Tree Bacon, Limb Chicken, Bird Feeder Vandal.
If we’re playing Scattergories, you might guess “a squirrel.”
If you’re down in northwest Arkansas this time of year, however, the answer would be “dinner.” Or “lunch.” Or even “dessert.”
That’s because each September Bentonville, Ark., is host to the World Championship Squirrel Cook-Off, an event that USA Today called “a culinary competition that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” featuring “squirrel enthusiasts from around the country” preparing all kinds of delicacies, as judges “taste their way through a kaleidoscope of squirrel-accented pizza, gumbo, dumplings, sausage, egg rolls, ice cream and more.”
And more? Really?
What comes after you’ve polished off a dish of squirrel ice cream? A cup of squirrel decaf?
The competition embodies what the organizers, a group called Squirrels Unlimited, describe as a continuation of a venerable American tradition:
“Long before people were able to go to the Super Centers — [keep in mind that Bentonville is also the home of the Walmart’s corporate headquarters] — they would hunt and gather for their daily intake of groceries,” the event’s promotion stated. “People from North to South and East to West have hunted and used squirrel as a staple of protein in their diet. History will show you that squirrel has always been part of our culture.”
If you’ve gotten your history lessons from episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” that is.
Imagination’s the only limit
The rules for the World Championship Squirrel Cook Off, which, by the way, awards $500 — “and a trophy!” — to the team with the winning entry, are quite specific:
- Teams must be composed of two or three good old boys
- Participants have to dress and prepare the squirrels on-site
- Contestants have 2½ hours to make a main dish and a side dish (25% of the total score)
- All items must be cooked on-site, and the dish must be 80% squirrel meat
Now, I’m not sure how the panel of what are undoubtedly experienced judges calculates 80%, but that’s not really the point. The real draw is that the on-site prep “allows visitors to see a whole squirrel be turned into the likes of a jalapeño popper, a bacon-wrapped ‘wing,’ squirrel gumbo, or everyone’s favorite, squirrel pizza.”
Unless you happen to be a squirrel gourmet. Then, you get to sample such delicacies as squirrel étouffée, squirrel stroganoff, or a dessert pie filled with four-berry jam, cream cheese, sausage and minced squirrel dipped in a sugar glaze.
Best of all? That “dessert pie” is deep-fried.
But you have to give the organizers credit for trying to capitalize on current culinary trends, though, billing the festival as celebrating “100% organic, free range, natural squirrel — one of histories (sic) most important food sources [and] also away (sic) for the public to try first hand (sic) what the rest of us already know: ‘SQUIRREL IS GOOD.’ ”
And when a claim is made in ALL CAPS, you know it’s legit.
The group promoting the squirrel cook-off, which markets squirrel trap bait, how-to instructions on ridding your attic of squirrels (after which you presumably take them down to the kitchen), and also sells flying squirrels — for target practice, perhaps? — has one last pitch for the true squirrel aficionado:
“Squirrel hunting needs you! Join Squirrels Unlimited today (www.squirrelsunlimited.com), the nation’s largest group of squirrel hunters, and get back to enjoying hunting.”
Because nothing beats the thrill of heading out into the woods and bagging a big ol’ buck squirrel, tying him to the front bumper and heading back to town, where a feast of “squirrel meat special” awaits.
The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator