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Nashville Scene Bad Brains

By Walter Jowers

SEPTEMBER 22, 1997:  Add this to the signs that our country's going straight to hell: It is not OK to eat squirrel brains anymore. Time was, a man could go out in the woods, harvest a good mess of squirrels, and cook 'em up without worry. But now some of our Kentucky neighbors--the ones who eat squirrel brains--have come down with mad squirrel disease.

According to the Associated Press, scientists at the University of Kentucky are saying that some older, rural Kentuckians likely caught Creutzfeldt-Jakob (mad squirrel) Disease from eating the "brains and nervous system tissue of squirrels." Joseph Berger, Erick Weisman, and Beverly Weisman of the University of Kentucky reported on five patients, aged between 56 and 78, who had been diagnosed as having Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. All of those afflicted reported that they had eaten squirrel brains.

Mad squirrel disease is an ugly thing: Victims come down with a serious case of the staggers, then they go witless and inevitably end up dead. It's a hell of a price to pay for eating a squirrel brain, which, I can tell you, is about the size of a walnut. I know this because I have field-dressed and eaten squirrel. And I've done it more than once.

When I was about 9 or 10 or 11, I'd join up with some neighbors and cousins after school, and we'd go hunting. We all had Benjamin .177-caliber air rifles, and we hunted in the woods along the railroad tracks and around Burnettown Elementary, where we all went to school.

We hunted three things: squirrels, rice birds (also called cedar waxwings), and robins. That's right, we shot robins.

Now, I can't defend the practice of putting holes in songbirds, and truth is, I'm a little bit ashamed of it now. But when you're a kid with an underpowered and inaccurate weapon, you need for your game to be kinda big, dumb, and slow. You need game that won't fly away if you miss with your first shot. Robins fill that bill. In fact, when you miss, a robin might just light on the ground and walk right up to you so that it can see what all the fuss is about.

Rice birds, which are abundant back home in South Carolina, fly in a flock, and they all light in a tree at the same time. You can pick off three or four before the rest of the flock gets hip and flies off. So that's why we hunted robins and rice birds.

We didn't get many squirrels. Out in the woods, squirrels tend to stay high in the trees, and they move pretty fast. Most of the time, our pellet rifles couldn't reach 'em. But since my hunting buddies and I knew we'd be getting real firearms as soon as we turned 12, we couldn't resist a little squirrel-hunting preview. Maybe once or twice a year, one of us would bring one down.

When that happened, we celebrated by cooking up a stew. Everybody would go home and fetch the robin and rice bird breasts they'd saved in their mothers' freezers. Then we'd gather in Van Harmon's backyard. There, behind the pumphouse, we'd build a fire, set a cast-iron pot on some concrete blocks, and put in water, potatoes, onions, and carrots. Then we'd add the robins, the rice birds, and the squirrel.

We stuck to the neck-down parts--unlike our Kentucky brethren, who apparently have a squirrel-brain-eating subculture, complete with ritual behavior. In the brain-eating parts of Kentucky, if a man really wants to impress his neighbors, he presents a whole squirrel head to the lady of the house. I'm fuzzy on the details, but I believe at this point there's a ritual shaving of the squirrel head. Finally, the lady of the house fries up the whole head and lets her benefactor have a little bite of the brain.

There are two other squirrel-brain recipes: brains scrambled with eggs, and squirrel-brain stew. Apparently, none of these will reliably kill the little creatures that cause mad-squirrel disease. I suppose some well-meaning group will go into the Kentucky hinterlands and try to persuade the brain-eaters to stop. I say leave 'em alone. It's not as if each and every one of 'em is going to come down with mad squirrel disease. And if they do catch it, well, that's self-regulating behavior.

Visit Walter's Web site at http://www.nashscene.com>. Or e-mail him at walter.jowers@nashville.com.

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