The French Eat Rats

Notes on the cooking and eating of varmints (vermin)."That boy done et up every possum for miles around." - Granny ClampettMost living things are edible. What we choose to eat is a different matter.Thousands of people starve to death in India each year while cattle roam the streets unmolested. The pig, the animal most cultivated on this planet for human food, is off-limits to Muslims and most Jews. In Africa, abundant and protein-rich insects make up 25% of the bush diet.While it was a brave person who first ate the oyster, it was a starving lunatic who first ate the possum. I'm convinced that when that oyster was opened, the initial response was not, "That looks delicious!" It was the Dawn of Man, and we were figuring out our edible inventory . Possum meat is also delicious; why has the oyster gained so much over the possum in gustatory status? Because, on a dark night, we aren't startled to discover oysters eating from our garbage cans - oysters eat our toxic wastes underwater, out of sight.The human consumption of varmints spikes during times of want and times of war. Winter is a time of want. Considering both our current national economic situation and the real possibility of war...The Great Depression. Homeless.Nowadays, varmints are primarily consumed by impoverished rural people - subsistence food - or by hunters of righteous ethic. Most "cultured" people view such food, and the people who eat it, as distasteful. Yet Jimmy Carter writes fondly of eating possum as a child, and Mark Twain, prior to his return from a visit to Paris, sent home a list of foods to be prepared upon his arrival - possum, coon and prairie hen were featured items. Lewis and Clark, nearing the end of their heroic exploration, wrote that they and their men would truly miss the taste of dog meat, a winter staple of the native American diet.Nostalgia is the most potent seasoning of good food.Settlers on the prairie lived on what nature provided: prairie hens for meat and eggs, barking squirrels (prairie dogs), possum, raccoon, squirrel, beaver and muskrat all went into the pot, as well as larger game - buffalo, antelope and elk. Much of what they knew about the basic preparation of these foods was learned from the native peoples - how to remove the malodorous fat from a raccoon, or how to carefully extract the musk glands from muskrats (even the slightest contanimation of musk renders the flesh unusable). To make these foods more palatable , they added familiar herbs and spices and experimented with cooking methods.One of the glories of French cooking, Coq au Vin, began as a desperate, albeit sensitive, attempt to make a tough old rooster taste nothing like what it was.What follows are excerpts from books, the internet and other sources which pertain to the topic.MICE and RATS "As far back as the records go, the people of the land now known as France have thought of food in terms of it's taste more often than in terms of it's nutritive quality. Like the people, the sense of taste may have been somewhat crude in early times, but still it was pampered. The Celts were great users of caraway seeds. The Gauls seemed determined to shock the tastebuds by mingling such ingredients as resin, mint, pepper an honey in a single pungent sauce - which was natural considering some of the dishes then on the menu: heron and dormouse."- Waverly Root, The Food of France. "By game we mean those animals which live in the woods and fields in a state of natural freedom, and which are still good to eat. We say "good to eat", because some of these creatures are not properly covered by the title of game, like the foxes, badgers, crows, magpies, screech owls and others: they are called vermin, (betes puantes)." - Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste."Brown rats and roof rats were eaten openly on a large scale in Paris when the city was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War. ..Observers likened their taste to both partridges and pork. Grilled Rats a la Bordelaise: Alcoholic rats inhabiting wine cellars are skinned and eviscerated, brushed with a thick sauce of olive oil and crushed shallots, and grilled over a fire of broked wine barrels." - Larousse Gastronomique.Souris a la Creme (Mice in Cream) "Skin, gut and wash some fat mice without removing their heads. Cover them in a pot with ethyl alcohol and marinate 2 hours. Cut a piece of salt pork or sowbelly into small dice and cook it slowly to extract the fat. Drain the mice, dredge them thoroughly in a mixture of flour, pepper and salt, and fry slowly in the rendered fat for about 5 minutes. Add a cup of alcohol and 6-8 cloves, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Prepare a cream sauce, transfer the mice to it, and warm them in it for about 10 minutes before serving" - Farley Mowatt. [http://bertc.com/cooking_rats.htm][1]Excerpts from an article in The Wall Street Journal, May 31, 1991: "...kitchen utensil salesman Zhang Guoxon to open what is believed to be China's first restaurant dedicated to serving rat...named Jialu (Superior to Deer) Restaurant". "...Rat with Chestnut and Duck. Lemon Deep Fried Rat. Satayed Rat Slices with Vermicelli. Vietnamese Style Rat Hot Pot. A Pair of Rats Wrapped in Lotus Leaves. Salted Rat with Southern Baby Peppers. Salted Cunning Rats. Fresh Lotus Seed Rat Stew. Seven Color Rat Threads. Dark Green Unicorn Rat". "...Tonight's special is Braised Rat....The first nibble reveals a rubbery texture.But the skin coats one's teeth with a stubborn slime. The result is a bit like old chewing gum covered with Crisco. But other dishes taste better...a musty combination of chicken and pork..."If dried by a north wind, it tastes just like duck," Che Yongcheng, an engineer and regular customer, says wistfully of his favorite childhood snack". "..."if you eat too much rat, you get a nosebleed."...eating rat, like dog, seems to raise the body temperature for some reason. That's why rat is considered a winter food". "...It says the rats are rich in 17 amino acids, Vitamin E and Calcium. Eating them promises to prevent hair loss, revive the male libido, cure premature senility, relieve tension and reduce phlegm". "...his restaurant only serves free range rats, wild rodents that feed on fruits and vegetables in the mountains a couple hundred kilometers to the north..."I am helping the goverment by eliminating some pests and helping enrich some farmers", he says". [http://www.urbanlegends.com/food/chinese_restaurant_rats_etc.html][2] "In West Africa, however, rats are a major item of diet. The giant rat (Cricetomys), the cane rat (Thronomys), the common house mouse and other species of rats and mice are all eaten. According to a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization report, they now comprise over 50 percent of the locally produced meat eaten in some parts of Ghana.Between December 1968 and June 1970, 258, 206 pounds of cane rat meat alone were sold in one market in Accra!" - Bert Christensen. Excerpts from African-American Cooking Traditions: "...When Africans came to America during the slave trade, despite what some scholars used to believe, they did not abandon or forget what they already knew about music, agriculture, food, and other aspects of their lives in Africa. It was more difficult for them, under pressure of slavery, to live as they did, but they found ways to cook and eat what they knew. And a great deal of what they retained still shows up in cooking today". "...In order to adjust to a completely different culture and make the best of very few resources, the foodways of Africans during slavery in America had to evolve. The results that we see today in African-American Cooking include: finding innovative ways to make every part of an animal appealing(,) like the feet, brains, snout and intestines (chitterlings); eating foods that are high in calories in order to acquire enough energy to work all day in the fields; eating wildlife of the region like possum, catfish, seafood, rabbit and frog; using spices in creative ways to make anything taste good; using vegetables and fruit from gardens instead of grocery stores (it is cheaper); aand sharing recipes through oral tradition instead of writing them down". "...communal cooking; combining fruit and meat in main dishes; deep-frying meat and vegetables; matriarchal dominance in the kitchen; and adding music and entertainment to eating during large family or community gatherings". - Unknown, from the internet; URL unknown. POSSUMThe snarky smile. The prehensile tail. The hissing. The following quotes are from a very funny article entitled "Cooking A Possum": "The proper method is to fatten the beast; to clean out its system requires one week at least. Once the creature acquires a fat, lazy manner, hit it center cranium with a hatchet or hammer, which may require additional blows until the skull pops and the brain is exposed (don't assume it's dead because its eyes are closed)." "Thus you have a one piece possum pelt, good for a lady's purse; the pouch is most useful for change and other such items." "If you're ever in Eutaw Springs, S.C., stop by Vernon DeLauder's AMOCO station and get some possum dip, a possum sandwich, or a piece of his fast-becoming-famous possum pizza. Hear tell it's downright bodacious." [http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~mcm/possum.html][3] Some people swear that feeding only persimmons to a possum for the month before its destiny is fulfilled in the roasting pan results in an exquisite flavor to the meat. Flavoring a meat from the inside is a common practice - foie gras and Smithfield Ham come immediately to mind. "In military survival training we are taught to never kill a possum just for the fun of it because they are one of the few animals in the wild that a man can catch with his bare hands - well, you'll need a stick or a rock, too. (Porcupines and snakes are in a similar category.) Of course, if you really need the meat for your family, that's a whole 'nother story." [http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Estates/3443/possum_recipes.html][4] "Well into the twentieth century in the rural South, a possum hunt remained a favorite cold-weather sport, and roast possum and sweet potatoes was always cause for celebration. Sometimes the cleaned and dressed possum simmered with garlic, thyme, allspice, cloves, laurel, parsley, celery, salt and red pepper until very tender, then went into the oven with the potatoes or yams cut in slices and flavored with lemon". - Evan Jones. Opossum With Sweet Potatoes1 Opossum (about 2 1/2 lbs.), skinned and cleaned. Salt Freshly ground pepper Flour 1/2 cup Water 4 medium-size Sweet Potatoes 2 Tbs. SugarPreheat oven to 350 degrees. Wipe opossum with a damp cloth and trim and discard excess fat. Mix salt and pepper and rub thoroughly into possum. Sprinkle inside and out with flour. Put opossum on its back in a roasting pan with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in water, cover, and roast in oven for about 50 minutes. Cut sweet potatoes in half lengthwise and surround opossum with them. If water has evaporated, add enough to cover bottom of pan. Cover and return to oven for about 25 minutes more. Remove cover and sprinkle sweet potatoes with about 1/4 tsp. salt and the sugar. Continue roasting until meat and potatoes become crisp on the surface. Makes 3-4 servings.SQUIRRELWhen I arrived in Lawrence, I spent several weeks at the Watkins Museum going through their collection of regional cookbook, many dating back to the early 1800s. Most of them included a recipe for Brunswick Stew, and many insisted that it was heresy to call it Brunswick Stew if it didn't contain squirrel. The large Gray and Fox squirrels are considered the best eating, about 1 1/2 lbs. dressed. "Squirrel has been written about rapturously for years, and it has long been associated with elegant dining as well as with the simple food of the trapper and the nomad. Fortunately it is plentiful. Novels and books on the old South and on the trek westward abound with references to squirrel pies, squirrel stews, Brunswick stew and other dishes using this ever-present little animal. Squirrel is as typical of America is grouse is of Scotland". - James Beard "One thing about Brunswick stew," a woman told her daughter, who was collecting recipes, "its a pretty pale imitation if it hasn't got squirrel. In other words, if it ain't got squirrel, it ain't got soul." (A black Virginia cook is said to have established this rule in 1828.) Squirrel pie has got soul in good measure when the meat is simmered with celery, onions, seasoned with both black and red pepper, then baked between layers of hard-boiled eggs in a pie shell. Squirrel is sometimes fricasseed and is considered a festive meal when served with grits, hot biscuits and honey." - Evan Jones, American Food. Advice from personal experience in cooking squirrel: Omit the ribcages from any stew. There is very little meat there, and the tiny ribs distribute themselves throughout the dish. Brunswick Stew James Beard's American Cookery, pg. 248 "This is one of the most famous of American dishes, and I doubt if there are two recipes alike for it...This is a Kentucky recipe." - J.B.4 tblsps. Bacon fat 2-3 Onions, sliced thin 1 Garlic clove, finely chopped 2 or 3 Squirrels Flour 1 1/2 tsps. Salt 1 tsp. freshly ground Pepper 1 tsp. Rosemary or Thyme (chopped) 2 cups Chicken or Veal Stock 1 Bay Leaf 1/2 cup Madeira 1 tblsp. Worcestershire sauce 3/4 cup peeled, seeded and chopped Tomatoes 1 cup freshly-shelled Lima Beans, or frozen Limas 1 cup whole-kernel Corn, or Corn cut from the ear 1 cup cut Okra Buttered Crumbs Chopped ParsleyHeat the bacon fat in a heavy skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook till soft but not browned. Transfer to a braising pan. In a plastic bag, combine flour, salt and pepper, and rosemary or thyme, and shake the squirrel pieces in this mixture. Brown the squirrel in the skillet, and when it is nicely colored, transfer to the braising pan. Add the broth, bay leaf, Madeira and Worcestershire sauce to the skillet, rinse it well, and add to the braising pan. Cover, and simmer the mixture 35 minutes. Remove the cover, add the tomatoes and other vegetables, and simmer until the squirrel is tender and the vegetables are cooked. Correct the seasoning, adding more Madeira if it seems necessary. Add the buttered crumbs and parsley and cook another 15 minutes. Serve the stew with baked potatoes or sweet potatoes, relishes, and a good salad. Reading:The Food of France, Waverly Root; Knopf 1958. James Beard's American Cookery, 1972; Galahad 1996 The Physiology Of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin; trans. MFK Fischer 1986; Counterpoint Books 1994. Unmentionable Cuisine, Calvin W. Schwabe; Univ. of Va., 1979. Why We Eat What We Eat, Raymond Sokolov; Summit 1991. American Food: the Gastronomic Story, Evan Jones; Overlook 1990. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, edited by Bernard Devoto; Houghton Mifflin 1953. Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables, Elizabeth Schneider; Harper & Row 1986. The Old World Kitchen, Elisabeth Luard; Bantam 1987. The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig, Marvin Harris; Touchstone 1985. Simple Cooking, John Thorne; Viking 1987. Outlaw Cook, John Thorne; Farrar, Strauss & Giroux 1992. Serious Pig, John Thorne; North Point Press 1996. Pot On The Fire, John Thorne, North Point Press 2000. [1]: http://bertc.com/cooking_rats.htm [2]: http://www.urbanlegends.com/food/chinese_restaurant_rats_etc.html [3]: http://frc.ri.cmu.edu/~mcm/possum.html [4]: http://geocities.com/Heartland/Estates/3443/possum_recipes.html

Comments

mitzibel 11 years, 2 months ago

This was a nice suprise. I thought I was the last prarie child to know the joys of stewed squirrel. Redwinged blackbirds make a tasty stew with dumplings, too, although viewed by some as a bit wasteful, as the only part worth eating is the breast; the dogs and cats get the rest, and are damned grateful for it.
For the practical rather than literary side of the issue, you might enjoy a visit to www.whatthingstastelike.com

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