Given my fulltime work schedule, each semester I create a weekly system of visits: I see my dad two evenings a week after he returns home from Golden Age and my mom every Saturday and Sunday for lunch. One night when I visit Dad, he’s got Mom’s cookbooks laid out on the table.
“What are you looking for?” I ask. He became quite the cook after my mom got sick, and he had to take over her jobs in their home: cooking, cleaning, laundry. He experimented with chili until he got his recipe perfected. He even made popovers a few times. He often looked for new recipes to try, and in many ways he simply adapted his “fix-it guy” knack for making something out of repurposed parts in his garage. Some of his dishes—bologna with noodles comes to mind—were the culinary equivalent of making a cribbage board out of a toilet seat.
“Well, I tell you what,” he says. “Tim brought me a whole squirrel and I gotta figure out how to cook it.” He’s got the cleaned squirrel carcass in a Ziplock bag on his kitchen cupboard.
When I was a girl, I often tagged along when my dad and brothers went squirrel hunting. I always believed that eventually one of them would let me shoot a gun. It never happened. My job was carrying the dead squirrels, usually dropped inside a double Wonder Bread bag. I still recall walking through the woods on cold November afternoons with warm dead squirrels brushing against my small thigh. Once the squirrels were cleaned, I’m sure that I played with the tails, some still with a bloody nub of tailbone attached. At least of one my brothers drove around town with a squirrel tail on his car antenna. We really weren’t rednecks, though I realize these squirrely memories of mine don’t support that claim. My only explanation is that this was the 1970’s in small town Wisconsin.
Each winter my mom and dad had a squirrel feed for neighbors and friends. I never figured out if squirrels are difficult to clean, or they were cleaned sloppily by my dad and brothers. In any case, as all of us ate tiny squirrel legs or the larger rib meat, we’d pull brown or gray squirrel hair out of our mouths. My mom often put a few “hair plates” on the table, so as a person tugged squirrel hair out of his mouth, he could deposit it on a separate plate. Could the reasoning have been that putting squirrel hair on your own dinner plate was just too gross? It falls into the category of “stuff you did in childhood and never questioned why” like saving bath water for the next kid or everyone in the family arguing over who would get to suck on the chicken neck or eat the gizzard.
I look at this squirrel on my dad’s counter and see that perhaps it’s nearly impossible to get all of the hair off of a skinned squirrel. I also realize for the first time that the ten to fifteen fuzzy remnants clinging to this carcass share the look and texture of pubic hair. The squirrel lies in its plastic bag headless and paw-less, like a backwoods mob victim.
I tell Dad, “I’d Google a recipe for squirrel.”
He looks at me blankly.
“You know: look it up on the Internet.”
Dad says, “What the hell does the Internet know about cooking squirrel?”
I have no answer.