Our TALE OF THE SQUIRREL is just the thing for anyone tired of turkey leftovers. Luke Burbank serves it up:
Weekend cooking competitions are a pretty common sight south of the Mason Dixon Line. But there was something very uncommon about the one held on a recent Saturday in Bentonville, Arkansas: the food itself.
Welcome to the 2015 World Champion Squirrel Cook-Off.
That's right. Squirrel! Whether you find them adorable, or consider them rats with cuter tails, you've probably never considered eating them. That is, unless you're from the South.
"You don't have to promote that it's organic, that it's grass-fed, anything of that nature. It just IS," said Joe Wilson, the guy behind the cook-off. "I mean, this is tree-to-table."
He says cooking squirrel is a tradition that goes back generations.
"It's extremely important that we hold onto the culture and the heritage of our community," Wilson said. "I started this thing about five years ago to promote the sustainable use of wild game as a dinner, as a table fare."
In the cook-off, 36 colorfully-named teams had two hours to produce a dish and a side dish. All the squirrel being served must be caught by the chefs themselves or their friends, since buying or selling wild game meat is actually illegal.
Contest favorites, brothers Blayne and Brandon Estes, have won the competition twice in its five-year history. This year they were competing with squirrel sliders and a squirrel bisque.
"You don't usually hear those words in the same sentence: squirrel bisque," said Burbank.
Here's the thing about cooking squirrel, though: Even if you're a two-time World Champion, you're going to get some pushback.
"My wife wouldn't cook this," said Brandon Estes.
"Our mom is a great cook. But even as kids, she wouldn't cook squirrel," said Blayne Estes. "So it was one of those deals, 'Well, if you shoot it, you have to eat it. Oh, yeah. And you have to cook it, too.'"
And that seems to be a big part of the messaging here, that this is an example of good animal stewardship. Of eating what you hunt, even if it's a rodent.
And this is the part of the story, where we are legally obligated to ask the question on the minds of those still watching this program: How does squirrel taste?
"Chicken," says Blayne.
It was Burbank's first taste of squirrel, but not his last. Inexplicably, he'd agreed to serve as one of the contest's judges -- a decision he was beginning to regret.
"Eighty percent of the meat inside the dish should be squirrel," said Wilson.
"If I'm allergic to squirrel, is that a problem?" Burbank asked.