Epiphany: hunting, gathering, and eating a Chicago river rat

January 6, 2012

Friday was Epiphany, the Christian holiday, celebrated with galettes and roscas, which I mentioned in a previous post. It was also the first day you'd see Kings' Cakes in New Orleans for the pre-Lentan Carnivale season—so naturally my thoughts turn to nutria.

Nutria are furry creatures, also known as coypu or river rats. And they do look like rats—giant, cat-sized, prehistoric, saber-toothed rats, in my experience. They're wetlands dwellers, found throughout Louisiana, where they're also known as swamp rats.

They're also among us in the greater Chicagoland area. Some believe they're extinct around here. They're not. I've seen them—and their giant rat-like tails.

The one you see above was actually in France, at the so-called kitchen garden of the chef Alain Passard. The garden grows exclusively for his Michelin three-starred restaurant l'Arpège in Paris. It's actually a small, idyllic farm outside the town of Le Mans—famous for their 24-hour car race, ironically.

The gardeners don't go out of their way to hunt nutria, but if they find one chewing things up—which is what nutria do, like beavers—they'll take a shotgun out to shoot it. If they get it, they dress it—which I always think is a funny word for skinning and gutting, since it's really a really extreme undressing in a sense—then stew it up for lunch. The nutria do not make it to the restaurant in Paris, famous for their vegetables.

Nutria are an invasive species, the Asian carp of the wetlands. They were introduced to non-native areas by fur-traders with disastrous results.

They're not like squirrels. Squirrels are cute—with cute faces, bushy tails, and even the way they move—all cute.

Which brings me to hunting. Like with Asian carp, officials have been trying to promote nutria hunting, eating—and even "eco-conscious" fur-wearing—in Louisiana for some time.

I've been wanting to learn how to hunt, but as a city-born-and-raised dweller, with no family hunting history, it's been a bit of a challenge.

So I've been reading—a lot of Hank Shaw's book and website—watching how-to videos online, and talking to hunting friends.

I recently talked to my chef friend Troy Graves, who grew up in the Midwest not only hunting, but trapping too.

Let me clearly state that I'm not gleefully out to hunt and kill—and the wonderful thing about Troy is that he understands that. We have thoughtful conversations about hunting and its aftermath. I have killed plenty of lobsters, crabs, and other crustaceans, but I don't relish it—at all. But I would like to learn how to hunt—and around here, one of the first animals one learns to hunt is squirrels.

But squirrels are cute—not like nutria.

But what would I do with a squirrel?

"The easiest thing to do would be to first nail it to a tree," said Troy. Upside down, he says, by the hind legs, for dressing—there's that word again.

As he starts carefully explaining the process, I'm stuck on step one.

I'm pretty sure I only have Command Hooks.

This is going to be more even complicated than I thought.

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