Granny's mean pot of bushmeat stew

Grannies Left to right, Granny Beck, my Grandma June, and Great-Great Grandma Bertha, circa 1961. Who knows what was on the menu that day.

My Great-Grandpa and Granny Beck were, in some ways, ahead of their time. My Grandpa’s mom and step-dad, they both went through scandalous divorces and then switched partners with another couple, Granny Orpha marrying Wade and my Grandpa’s dad Lee marrying Wade’s ex-wife, Edna. Orpha and Wade raised 5 of Orpha’s boys together, and had a daughter after the divorce/remarriage.

By the time I was born, my Granny Beck was in her 80s, and I have only vague recollections of going over to visit her at her home. But I remember hearing about her cooking. I was a picky eater anyway, and my mom once told me she was always afraid to eat Granny Beck’s stew, because it could be rabbit, it could be 'possum, it could be squirrel, it could be just never knew. I never ate anything over there.

Grandpa Beck used to have coon dogs, and would bring home anything that the dogs would catch. My great-aunt affirmed my mom’s recollection of Granny Beck’s cooking (and Grandpa Beck’s eating):

My mom did cook some pretty weird things. We always had wild game such as rabbit and pheasant, but I do remember when she cooked a raccoon (I didn't try it!). My dad was the one that would eat anything, and I do mean anything! We used to bring him such things as chocolate covered ants, pickled pigs feet, and pickled rooster combs. He loved them!

Over the weekend, my neighbor sent along some meat packages for us. He had recently gotten back from another hunt and bagged his third deer of the season (you’re allowed four per year in my county). He was grilling when my partner stopped over on the way home, and sent some ground deer (I think--I've not opened the package yet), deer steaks, and a still-warm hunk of a deer heart, well done.

Deer assortment Various deer parts brought over by my neighbor this weekend.


All of this is to say that we can eat some really weird things here in the “civilized,” first-world, developed United States.

Why bring this up now? The current Ebola outbreak has brought out all kinds of biased to outright racist views of Africa and disease. Because it’s postulated that the outbreak started with the consumption of or contact with an infected animal—possibly a fruit bat, which the index family noted they do hunt—people have come out of the woodwork to pontificate on how those in Guinea and other countries “brought this on themselves” because of their consumption of “bushmeat,” and that they’re so uneducated and backwards to eat that in the first place--because really, how could people eat that stuff, especially when it could be diseased?

Prominent magazines run pictures of butchered meat and primates with headlines that are intended to scare and "other."

People judge harshly, partly because of bush meat consumption:

"Is it time that we drag ignorant, superstitious third world Africans kicking and screaming into the 21st century or should we stop giving aid to Africa and let them fend for themselves? Would the later propel the former?"

Even though we do the same. damn. thing. in the United States.

"Bushmeat" is the name given to pretty much any kind of wild game hunted in Africa--bats (obviously a concern given their possible role in Ebola spread and maintenance of the virus); primates; birds, duikers, lizards, crocodile, various rodents, even elephant, and more.

What do we call "bushmeat" in the US? Or just about everywhere else?

Just "wild game," or some variation thereof.

In the U.S., we hunt thousands of deer, elk, pheasant, turkey, rabbit, and other animals every year. There are even wild game restaurants that cater to those tastes (though many "wild game" species are actually farmed to some degree). Yet even the bushmeat page at United States’ Fish and Wildlife Service ignores the hunting that goes on in the United States, noting that:

Here in the United States, we have laws that control the preparation, consumption, and trade of meat, ensuring that animals are treated appropriately, kept healthy, and sold legally. This is not the case in some countries in Africa and other parts of the world.

This seems to refer mostly to domestically-raised meats, as it’s much harder to police the treatment, health, and sale of hunted animals. Though one needs a license to hunt many animals and generally to fish, laws vary from state to state. Here in Ohio, though a hunting license or permit needs to be obtained for most types of hunting or trapping, and there may be limits on the number of animals of certain species one can kill per season (such as deer and turkey), for most animals, there’s merely a daily limit (6 squirrels, 4 rabbits, etc. per day). For other animals, including fox, raccoon, skunk, opossum, weasel, crow, groundhog, and coyote, there is no daily bag limit. So one could, conceivably, feed themselves fairly well on just a diet of wild game if they had the time and inclination to do so.

Of course, most people in the U.S. don’t get our food this way. We look at Daryl Dixon of the Walking Dead and his squirrel-hunting prowess as something that could carry one through the zombie apocalypse, but not school lunches for a family of 4. We think it’s awesome when he finds an opossum in a cupboard and proclaims, “Dinner!” I’m sure many readers have plans for their own apocalypse survival plan, which likely involve some kind of wild source for food.

But in modern-day Africa, such hunting is somehow “barbaric” and “backward,” regardless of whether it is for sustenance or trade.

Though Ebola has not been identified in wild animals in the US, our animals are far from disease-free. No wild (or domesticated) animal is. We certainly can find Tularemia and Pasturella in rabbits; deer can carry tuberculosis, Brucella, Hepatitis E, and maintain transmission of Lyme disease and potentially Erlichia. Other zoonotic pathogens that could be acquired from a variety of wild animals include Campylobacter, E. coli, plague (mainly in the Southwestern United States); Cryptosporidia, Giardia, avian influenza from waterfowl, rabies (more likely from handling than ingestion); hantavirus, Trichinella, Leptospira, Salmonella, Histoplasma, and I’m sure many more from handling or consumption of wild animals.

Finally, while people malign "bushmeat" hunters in Africa, let's not forget that almost any source of food can be contaminated with potential pathogens. Even in the United States, 1 in 6 Americans (48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. Every year. And that's with our "high standards" for animal husbandry and processing.

So perhaps rather than looking to countries in Africa and judging their food consumption habits as they relate to infection, we should turn a mirror to our own. If we don't judge Granny Beck for her wild game consumption, neither should we judge those a continent away.

Additional readings

The long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place

If you can’t be a good example, be a warning. How EcoInternet’s #Scicomm #Fail can make you a more culturally aware science communicator

 American Bushmeat


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I grew up on our family ranch in the Texas Hill Country. I can remember, before the drought of the '50s, mother taking the 22 and coming back with a couple of squirrels for lunch. Needless to say, we hunted and ate a certain amount of wild meat.

My one racoon story happened in Belize. We were going fish collecting with an expatriate from Illinois. He invited us to lunch before we took off. He had shot a racoon. He cleaned and dressed it before he gave it to his native cook. He told her it was a monkey, because he knew she would not cook a racoon. It was pretty good.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 27 Oct 2014 #permalink

My mom never seems exactly *happy* about her childhood, but she certainly does seem just a bit proud that she went hunting with her dad, during the depression, and stretching the food budget with squirrels and rabbits. This was northern Ohio, in a relatively well-to-do community, but during relatively belt-tightening times.

With *us*, doing what you need to do is a virtue. With *them*, it's a sign of depravity.

By Cuttlefish (not verified) on 27 Oct 2014 #permalink

"But in modern-day Africa, such hunting is somehow “barbaric” and “backward,” regardless of whether it is for sustenance or trade."

Oh no. It's not seen as at all backward and "other" to eat possum and roadkill in the US. People are not mocked for this at all. Thanks for the laugh.

I've never heard it referred to as savage or barbaric here. (Well, maybe by animal rights groups, but they say that about any animal meat). Redneck sure, hence Daryl, but even that is lauded. And they're laughing all the way to the bank as hunters on Duck Dynasty and Honey Boo Boo make more in 15 minutes then I do in a year.

My philosophy of eating: eat everything, because some of it may be good for you this week. I grew up poor, eating liver, tongue, pork brains, kidney stew. My dad raised rabbits and fished, turtled, and frogged. All tasty eating. We are the world's top-of-the-food-chain omnivore. Eat it! Eat it all!

By Chris Heinz (not verified) on 27 Oct 2014 #permalink

My great-grandfather was a renowned squirrel hunter; my grandfather hunted deer and rabbit; we fished; one of my step-grandmothers crabbed and gigged frogs. We eat venison , have hunted and eaten rabbits and jackrabbits, and (so much for there being safeguards) like anyone who raises livestock, we are free to slaughter and process our own, for our own consumption. And have, with both sheep and cattle. I grew up respecting meat hunters with a bit of contempt for trophy hunters who would leave a deer carcass lying by the roadside, having cut off the head to be mounted.

I, too, have found the sneering at Africans for eating "bushmeat" offensive, especially since some of the sneerers probably have some fancy "hunting" gear in a closet that cost enough to keep an African family fed for year. For that matter, we have animals diseases to worry about too---chronic wasting disease in US deer (mostly in the west/southwest) is a prion disease like bovine spongiform encephalitis--not something anyone wants.

By Elizabeth Moon (not verified) on 27 Oct 2014 #permalink

When I was living in the woods working on a forest ecology project, I would often go out and shoot a couple of squirrels for dinner after work. If I lived in Africa, I'd probably go out and shoot a few bats. A mammal's a mammal, and they're all varying degrees of edible.

Also, raccoon is actually pretty good -- it tastes uncannily like dark-meat turkey, but you have to boil it all day or else it's too tough to eat. Most people are probably about as likely to want to eat a raccoon as a bat. However, you're right, that when I tell people that I hunt raccoons, they say "hey, that's pretty neat" instead of "that's irresponsible and gross, think of the disease outbreaks you're going to cause."

Sam, good to know about raccoons. They're ridiculously easy to trap (we had to do so to keep them away from our garbage) so if the apocalypse strikes, I'll boil away. Elizabeth, I thought about mentioning CWD but as far as I've seen, there's not conclusive proof it is/can(?) affect humans. We just had reports of it in Ohio deer as well--definitely something to keep on the radar.

Honestly, I've never really encountered this idea or bushmeat as somehow savage in of itself; it's criticized overwhelmingly not because it's "yucky" but because it tends to be environmentally destructive and a major threat to important species, as well as the above-mentioned health issues.

By Andrew Carter (not verified) on 28 Oct 2014 #permalink

Your timing is prescient - i just had this thought about 3 days ago about this exact double standard of nomenclature and attitudes.

I am yet another eccentric data point who grew up in bushmeat country - the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the 70s and 80s, when unemployment hovered around 20 %. My single mom on a teacher's salary was one of the fortunate ones, plus we qualified for green stamps, but trading lunches with my friends i could tell how many were being fed squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, grouse, pheasant, etc. Of course, nowhere near when the accepted season was. Another tough choice: risk a poaching conviction, or let your child go hungry?

By Double Shelix (not verified) on 28 Oct 2014 #permalink

really, rednecks are "lauded"? LOL. By academics? By whom? Please clue me in. the most mocked population by Hollywood. Maybe you would make more progress if you attacked how poor are treated here at the same time instead of fantasizing that they are treated respectfully because they are white or American. How about eating roadkill? Still nutritious. Maybe we need a nicer expression for that. How many people of poor backgrounds would bring up the topic of squirrel and possum eating during a business lunch, say an interview?

" I, too, have found the sneering at Africans for eating “bushmeat” offensive," yet with your background you don't find academics and screenwriters sneering at people who eat possum and roadkill here offensive? Somehow because some people make money starring in (widely mocked) reality shows equals respect and admiration??? Um, no that's not how it works.

I'm from Louisiana. 'Gator meat is actually quite popular here and most restaurants offer either 'gator sausage or fried 'gator nuggets. Most of it is farm-raised, and our Wildlife and Fisheries operates one of the big farms. Then there are tales of people eating nutria, armadillos and wild boar. I've eaten plenty of 'gator, but not the others.

Armadillos can carry Mycobacterium leprae-- leprosy!

I was about to mention that you can get CJD from squirrel brains, but you beat me to it. I hadn't heard of burgoo being the name for that kind of stew before—to me it refers to royal navy porridge.

By Lancelot Gobbo (not verified) on 29 Oct 2014 #permalink

Echoing Andrew Carter: I think the issues is sustainable hunting . When hunting becomes excessive, people are pressured to hunt species already threatened. At the root, it's human overpopulation and the rapid expansion of human environmental footprint that puts species at risk -- on all continents. I am not disgusted by "bushmeat" -- I am disgusted when endangered species, like chimps and gorillas wind up killed and their dried hands used as ashtrays.

Not to spread more disease hype, but I recall a recent Nature show on PBS about racoons, where they mentioned that the eggs of a tapeworm that is endemic to racoons can be particalized in places where their feces dry, like attics and sheds, and that humans are a suitable host. So perhaps they taste good, but do be careful to cook them thoroughly!

By Gordon Burgess (not verified) on 07 Nov 2014 #permalink

As my stepfather is a doctor who currently works in Sierra Leone, I have gained some knowledge about the Ebola virus and how much adversity it has caused. I believe that uneducated people and not barbaric people are one of the main reasons for the spread of the virus. Doctors and specialists have warned people about the consumption of wild meat numerous times but most citizens of African countries have chosen not to listen. This has led to other countries referring to these citizens suffering under the ebola outbreak as being barbaric, mainly because of their arrogance towards warnings which could lead to the spread of the virus to countries like the US. It is thus quite understandable that individuals are feeling the heat and thus using expressive language to criticize and get their point across. I do, however, agree that it is in no way fair that US citizens don't receive any criticism about the consumption of wild meat whilst African citizens are called barbarians when they consume wild meat.

By A Richter (not verified) on 30 Mar 2015 #permalink