, break out the candles and holders, roll out your blanket on the groundcloth, and light up your clay pipe. Putter around while it gets darker, making sure your kit is secure from the raccoons. Enjoy chatting with the catbird that spends a half hour "meowing" at you, flitting through the brush all around camp. Notice how very little light even a large campfire makes. And how early the night comes on overcast days.

Sit by your tree again, with a candle on each knee, and read John Locke some more. There is more there than you will ever absorb. Very important words, which we all tend to forget. When the coyote puppies start growling and wrestling in the field nearby, ignore them. They are just being kids.

Poke the fire, gaze into the coals and remember all the campfires you have built, in many places, and with many friends. Remind yourself that there is no such thing as an unsuccessful camp if your mind is properly attuned, whether the hunt is fruitful or not. Recall the delightful discussions, the shared times, the cleansing that always comes as surely as smoke from the fire. Time spent around a fire in a happy camp is among the best of time to be had, whether alone or with a companion. Enjoy it.

In a couple of hours you will notice that your eyes are heavy and your muscles weary. Pile several large chunks on the fire to try to retain embers for your morning coffee, check your gear one more time and stretch out on your pallet. Roll your rifle shirt up for a pillow, squirm around to find a spot that fits your bones, and lie a while listening to the fire pop, watching the light dance on the leaves overhead. That scratching on the bark in a nearby tree is probably a raccoon starting out on his nightly rounds, but your gear is cinched up and safe. Sleep soundly for a change. You have earned it, and with your mind so in tune with the natural world around you, and your body so tired from honest effort, it will be easy.

When the early morning light comes to wake you, just stretch, roll over and lie there for a while. Spend a little time watching the woods come alive. Listen to the first tentative chirping of the birds, the soft sighing of the gentle wind moving through the trees around you.

Put some small stuff on the embers and fan a fire to life with your hat. Boil some coffee, toast some bread and corn, and break your fast. While you eat, notice how you seem to be enclosed in a small clearing in the early morning fog, how the trees fade away into the mist, the steady increase in light as the sun makes its way over the horizon out there somewhere. Soak up that wonderful feeling of being part of the natural world around you as surely as the trees and birds. Store up what you can of it, because you will find yourself in short supply soon enough.

Fire the flintlock at the tree to make sure it functions after having been kept in your bedroll with you all night, because hostile attacks frequently come at dawn. It will fire first time, as usual. Taking your easy time, put your gear together and load up for the trip back to the stockade. The feast is over.

This recipe can be adjusted to feed as many as you wish. Just add more squirrels. Eaten alone, it will be contemplative and relaxed, but will be missing that pleasant companionship that comes from sharing what you have, and what you are, with a friend. Lively conversation may be substituted for quiet musing if you choose. The best part of this recipe is that the choice of ingredients is strictly up to you.

©1995 B.E. Spencer

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