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The Stews of Autumn

October 12, 1995|MICHELLE HUNEVEN

I remember my mother's quick stews, thrown together after she came home from work and usually consisting of leftover meat and vegetables with Campbell's Golden Mushroom Soup. And I remember the stew she made for me on my 12th birthday when we were camping in Alaska. A hunter gave us some moose, which she diced, floured, browned and simmered with onion, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and wine.

Then there was the spicy duck stew I made after a hunting expedition to the Mississippi; I served it to 10 people, some of whom quietly laid down their forks after the first bite; nobody had warned me that fish-eating ducks would taste, well, fishy. Stews are on my mind these days.

Every year around this time, as the fall tease begins--a day here and a day there of chilly mornings, scoured blue skies, a bracing clarity in the air that makes people want to chop wood, unpack the woolens or buy some good sturdy school shoes--I, a congenital cook, want to make stews.

Living in California, I try to stifle this urge until deeper into the year, when the temperature has cooled down for good. But I don't stop thinking about stews.

The most instructive stew I ever made was years ago, when I was at the University of Iowa. The first heartening whiffs of autumn hit just before school started one year and sent my boyfriend and me out squirrel hunting.

Squirrel hunting is a largely pleasant experience. You find a nice spot in the forest. You sit down against a tree, maybe in a shaft of filtered sunlight. You wait for the squirrels to get curious enough to poke their heads out of their holes to look at you. Soon enough, you know where they are. Then you wait some more, this time for the squirrels' curiosity to pull them all the way out of their holes so that you can shoot them without knocking them back down inside a tree trunk.

Of course, the act of shooting squirrels is not particularly pleasant, and after an initial success, I have never been able to hit one again.

That day, however, we came home with three plump corn-fed specimens, which we dressed and put to soak in milk overnight in the refrigerator. We would have Brunswick stew, I decided: the best thing Americans--or anybody else--have figured out to do with squirrel meat.

I found my recipe for Brunswick stew in James Beard's "American Cookery." It is a rich, delicious stew, enriched with bacon and fresh limas and corn cut off the ear. Squirrel meat is dark and, when cooked this way, is moist and pleasantly stringy, like dark meat on a turkey.

*

With the squirrels marinating in milk, I called up half a dozen friends who were just back in town and invited them to dinner the next night. Everyone was, pardon the expression, game.

It was also suggested and decided that we should invite the well-known woman writer who had come to Iowa to teach for the semester. Why not? What could be lost by asking? The worst she could say was no.

But, Yes! The Famous Personage said Yes! We arranged transportation for her. I was thrilled to imagine such a distinguished person in my modest student home.

The Famous Personage arrived in a carload of my friends. She stood at my front door, a short, broad woman with heavy bangs who clutched a Baggie in her hands. In the Baggie was a small foil disc. Her first words were, "I don't eat squirrel," as she handed the Baggie to me. "So I brought my own hamburger. It needs to be cooked."

We drank beer and talked and caught up on each other's summers, and soon enough, people were helping themselves to bowls of Brunswick stew and murmuring with pleasure.

"Squirrel's not so bad," someone said. "It's good, like a cross between pork and chicken."

The Famous Personage decided to have a taste. Shortly, she was shoveling down Brunswick stew with the rest of us. To her surprise, she did eat squirrel. In fact, she ate quite a bit of squirrel--several bowls of it. We couldn't help but notice.

She also drank quite a bit. And then she picked out the shyest, most reserved person in the room and interrogated him loudly and rudely on sensitive issues. We were all barely in our 20s then--young enough to be shocked, appalled and sorely disillusioned when a Famous Personage misbehaved. The evening ended in hushed goodbys, whispers that we'd all talk tomorrow.

As I cleaned up the kitchen, I came across the foil-wrapped burger in its Baggie and tossed it into the freezer.

A couple of weeks later, I was walking down the hall at school, and who was coming toward me but the very same Famous Personage?

"Say," she said, stopping me in my tracks. "Can you tell me what people do for fun around here? I've been here a month now and the only thing anybody's asked me to do is go out to some girl's house for rabbit stew."

I pulled myself up tall. "That was my house," I declared. "And it was squirrel stew."

For months, every time I rummaged in the freezer for a package of corn or chops and came across that rumpled foil disc, I was reminded that people are never who you think they are; no, never.

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