The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 4, 2013

When it comes to meat, everything is fare game

Point Blank

By John Blankenship

— When most people think of edible wild game, they probably think of deer, turkey, wild boar, squirrel, rabbit, bear, grouse, pheasant, ducks or geese. And outdoor sportsmen — campers, hikers, fishermen and so forth — can take their pick from a range of freeze-dried, canned or packaged foods.

When I was a boy, though, young hunters prided themselves on surviving all-day treks in the woods on a single can of sardines, or potted ham and crackers or Vienna sausages.

A Spartan diet was expected of you if you wanted to prove your machismo. A greenhorn was marked by a canteen of water and scrambled egg sandwiches on toast and was scorned by others just as if he carried a bag of groceries. No experienced woodsman would consider dining on ham and cheese, corned beef on rye or lunch meat on white bread.

Once, just to prove ourselves, a friend and I decided that we’d camp out on the riverbank and eat only what we caught for our supper. Only thing is, we didn’t catch anything and after fishing all day in the summer sun, we were hungry as wolves.

Then we came up with the idea that we’d borrow some vegetables from a nearby garden and boil them in a pot over an open fire. We harvested onions, potatoes, carrots, celery and corn and tossed the purloined items into a kettle of boiling water. After a short time, we filled our mugs with the steaming brew and slurped down what tasted like the most heavenly soup ever concocted my mortal man.

We had no seasoning whatever and we didn’t care. We didn’t mind that we didn’t even have any crackers or ice tea.

What I’m getting at is this: The intrepid men and women who roamed the wilderness in the early history of this country didn’t have such options as a supermarket or a restaurant, where they could choose whatever struck their fancy.

They turned to different animals for food during times of hardship and often ended up enjoying the taste and nutritional value of the meat they were forced to eat.

When I was visiting Louisiana a few years ago, I noticed that some people enjoyed opossum with sweet potatoes. It was generally assumed in the bayou that where opossum ate large amounts of sweet fruits or vegetables, its flesh was quite palatable.

For years, I attempted to find someone locally who had eaten opossum. When I did recently, the fellow said opossum tasted like it smelled. “I’d rather eat a snake,” he huffed of the nocturnal, tree-dwelling marsupial. “You couldn’t pay me to eat another one.”

Beaver tail was especially prized by early mountaineers for its taste and calorie-providing fat content. It could be roasted, un-skinned, in the coals of a fire. Diced, it went into soups and stews. Or, it could be carried for future use. Beaver feet, which resemble pigs’ feet, were boiled and eaten hot or cold.

Muskrat also ranked high on the mountain man’s menu. The rodent eats the tastiest of roots and other vegetation and always lives in a clean environment. The roasted meat is similar to squirrel.

Although other small animals, such as skunks, were eaten when necessary, their size and taste labeled them as a last-resort alternative.

All eggs are edible, meanwhile, regardless of age or condition. So are baby birds, which were often cut up for stew by our forebears. I had an uncle who relished the taste of squab. To collect the sumptuous cuisine, he’d dangle me by my heels over the side of a bridge on Tug River and I’d reach in and grab the nestling pigeons from under the railing.

We gave up the practice after my mother protested that I’d probably be drowned if we continued.

On the small side of the wild menu, though, most insects are mild-flavored, high in protein, full of minerals and, hence, quite nutritious, according to those who dine on them.

Native Americans of the West pulverized roasted grasshoppers to mix with jam from service berries and then dried the small “fruitcakes” in the sun.

Today, there appears to be a renewed interest in trying exotic edibles. Some will find this exciting, while others will have a hard time accepting some of nature’s bounty.

But regardless of one man’s acceptance or rejection of a kind of meat, it’s basically true that anything that walks, crawls, swims, or flies can be eaten.

It’s also true, I guess, that some of those meats go down easier than others.

— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: