Instant mac with cut up chunks of hot dog. When I was at my poorest in college, that's what I ate for dinner ... and lunch and sometimes breakfast. The dogs were procured at Harris Teeter, the mac at the Dollar Store. The shame? Well, that was kept safely concealed inside the confines of my studio apartment. But looking back on the horrors of that neon cheese-dusted, pig-tube dish, I feel a bit of pride. I stretched $20 into at least four meals with that. And ya know what? I'm still here to tell the tale. Besides, it could have been worse. It could have been what Ben Moïse ate in college.
"When I was a self-supporting student at the University of South Carolina, I used to trap those fat peanut- and popcorn-fed squirrels on the Statehouse grounds," Moïse says, a former South Carolina game warden.
The plan was simple. Each morning Moïse rode his bicycle to work. "On the way, I'd cut through the Statehouse and set a steel trap baited with a peanut tied to the treadle under one of the azalea bushes. Early in the morning when my shift was over, I'd ride back and generally always find a squirrel in the trap, which I'd fling into a sack and carry back to my apartment on Green Street," Moïse adds.
Now this wasn't an exercise in pet procurement. "I would have that squirrel out of its hide, quartered, floured, and stewed down in no time at all. Fresh squirrel and brown gravy served on a bed of rice made at least two good meals," Moïse says.
Yes sir, he was an urban hunter literally squirreling away free meals off the government. But Moïse, who's now an author and outdoor cook, says it wasn't that bad. He says, "Squirrels broiled in the oven with salt, pepper, and lemon juice are a tasty treat."
And he's not the only local who thinks so. In fact, Moïse is a member of a rare club who remembers eating squirrel, raccoon, and opossum not out of necessity, but as a culinary indulgence.
Chef BJ Dennis' grandfather Benjamin Dennis is one of them. "He used to hunt on Daniel Island and Clements Ferry Road," Dennis says of his 89-year-old grandpa. Speaking on his behalf, Dennis adds, "One night he and a friend got 46 raccoons." While Dennis says the young men, then around 18 or so, would use the pelts, the main point was to hunt dinner. "Great grandma used to soak the carcass' in vinegar water and hang them up — let them cure in salt," Dennis explains.
Opossum was also a staple for the senior Dennis. "He ate opossum when he was young," says the chef. "One time he went hunting and the dog went into the hole and came out with four or five opossums. But a neighbor told him the next day that that same hole was were he'd just buried his mule. That was the last time grandpa ate opossum."
Nowadays Dennis' grandfather doesn't eat any of the game items of his youth, but if he did, he says squirrel would likely be higher on his list. Dennis himself has tried it and can attest that, as one might expect, "it has a nutty taste." And squirrel's probably a safer bet anyway. Raccoons and opossums can carry rabies, but a human contracting the disease from a squirrel has never been reported — as I learned when my husband tried to rescue an injured one from the middle of King Street and got bit. Let me tell you, two hours in the ER for that furry SOB were not worth it.
As for Moïse, he still dabbles in game eats. A few years ago some Charleston sportsmen used to clean out their freezers in the late spring in preparation for the hunting seasons, and all those wild and woolly bits would go to a well-attended wild game supper. "My contribution to this extravaganza," says Moïse, "was the coon stew." His recipe is a variation on classic boeuf bourguignon. To make it, Moïse would simply substitute raccoon meat for the beef. But he says, "Since I didn't keep coons in the freezer, I'd go out to Bushey's Restaurant off Folly Road after they closed for the evening and park my car near the dumpsters out back." Stationed behind his car, Moïse would shoot a few racoons with his .22 rifle.
"I would bone them out completely and brown the pieces according to the classic recette," he says. "It was always a crowd pleaser and the attendees would be mopping the bottom of the pot with their cornbread." That said, his attempt to serve muskrat a subsequent year was not nearly as successful. It could have been due to the pairing. Unlike muskrat, Moïse says, "Coon stew served over rice pairs well with a good cab or some good brown whiskey."
For the marinade:
Combine ingredients in a large bowl. Put the cut raccoon meat in the marinade and mix together by hand. Cover and put in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
For the stew: Strain the raccoon from the marinade in a colander, reserving the liquid and thoroughly dry the raccoon meat out on paper towels. (If the meat is wet, it will not brown.) Fry out (brown and crispy) in a big skillet at medium heat fat back or salt pork (minus the skin). Set aside on paper towels. Drain off some of the fat and hold in reserve if needed.
In manageable doses, salt and pepper and then add the raccoon meat to the fat and brown all over at medium heat. Set aside on paper towels until all is done. Add more fat if necessary. When finished, add flour to the pan and stir until flour has browned. Add a little more fat to this if necessary. When flour has browned, add the strained marinade and stir well. Add the browned raccoon meat and browned fat back. Reduce heat to medium low to low, cover and cook until tender (about 3–4 hours.) Then add carrots, pearl onions, and white mushroom caps, and cook for a half hour longer at medium heat. Serve over rice.