Preparing your favorite endangered species

One reporter finds strange stews in ‘The Joy of Cooking’

From the Nov. 26-27, 1994, Tahoe Daily Tribune

By Larry O’Hanlon

Few people know it (and fewer believe it), but I am an award-winning cook. Back in the early 80s I won first place in the Fullerton Community College Annual Weed Feed. It was quite an honor – and a surprise.

My winning dish was a rice, cheese and goosefoot casserole garnished with cheeseweed leaves. It was better than it sounds. For one thing, goosefoot is a type of plant, not the webbed lower limbs of geese. The Weed Feed was the climax of the Edible Plants course given by ethnobotanist Charlotte Clark, author of "Edible and Useful Plants of California," a must-buy for bored vegetarians and live-off-the-land types.

I bring this up because we’re in the midst of the premiere holiday weekend for cooking and eating, and also because in a moment of culinary curiosity, I recently found myself idly wandering through "Joy of Cooking." I was shocked by what I found.

Buried between those venerable covers are instructions for roasting, braising or baking half the cast of Winnie the Pooh. There are recipes for porcupine, armadillo, raccoon, beaver, woodchuck, muskrat, bear and yes, unweaned piglets. There are even recipes for such endangered animals as sea turtles.

Maybe, I told myself, these recipes are historical throwbacks. After all, according to the copyright information inside, this acclaimed "American Household Classic" was first published in the early 1930s. That was the Great Depression, when times were pretty hard people were a lot hungrier. I haven’t had time to check a recent edition, but if these recipes are still in print, I’m surprised that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals isn’t publicly burning "Joy of Cooking."

Why do animal rights folks bother with medical researchers when they could be hounding a book which cheerfully explains how to skin, gut and pluck the eyes out of suckling pigs? Seems to me "Joy of Cooking" could be a lot more easily, and more justly, attacked than scientists.

Another surprising thing I noticed in "Joy of Cooking" is what they don’t tell you.

"Gray squirrels are preferred to red squirrels, which are quite gamy in flavor," reads America’s quintessential cookbook. Beneath this passage is a well-drawn illustration showing how to peel, oops…rather, skin, a squirrel. "Stuff and roast squirrels as for pigeons, barding them, as for Braised Chicken or use them in Brunswick Stew." Mmm, braised squirrel – sounds delicious.

We’re lucky here at Lake Tahoe because gray squirrels literally grow in trees. In a pinch between paychecks this recipe could come in pretty handy. The only part I don’t get is the barding. Perhaps singing to dead squirrels tenderizes the meat. Or maybe it’s a typo of the word boarding, as in room and board. On page 515 are the following instructions for boarding opossums:

"If possible, trap ‘possum (sic) and feed it on milk and cereals for ten days before killing." What they don’t tell you: don’t let the kids become too attached to the critter and don’t overdo it with the Wheaties and Cheerios.

As for cooking bears, the book has all kinds of recommendations for lessening the strong flavor, dealing with bear fat (in ways other than that "silly old bear" did when stuck in Piglet’s door) and otherwise making sure your bear feast is pleasant and memorable. What they don’t tell you is to watch out for bear livers. Particularly those belonging to the occasional polar bear which strays into your yard and stay for dinner.

Early Arctic explorers found out about the livers the hard way. Soon after shooting and eating some polar bears, the liver eaters lost their hair and fingernails and then died. It turns out that polar bear livers contain immense concentrations of Vitamin A. Unlike Vitamin C, which is virtually impossible to overdose on, too much Vitamin A is highly toxic to humans.

Keep this in mind, along with a copy of my old prof’s book, in case squirrels get scarce.