It’s been more than 55 years since I first sat down to a wild game meal, breakfast at my grandparents’ house in Houston, Texas.
I remember it well, even though I couldn’t find my keys right now without a search, followed by another for my wallet, and yet a third for my cell phone.
But I recollect that morning at the table like it was yesterday.
One doesn’t forget watching his grandfather crack open a fried squirrel head like a walnut, pick out the brain ...
... And eat it.
It had been tough enough when I walked into Grandma’s kitchen at 4 a.m., looked in the skillet and saw two heads sizzling in half an inch of lard along with various other squirrel body parts. The eyes had been removed, but there were teeth, and I swear it looked like the heads were smiling as they fried in the Crisco.
Then, at the table, as I ate the crunchy but tender hind quarters and front shoulders, I watched Grandpa Willie pick the little bits of meat that were once cheeks and brows on the two squirrel heads. He was meticulous as he got every little morsel off both the faces and the skulls.
I was fascinated.
I asked why he didn’t eat one of the meatier parts that I was enjoying. There was a gracious plenty.
“Son, the head’s my favorite part,” he said, as he doused the second one in Tabasco and handed me the little red bottle. Willie called the small bottles of Tobasco “Little Man” and he called me “Papa’s Little Man.”
I poured on the red magic like ketchup and kept eating. It was addicting. (Grandma called the sensation "happy mouth," and I sure was happy and have been ever since.)
When he finished picking the meat off the second head, he cracked it open, and, with a smile and a groan of satisfaction, ate the little brain. Then he finished the first head in the same manner.
My fascination suddenly was replaced by horror.
Despite that whole head thing, that breakfast in the summer of ’59, two weeks before I turned 5, was a defining moment in my life.
In addition to learning about the joy of hot sauce, I was introduced to a whole new world of eating.
I was always “Papa’s Little Man” because I was quick to climb up in his lap and listen to his stories of hunting and fishing. I also liked the many sips of Falstaff he gave me. Go figure.
He promised that if I agreed to spend a summer in Houston, we’d eat deer or squirrel every day. We did exactly that, usually at breakfast. Grandma would either take out a pack of deer sausage or two squirrels at bedtime to thaw. Since Willie was a diesel mechanic, working 12-hour days on draglines, tractors and other earthmovers, he was too tired for supper and drank beer instead.
Breakfast was our big meal.
If squirrels were on the menu, Grandma would alternate between young ones and old ones. She’d fry the smaller, tender young squirrels — and nobody did it better — and pressure-cook the old ones, removing the meat to simmer it in a redeye gravy to eat on biscuits or grits, or make a stock for dumplings for supper. (Click here for a video of an easy method to clean squirrels.)
She always left the heads whole, either way, and Willie’d eat them, gray matter and all, before we drove him to work.
I’ve tried it all
Over the next 10 summers, following Grandpa’s lead as we visited various relatives who lived in swamps or backwoods, I ate about every critter that could be hunted or trapped, netted or hooked. I still experiment. I’ve had raccoon, snake, armadillo, frogs, beaver, turtle, snipe, gallinule, crow, coot, blackbirds and even nutria.
Turns out, my grandparents were smart.
Wild game is not only tasty, it is healthy. Grandma didn't know any better than frying it in lard or smothering it in gravy. I now cook critters by healthier methods. I still pour on the hot sauce for "happy mouth," and I still skip the heads.
Papa’s Little Man always has, and always will.