My first squirrel hunt happened ordinarily enough. Fresh out of firearms safety class, my cousin and I headed to an oak grove behind his family's farm and managed to drop four plump gray squirrels. We delivered our quarry, skinned with help from his grandpa, to my aunt's kitchen, where my interest in squirrel hunting evaporated as quickly as a drop of water in the hot skillet she used to fry them. But last season, after a 25-year truce with bushy-tailed, tree-dwelling game, I had the good fortune to find a flavorful reintroduction.
John Ny Vang, like many of Minnesota's 20,000 Southeast Asian–American hunters, is enthusiastic about squirrels. In his professional life, he runs a business that provides Hmong translators throughout Ramsey County. At home John is known for cooking wild-game dishes. So when I asked if he'd take me squirrel hunting, I also asked if he'd cook me dinner.
A New Hunting Heritage
John Ny Vang's father commanded 1,200 Hmong men who disrupted North Vietnamese supply lines during the Vietnam War and rescued U.S. pilots shot down behind enemy lines. When the United States withdrew all support for this unofficial conflict in 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao government waged genocide against the Hmong people in retaliation for their collaboration with U.S. forces. John's family escaped to Thailand and spent five years in a refugee camp before finding passage to America in 1980.
Like other Hmong hunters, John and his family were drawn to the rolling hardwood hills of the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area. Because of the focused hunting pressure on the limited public lands in this region of the state, bagging squirrels can often prove difficult. Yet, according to John, knocking on a stranger's door to ask permission to hunt is out of the question for many Southeast Asian–American hunters.
"What happened in Wisconsin set everything back," he says, referring to the 2004 murder of six white hunters by a Hmong hunter who was trespassing.
Three years after the Wisconsin tragedy, John helped found the St. Paul–based Capital Sportsmen Chapter of Minnesota Deer Hunters Association in an effort to bridge the divide between Southeast Asian hunters and the state's largely white hunting establishment. He also heads up the newly formed Asian Outdoor Heritage group, which represents the interests of Southeast Asian–American hunters and anglers.
"Sure," John responded, adding one caveat: "If you want to make sure we have squirrels to eat, find some private land for us to hunt on."
So I called Mike Thompson, a grain farmer near Oronoco. I'd met him a few years ago when I hunted Canada geese on his property. He said his woods were crawling with squirrels and that we were welcome to help him get rid of a few.
Squirrel season was more than a month away, but John was giddy when I gave him the news. We set a date for the last Saturday in September. Our hunting party would include John's son Yeleng, his brother Seng, and his friend Tong Vang, a liaison to Southeast Asian hunters for the Department of Natural Resources.
For me, the opportunity to hunt and share a meal with John and his family held the promise of a new cultural and culinary experience. For John, the prospect of a limit of squirrels and an introduction to a landowner was just as exciting.
On the day of our hunt, we meet before dawn in St. Paul and caravan down U.S. Highway 52. With abundant oak and walnut trees, southeastern Minnesota is a natural destination for squirrel hunters. John tells me the steep hills and lush valleys of this region are reminiscent of home for many Hmong, an ethnic minority from the highlands of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and China.
Like other Hmong families who began immigrating to America in 1976, John's family was granted asylum for allegiance to the United States during the Central Intelligence Agency–backed secret war in Laos.
John was 14 when his family arrived in Minnesota. A few years later, he began hunting with his father and uncle for deer and squirrels.
The sun is just making its way into a cloudless sky when we pull into Mike Thompson's driveway. After introductions, Mike shows us the road to a thick belt of hardwood trees on the edge of a field where his land tilts down to the Zumbro River. We can hunt there, provided we stay roughly between the north and south boundaries of the two 80-acre bean fields on top of the river valley.
Before Mike goes back to harvesting soybeans, Tong presents him with a traditional Hmong knife as a token of gratitude. Mike thanks Tong for the knife and wishes us all luck.
We drive down a field road, park near the edge of the woods, uncase our .22 rifles, and feed shiny brass shells into them. Yeleng and Seng decide to angle south into the valley. Tong heads to the north, and I follow John due west into the middle of the woods.
My eyes have barely adjusted to the shade of the canopy of oak, maple, ash, and elm when the crack of a .22 rings out to our left. Moments later we hear a rifle report from the other direction. Nearby, the raspy bark of a gray squirrel causes John to hold up a hand as a signal for me to stop. I wait while he walks slowly, pausing often on his way up the side of the small ravine we've been following. I see him raise his rifle, then rustling leaves on the other side of the ravine draw my attention.
Just above a limestone outcrop, a large fox squirrel alternates between crouching on the ground and sitting on its haunches. I hear a shot from John's rifle but keep the fox squirrel in my sights. It hops forward, flicks its tail several times, and freezes. I readjust, notice my heart pounding hard, and squeeze the trigger. By the time I cross the ravine, the squirrel is no longer moving. I pick it up by the tail, surprised by its heft and the beauty of its russet color in the morning sun.
I walk back toward John. He has unslung his backpack, and I hoist the big fox squirrel so he can see it.
"Hey, you hit one," he says as he pulls out a plastic bag for my squirrel, which he stows in his pack next to the gray squirrel he has just taken from the limb of a stately oak. "Nothing to it, right? Squirrel hunting is just a careful walk in the woods."
In other parts of the country, squirrel hunting is a big deal. Arkansas hosts the World Championship Squirrel Cook Off. In parts of Louisiana, the start of squirrel season is holiday enough to close schools for a day or two. But in Minnesota, squirrels are more likely to be regarded as backyard pests.
So I ask John, "Why is squirrel hunting so popular among Southeast Asians?"
His answer is straightforward: Squirrel hunting doesn't require a lot of equipment; it's not complicated; and it provides enough action for young hunters to stay engaged while they learn the fundamentals.
Of course, says John, "We like the way they taste. It's not something Hmong people want to eat every day. But it is a special treat."
We stand silently, straining our ears. A gust of wind rakes the treetops, and I watch a trickle of bright yellow aspen leaves flutter down. A squirrel scampering across the dry duff breaks the spell, and we move toward it.
My gun doesn't have a scope, and my aim has proven lousy since my first shot of the day, so I let John shoot for a while. He tells me it's one of the best days he's had in recent memory.
Fox and gray squirrels both count toward Minnesota's daily bag limit of seven. John bags one more, and with the addition of my lone fox squirrel, John is carrying a limit. Squirrels are less active midday, so we make our way out of the woods.
It's almost noon, and it feels close to 80 degrees in the unfiltered sunlight on the edge of the field. Yeleng, Seng, and Tong are shuffling back too. John reaches into a cooler in the back of his truck and doles out neatly folded brown lunch bags. Inside each one is a piece of boiled chicken and a ball of sticky white rice.
After lunch, we empty the backpacks onto the ground and count 24 squirrels. Because Yeleng and Seng are the youngest, they are responsible, according to Hmong custom, for cleaning the squirrels. John and Tong head back to the woods in hopes of filling the limit for the group.
I stay with Yeleng and Seng, who are now slitting squirrel bellies and removing entrails. Nothing goes to waste. Resourcefulness, I learn, is a virtue in Hmong culture. This explains why, instead of skinning the squirrels, Yeleng and Seng ignite propane torches and begin meticulously burning all the fur off the squirrels. The task takes two hours, long enough for John and Tong to return with four more squirrels.
I wonder out loud how such an acrid smell affects the flavor of the meat.
"You won't taste it at all," John says. "You'll see."
University diplomas earned by John's eight children cover an entire living room wall in his comfortable split-level home in Forest Lake. When we arrive, his wife, Pa V Lee, and oldest son, Tousue, are busy preparing ingredients.
John plans to make two dishes. The first on the menu is a minced-meat salad called laab, or larb (pronounced lahp), the national dish of Laos and a common menu item at Thai restaurants. But you can't buy John's rendition of the popular dish. His version uses finely chipped, broiled squirrel instead of ground beef and slices of boiled squirrel skin in place of beef tripe. Other ingredients, mostly from his garden, include green onions, cilantro, Thai chilies, Thai basil, and lemon grass. To this, John adds lime juice, spices, and finely ground, dry brown rice.
The other dish, nasncuav haus (pronounced NAH-juh-wah how), is a traditional Hmong preparation. "Squirrel stew in English," says John, as he wipes black char off the singed squirrels in a tub of cold water. He then adds the quartered squirrels to a pot of simmering water, lemon grass, jalapeños, ginger, Thai eggplant, chilies, and basil, cilantro, and salt.
While we wait for the food to cook, John explains that in Hmong culture if you take something from the woods, it's only right to use every part of the animal. "We believe that if we do the right things," he says, "our ancestors who watch over us will bless us with luck."
Before long, two squirrel dishes flank a bowl of sticky rice in the center of the table. Each setting has small dishes with thinly sliced Thai chilies floating in fish oil. It's time to eat. John demonstrates how to grab a chunk of sticky rice and press it into the laab, which he's spooned onto his plate. I follow his lead, dipping the rice and minced-meat salad into fish oil, then take my first bite. It's savory and spicy with a hint of sour and not a trace of gaminess. In short, it's amazing, and soon I'm ready for a second helping.
John encourages me to try the stew. Without all the spice, this dish retains the distinctive gamey flavor of squirrel. The meat is tender, though, and the skin, which has the texture of calamari, is not unpleasant.
Comparing this hunt with my usual upland bird hunting pursuits, I am taken by the simplicity of our day in the woods and the fine meal in front of me. I tell John I'd hunt squirrels again, provided he'd do the cooking. We agree to find time next season, but my reintroduction to squirrel hunting was not yet complete.
"I think you need to try a squirrel brain," says Yeleng.
"It's a delicacy," John assures me.
So, with a bit of instruction, I pluck out a small, gray morsel from the head of a squirrel. Its texture is soft and dense like a dumpling, and the taste is not unlike the rest of the stew.
"Not bad," I say casually, under the quizzical gazes of everyone at the table.
"Eat your heart out, Andrew Zimmern," says John to everyone's approving laughs. "That's how we do it."
I take a sip of melon-infused water. It's bland but strangely refreshing and cools the sting of the Thai chilies.
Looking above the table at a large portrait of John's father, dressed in a white military uniform, I wonder briefly if he would find my presence odd. Then my mind wanders back to the last time I ate squirrel. I think of my aunt who prepared it for me. She passed away more than a decade ago. To this day, my mother believes the sight of a northern cardinal is a sign that her twin sister is checking on her. With the day's events still bright in my mind, the notion that our ancestors watch over us and bring us luck no longer feels foreign.