Wild game has been a specialty of Lowcountry cooks for hundreds of years. Duck, deer, turkey, and quail (to name but a few) are as integral a part of early American cooking as oysters and shrimp. Driving through our marshlands and forests, one can only imagine the wealth of fur and feather to be had by an enterprising, and hungry, individual. Alas, with the ever-growing sprawl of suburbia, ordinances against discharging firearms, and pollution choking our local streams and rivers, what is a Lowcountry boy stuck in the city to do?
Desperate times call for desperate measures. Armed with a good nine-iron and a solid car bumper, anyone can partake of our remaining natural bounty. While the deer and ducks may be out of range for the urban huntsman, many time-honored vittles remain to be plucked from the streets and cul-de-sacs surrounding our great city. Their place in history is firm, their meat is tasty, and it is always nice to receive congratulations from Save the City preservationists for being oh-so-authentic in your choice of diet. A roadside possum or rummaging raccoon should never be dismissed as mere “roadkill”; it is a noble way to celebrate one’s “heritage.” — Jeff Allen
While these furry fliers might look cute, letting a live one chomp down on your finger will convince you of the voracity of our familiar backyard friends. Technically a rodent, they have found their way into American cookpots for ages; an estimate in 1942 placed the annual take by American hunters at around 22,345,906 squirrels. Weighing in at around one pound apiece, they make excellent fodder for the deep fryer or the stew pot. In Kentucky, the tradition of burgoo, a Brunswick stew-like concoction, still demands squirrels for authentic flavor (as does truly authentic Brunswick stew). Squirrels must be eviscerated (gutted) and skinned before use — a garden hose and a sharp knife is all you will need. Save the tails for handlebar decorations on your bicycle, they go great with a sweetgrass grocery basket.
‘Possum and ‘Coon
Opossums and raccoons sometimes get a bad rap. Undoubtedly, this has something to do with their uncanny ability to headline the latest West Ashley rabies outbreak on the local six o’clock news. As both are delicious morsels, such reputation should not put off the adventurous, if necessarily cautious, eater. The opossum, North America’s only native marsupial, is perhaps easier to obtain given its tendency to “play possum” when cornered. Raccoons, conversely, are known for their slyness. “Raccoon” is derived from “aroughcoune,” an Algonquin Indian word meaning “he who scratches with his hands” — a testament to their impressive ability to pry open the most secure of trash cans. It is this promiscuous nature of diet that renders the urban varieties in need of special treatment. Possums, especially, should be caught alive and fed a diet of lettuce for at least two weeks before slaughter (no one said this was going to be easy). Both are traditionally parboiled with lots of black pepper before roasting.
Locally known as “marsh rats” or “marsh rabbits” — an indication of their potential size — these rodents were served up in Historic Charleston even before the first Barbadians came ashore, making them a particularly authentic treat. They are usually obtained by trapping (a guide to doing so can be found on the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources website), as they inhabit the inaccessible reaches of marshes and wetlands, burrowing into the mud banks to form their burrows. Sporting fine-grained red meat, the muskrat delivers exceptional flavor in the hands of a skilled cook. It is important to carefully remove the “musk” glands when skinning the animal to avoid offensive flavors in the finished product. Soaking the meat overnight in a vinegar and salt brine will help reduce any “gamy” flavor, but then what is the point of cooking game? Recipes abound and rats can be enjoyed fried, broiled, pickled, “potted,” and, in our favorite preparation, “Muskrat Meat Loaf.”
Who would guess that this ubiquitous scavenger of the metropolis was also great to eat? These feathered friends are readily accessible to the urban dweller — one only requires a bag of stale popcorn and a stiff umbrella for a quick meal. Related to the delicious mourning dove, these birds provide a robust dark meat that is best cooked on the rare side. Brining improves their flavor, as does wrapping them in bacon or other fat before roasting or grilling, combating their tendency to become dry. For those whose marksmanship fails them, all is not lost. Many upscale, local restaurants serve young domestic pigeons; they refer to them as “squab.”
Do not be fooled by the size of these pond dwellers. One could easily lose a toe to their ferocious chompers. Nevertheless, the gourmand has long known the value of turtle meat in all of its guises. So esteemed were the giant sea turtles of the Atlantic that men hunted them almost to extinction; beachfront development did not help, either. Even if we can no longer enjoy the succulence of the sea turtle, snappers make a fine substitute. Turtles are easily caught in ponds or freshwater streams. Snappers are often killed by enticing them to latch onto a stick (they will not let go) and performing a quick decapitation with a sharp hatchet. Although it might sound gruesome, a swift and painless death such as this bears little comparison to the screams of a dozen crabs being lowered alive into a pot of boiling brine. The turtle, once cleaned of its shell, can be prepared in a variety of fashions, including frying, braising, boiling, and of course, stewing into soup.
Perhaps the most feared of wild game, along with the shark, rattlesnakes stalk the dreams of terrified Yankees and hungry Southerners alike. What our local northern transplants do not always realize is that a diamondback rattlesnake, devoid of its head, is some darn good eating. With a little ingenuity, a couple of rattlers can provide a delicious meal and a cheaper alternative to that Moo Roo handbag your wife has been eying. Rattlesnakes are almost always floured and deep fried, but can also be found roasted, grilled, and even stuffed with a cornbread dressing. They sport a finely-flavored delicate flesh and care must be taken not to overcook them into rubbery oblivion. If you happen across a water moccasin, think again. Moccasins boast a quite nasty temperament and taste like a week-old oyster filled with pluff mud.
Possum with Sweet Potatoes
One 2½-pound possum
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup water
2 large sweet potatoes
¼ cup Steen’s pure cane syrup
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Trim the possum of any excess fat. Wash thoroughly with warm water, and salt and pepper well – inside and out. Sprinkle the entire carcass (inside, too) with the flour. Place the water in a large roasting pan and roast the possum breast side up for 50 minutes. Peel the sweet potatoes and split them in half. Remove the possum from the oven and arrange the sweet potatoes around it in the pan. Mix the cane syrup with a bit of the pan juices (just use more water if the pan is a bit dry) and pour the mixture over the sweet potatoes and possum. Cover the roaster tightly with a lid or aluminum foil and roast for another 30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender.
1 rattlesnake, skinned and cut
into 3-inch pieces
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup self-rising flour
Marinate the meat overnight in the lemon juice. Dry the meat thoroughly with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. Beat the eggs and place each piece of meat alternately in the flour, then the egg, and again in the flour mixture, coating well each time. Heat the lard to 350 degrees and deep-fry the rattlesnake until golden brown. Season the meat immediately after frying with more salt and pepper and let drain on paper towels before serving.