Squirrel does not taste like chicken. That’s just one thing you need to know about the World Championship Squirrel Cook Off going down in Bentonville this weekend. For everything else you need to know we’ve put together this handy pre-“game” (sorry!) guide.
Let’s start with the “when” and “where”. The event will take place at the downtown Bentonville Square this Saturday, Sept. 12, beginning at 9 a.m.
Now for the “what”. In its fourth year, the World Championship Squirrel Cook Off is a cooking competition where more than 30 teams (both professional chefs and home cooks) will have just two-and-a-half hours to cook a main dish and a side dish on the premises. No less than 80 percent of the meat in the main dish has to be made up of squirrel. And while side dishes don’t have to be squirrel-based, if they are, an extra five points will be racked up.
A panel of 12 judges will judge the dishes for tenderness, taste and presentation. Participants come from across the United States to vie for the title, which in addition to bragging rights and a trophy, comes with a $500 prize.
Another thing we thought you needed to know is that while tongue-in-cheek humor is certainly a main ingredient of this event, when it comes down to it, it’s a serious cooking competition.
“I think the thing that people don’t expect is that this is a true culinary event,” says Joe Wilson, the competition’s founder and coordinator. “It’s not just your grandma’s squirrel and dumplings, these are real chefs and dedicated home cooks making amazing recipes using squirrel as the protein.”
Case in point: last year’s winners. Third place went to a dish of Sonoran style squirrel enchiladas with flame-roasted Hatch green chiles. Earning second place were squirrel tacos topped with a cherry sauce. And the first place prize— awarded to chefs from Siloam Springs’ 28 Springs restaurant—went to a squirrel meatloaf served with heirloom tomatoes and a smoked bourbon old fashioned garnished with a candied squirrel lollipop.
“The teams who participate in the cook-off do an incredible job of taking this often ridiculed game animal and deconstructing it to create dishes that even top chefs praise,” points out Blair Cromwell, vice president of communications at the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau.
It’s also important that you know that in addition to being a serious culinary competition, the cook-off is kind of a big deal. Indeed, since it’s been in existence, its received coverage from the Wall Street Journal, USA Today (which ranked it as one of the top ten culinary events in the U.S.) and the Travel Channel. Just last week, info about the event landed in The New York Times. This year, CBS Sunday Morning will be there to cover it. (We’ll keep you posted on when the segment will air.)
In addition, the judges’ panel is always stocked with top chefs, both internationally and locally known. This year, well-known local chefs, such as Matthew McClure, executive chef from The Hive, Levi Rush from Levi’s Gastrolounge in Rogers, and Maudie Schmitt from Café Rue Orleans in Fayetteville, will be among the judges.
Now for a look at why Wilson, a longtime Bentonville resident, whose day job is in the contracting business, launched this event to begin with. A major reason, he says, is that as the city of Bentonville becomes more and more cosmopolitan, he wanted to help make sure it didn’t lose sight of its roots. “My hope is that this event will help us hold on to the culture and heritage of our region,” he told me. “With the growth of the art and culinary scene here in Bentonville, the country lifestyle or the native Arkansas lifestyle is kind of getting missed.”
And at the end of the day, far from being at odds with the region’s evolving local, farm-to-table culinary scene, it fits right in. “Most people in the U.S. are very removed from their food,” points out Chef McClure. “The fact is that these squirrels are wild, ate a varied and natural diet (mostly vegetarian) and in Arkansas, which fits the trend of ‘Eat local.’”
Lastly, the event is free and open to the public with 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. being the best time for folks to pick up some samples of the cooking.
Stay tuned next week for full coverage of the winners and to find out what the author, who has never tried squirrel nor ever dreamed she would, thought of her very first taste of “tree bacon”.