Squirrelfest: It’s All Gravy to Some
Calvin Riggleman stirs a batch of squirrel gravy during this years Squirrel Fest. Illustrates SQUIRRELFEST (category d), by Whitney Pipkin, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Erin Julius.)
The news that another critter has been added to this year’s Squirrel Fest buffet in Romney, W.Va., fails to impress at least one arriving guest.
“I don’t want no ‘coon,’ ” he says, even as he meets the man who supplied it and is told how it will be prepared.
Not to worry. Tangy rabbit nachos, a vegetarian lasagna, potato soup, a salsa-inspired raccoon dip and fried raccoon did not divert attention from the headliner at the 13th event of its kind held the Sunday before Thanksgiving: a giant vat of squirrel gravy, lightly caramel-colored and smooth on the surface, with shreds and chunks of long-cooked meat waiting to be ladled up and onto biscuits and baked potatoes.
In this 250-year-old seat of Hampshire County, W.Va., with a population of 2,000, where vegetable farmers turn in their hoes for hunting gear as the weather turns cold, small-game season is a big deal. Squirrel hunting in particular.
Residential squirrels help themselves to bird feeders or scamper into attics. But hungry rural squirrels can wreak havoc on a farm. Squirrel Fest host Calvin Riggleman, son of Gary Riggleman (the raccoon meat raconteur) says the bushy-tailed Sciurus carolinensis digs up newly planted seeds and munches away at apples ripe for the picking at his 85-acre farm.
While pest experts use chemicals to control squirrels, the farmers here have a sustainable solution.
“I’m not sure why there’s a season for squirrel,” says Cal’s mother, Linda Riggleman, who has been making squirrel gravy for years. “We never have run out.” The gravy’s a standby; last year, Riggleman made squirrel potpie for the fest and did, in fact, run out.
American squirrel cuisine has something of an official birthplace in Virginia’s Brunswick County, where in 1828 four of the critters, onions and stale bread went into a pot and became the dish known as Brunswick stew.
Cal Riggleman returned from two deployments with the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006 to start his own farm and family in Romney, next to the 80 acres of orchards farmed by his grandparents.
Now 31, he was just out of high school when he started Squirrel Fest with a few friends at his parents’ house. It grew; when the number of attendees hit 250, Riggleman moved the operation to a commercial kitchen and warehouse he bought with a business partner two years ago. (His Bigg Riggs Farm sauces and jams are manufactured there.)
The free event coincides with the start of deer-hunting season – something folks there tend to appreciate.
“Makes me want to hit something on the way home!” Kevin Moore, a friend of Riggleman’s, said as he cleaned his Squirrel Fest plate.