On a recent fall weekend, down a winding road in Hampshire County, squirrel gravy and critter stew were on the brew.
The dishes were in preparation for the 18th annual Squirrel Fest at Bigg Riggs Farm.
Mike Shirk, cousin of Trey Smith, who co-owns the farm’s property, stirs the pot of gravy, which on this day included opossum and raccoon.
“It isn’t squirrel gravy if you don’t find at least one hair in it,” he said, laughing.
Despite this “hairy” allegation, squirrel gravy is favored by those who regularly hunt and cook the creature.
Some Squirrel Fest attendees say it just tastes like chicken, but Shirk says it’s the “best gravy of all the gravies.”
The “treat” is a staple at Squirrel Fest, which began when the farm’s owner, Calvin Riggleman, invited a group of his friends, also squirrel hunters, to his home to honor the hunting season.
“Squirrel season for me and my friends is always a huge deal,” Riggleman said. “It was the first season that came in.”
“Everybody would come home for the holidays around Thanksgiving for deer season, so I said, ‘Let’s get together and cook all of these squirrels.’”
The first year was only Riggleman and four of his friends. Over the next several years, it became a way to reconnect while friends were home for the holidays.
One year, Riggleman opened the event to the community and used it as a way to show off his farm.
Now, locals and friends of the farm show up each year to share covered dishes, listen to music and meet their neighbors. The event is free and open to all ages.
Riggleman and workers on the farm work together to prepare the highlights.
“I’m not a butcher by any means,” he said, as he sliced into the leg of smoked venison, one of Squirrel Fest’s main dishes.
This year, Squirrel Fest required a whole deer, two pork butts, some chicken, a pot of chili and, of course, squirrel gravy.
Riggleman doesn’t have time to hunt squirrels as much anymore, so neighbors help him acquire critters for the meal.
Selling squirrels is illegal in West Virginia. However, selling the tails to make fishing lures is allowed.
According to Curtis Taylor, a squirrel fan and former Chief of Wildlife Resource at West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, West Virginians do not hunt squirrels the way they used to.
“Squirrels used to be a big thing in McDowell County,” Taylor said. “That was the only game in town and that’s when we killed more than a million a year.”
Deer hunting is much more popular nowadays, he said.
“Back in the day, if you were a squirrel hunter, you knew the trees, you knew the woods, you knew what was on the ground.”
It takes a special sense to hunt squirrels, he said, but it takes a special person to prepare it.
He says the flavor of squirrel depends on how it’s cooked, which is why it’s important to cook it correctly.
“Squirrel is one of the best meats you can put in your mouth,” he said. “It has such a unique flavor.”
His favorite breakfast is squirrel, gravy and biscuits.
“It took me 25 years to perfect my mother’s squirrel gravy,” Taylor said.
However, he doesn’t have the recipe written down and wouldn’t be able to share it with you.
Instead, he provided the Gazette-Mail with a few recipes he’s found in squirrel cookbooks over the years.