The skin did not come off like a sweater, as I’d been told it would. I’d looked at how to do it in the classic Joy of Cooking, figuring the directions for squirrel couldn’t be much different from rabbit: hook it through the heels, yank the skin down to its paws.
I didn’t have a hook, but even the falconer, Chris Davis, who had given me this squirrel, made it seem so simple – use scissors, he’d said, and snip horizontally into each side from the gaping hole where he’d gutted it, grab the corners of the soft fluffy pelt and pull up. Pull down. Voilà.
Sitting out by the fire pit in my back yard on a late November evening, my fingers grew stiff and numb as I pulled at layers of epithelial tissue I could not see so much as sense, subcutaneous membranes of iridescent silver visible only when I shone my headlamp just right. I could see places where the talons of the hawk that had caught the squirrel had punctured into the muscle, bruising it. Little by little, I worked the rich gray pelt down and away from the purple muscles, snipped away the durable membranes, and turned the small mammal from one piece into two.
I snipped off the head and feet with a pair of shears and buried them in my compost pile. Yesterday, when Chris had given me the squirrel, the eyes had been wide-open and filmy white. I was grateful that they’d shrunk to nearly closed overnight. I’d hardly noticed the face as I skinned, but I might have if it still had the demon-ish pale glare. The task was engrossing, a science project, or dinner preparation, a little of each I suppose.
The pelt was now one loose piece, intact except for one place where I’d accidently cut through with the scissors. It went into one Ziploc bag to be salted, while the rest of it – the body or the carcass (what does one call it at this point in the process?) – got a quick bath beneath the garden hose, and went into another bag and then into the refrigerator for another day of tenderising, for the mysterious bacteria to do its work to render the flesh from muscle into meat.
I did not have anything to do with the killing of this squirrel. I wasn’t even present for its death. I’d gone out with Chris, who hunts with Harris hawks, as part of another project I was working on about falconry. There was a good possibility that one of his hawks would catch a squirrel, and so I asked if I could keep it if that happened. But the hawks we hunted with didn’t catch any squirrels that day. Chris happened to have some in his van from the previous day’s hunt, already gutted with snipped-off tails, which he’d given to the kids he’d brought out hunting as good-luck talismans.
When Chris’ hawks land on a kill, he moves in quickly, gives the birds a piece of raw meat to distract and reward them. Then he wraps his hand around the squirrel, collapsing its ribs to suffocate it, because the hawks’ talons won’t kill it quickly enough, even if the bird has begun to tear into the still-living animal.
As I butchered and prepared the squirrel for eating, I realised how much the follow-up work is often overlooked. The hunters in my family always emphasised the kill, the moments of being in the deep silent woods, the story of the first buck snort, the chase, the final shot. Stories of sitting stock-still in deer stands, or crawling on hands and knees after a blood trail.
During my childhood, if my brother or father got a deer, they dragged it out of the woods and drove it home, gutting it and hanging it from a maple tree in our backyard. For two days my father and brother would re-tell the story, the narrative itself slowly separating from the carcass dangling by rope from over our stone patio. The animal would be an animal only in memory. Nobody talked about the stiffening carcass that slowly creaked in the wind. It was a period of time where I couldn’t have friends over, because I couldn’t respond to their incredulous cries of Is that real?!
Then, suddenly, the deer would be gone, reappearing days later as white parcels in our basement freezer, each stamped with the cut – roast, shank meat, tenderloin. Over the course of the year we’d open the parcels, the meat disappearing into us in the way of steaks, stews and burgers. The story of the hunt would eventually fade too, except for the few that stood out – like the time my father started gutting one buck and it suddenly awoke, legs thrashing about. But usually, the animal, its meat and the memory of it, would just dissolve.
What was left out was the butchering. Butcher, as a profession, isn’t exactly a title that many people aspire to anymore. Not many want to be the ones wearing the bloody apron, carrying the meat-cleaver, moseying between the swinging carcasses with their layers of waxy white fat, the meat somewhat – but not entirely – unrecognisable from its living form. Or, maybe they would like to do that if the profession still existed as such. Now, to butcher, is to be on an assembly line – working the gun, or a hose, or a knife, over and over and over. Like so much else having to do with our contemporary diets, the art of butchering has become industrial, sterile, factory-line-style dismemberment that hardly seems to represent food.
Like any post-vegetarian, I relished, somewhat guiltily, the taste of meat again
My own desire to trap, skin and eat a mammal – a rabbit – began after I spent several months living on a small meat farm in the early 2000s. Before that, I’d been a vegetarian college student, and before that an uninformed omnivore, a ‘normal eater’ I suppose you could say. Except for the years that my father or brother shot a deer, our meat came from the store in Styrofoam packages, tightly wrapped. The only time we ate meat that resembled the animal it came from was our roasted Thanksgiving turkeys.
College had brought me to the west, a trip that takes the driver through massive feedlots in Texas, where the stench of animal sticks with you for miles. It brought me into awareness: the ecological crisis of industrially-raised animals, the social injustice of that industry’s employment tactics.
So when I landed on a small organic farm back east, I was hesitant about meat. But it was clear that the small flock of sheep and the modest herd of beef cattle were not the destructive empires of the west and midwest. Like any post-vegetarian, I relished, somewhat guiltily, the taste of meat again. But even on the farm, the butchering was done off-site at a slaughterhouse. We would round up pigs and load them into a trailer, and days later we’d pack frozen bricks of meat into the chest freezer, labelled with the farm’s logo. Even then I wondered at the jobs of the people who worked at the slaughterhouse, how they’d chosen what I saw then as such unfortunate work. I couldn’t help but wonder, who would want to do that?