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Squirrel in the tree...squirrel in the black pot

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Squirrel: It’s what’s for supper. It’s the other choice. The chicken of the tree, so to speak. It’s free-range and no hormones added ever.

And they’re plentiful in south Louisiana. The drawback? You’ve got to go out to the woods and hunt for your meal. Fortunately, nobody hunts squirrels better than the Louisiana hunter.

The opening of the Bayou State’s squirrel season on Oct. 5 is a celebrated rural ritual in many country towns.

In Evangeline Parish, school absenteeism (both teacher and student) ran so high that education officials decided to lock the classroom doors rather than hire substitute teachers. They labeled it “Budget Day,” but everyone knew it was really “Squirrel Day.”

Sadly, the practice was discontinued in public schools. “We don’t do that anymore,” a busy secretary coldly told me over the phone,” but Ville Platte’s K-12 Sacred Heart Catholic still honors the ritual by closing shop the day before opening day.

“It’s a tradition,” said Sacred Heart Principal Diane Fontenot. “It’s truly a family outing. It’s a bonding time for fathers and sons and daughters. Some of the women go hunting, too, but we laugh. We say while the men are hunting squirrel, we’re out shopping hunting bargains.”

In Gonzales, the East Ascension Sportsman’s League celebrates with a Squirrel Rodeo. Trophies are awarded for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place for total weight of the eight-squirrel limit and also biggest squirrel. All of the squirrels are thrown in the black iron pot for a communal squirrel stew meal.

Ah, yes, the communal meal — that’s what life is all about. There’s no better bonding experience among like-minded folks than the shared repast.

City dwellers who don’t normally stray too far from the meat aisle of the Piggly-Wiggly may wonder what the best way to cook squirrel is.

Dewey Patin, a 94-year-old Atchafalaya River woodsman from St. Martinville that I had the pleasure of interviewing several years ago was cooking his squirrels in a plain Cajun-style stew. The meat is browned and slowly cooked with the chopped trinity of onions, bell pepper and celery. Some folks have described this method of cooking as a “controlled burn.” I cook like that all the time. Sometimes my kitchen is smoky, but that’s why stove vents were invented.

I peered into the pot and Mr. Dewey’s daughter informed me that the squirrel head was the best part.

“We used to fight for the heads when I was a kid,” she informed me without guile. I settled for a leg and a nice helping of white rice and gravy.

This story was reposted from Louisiana-based agricultural and cultural blog LANote.org, a NoleVie content partner.