Don't Waste That Woodchuck
By: Rose Paul
That’s what I told friends for two weeks after feasting on woodchuck stew. Don’t waste your pesky garden woodchuck—eat it!
I first set my sights on cooking a woodchuck early this summer. My husband had dispatched one with his rifle after it munched on kale and cabbage behind my formidable garden fence. Honestly, how do they get in? This one had taken up bachelor digs at the base of a stone wall not 20 feet from our back porch, and I could see it smiling—I really mean it. It looked happy to be alive and pleased to be making progress on its mental checklist. Home? Yup. Food? Yup. Next up: female, and after that, babies.
I felt bad about cutting short its young and promising life…what would I say to its mother? So I vowed to myself that the next woodchuck we’d take out would count for something.
An opportunity to make good on my promise ambled along in mid-August. This time it was a she, and she liked green beans and carrot tops. She was not to be wasted. As my husband got out the rifle I whispered, “Remember, we’re going to eat this one.” He nodded and aimed for the back of the skull. (Tip number one in harvesting woodchuck for food: Don’t spoil the meat with a bullet).
Foregoing the dinner I had just fixed, we set about fussing over the animal. Which was our sharpest knife? Where would we skin it, on a sawhorse or on our stone bench? What to do first, take off the head or cut open the belly skin? (Second tip: Get the head outta there, it gets in the way).
We successfully muddled our way through dressing out the carcass, relying on our past experience butchering our homegrown meat chickens. I’ll confess it took a while. The skin is tough to cut through, and unlike a chicken that gets plucked first thing, a woodchuck’s fur can get in the way. What’s more, this August woodchuck was fattening up for the fall, and I had to gently separate the skin and fat layer from her underlying meat. But with a small sharp knife that wasn’t too difficult, just slow going. (Third tip: You really need a sharp knife for this work. It will help you avoid the bumbling that can cause you to nick a scent gland).
We gratefully appraised the final product stretched out before us: from forearms to back thighs, a long, lean carcass of red meat. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it: stick that sucker in my crockpot. Fortunately, the woodchuck fit nicely coiled up in said crockpot.
Crockpot cooking requires less water than the stovetop, so I used only half of a 15-oz. can of stewed tomatoes. I was completely out of three ingredients I might have used—bay leaves, onions, and red wine—but I threw in a few peppercorns, a little salt, and hoped for the best. Really, who shops ahead for woodchuck on the Wednesday night menu? I figured we’d start with the basics and, if we ever did it again, we could ratchet up the cordon bleu factor. I set the crockpot on low and left it running all night.
Well, that woodchuck fed my husband and me for three meals. We both like the drumsticks of chicken and turkey, so at that first meal we went for the choicest parts—the legs—alongside mashed potatoes and salad. They were tender and delicious. I know, you’re probably thinking, Tastes like chicken, right? No, woodchuck is red meat, but it tastes less robust than beef, with a hint of herbs. I wouldn’t say it was a gamey taste, just a pleasant suggestion of the garden vegetables that fed this chuck. I was glad I hadn’t added the bay leaf because it wasn’t needed.
That evening I deboned the rest of the meat and we had woodchuck stew for two more meals. We never weighed the meat, but I would guess the dressed-out woodchuck amounted to four pounds.
Would I do this again? You bet I would! Gladly, and with pleasure. I won’t be hunting afield for my next woodchuck stew, but if the right woodchuck comes along and decides my backyard vegetables are on its bucket list of things to do, then all I can say is, “Bon appetit!”
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If the thought of killing woodchucks is painful to you, the Humane Society of the United States has an excellent article on its website about how to humanely “evict and exclude” woodchucks. The article also helps you determine whether you’re harvesting a mother chuck that has young in the den (not recommended). Always kill woodchucks humanely and safely. And keep in mind that they can occasionally carry ticks, and even more infrequently, rabies; consult the Vermont Department of Health website for more information.
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Rose Paul is an ecologist with the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy. She intensively farms a quarter acre of land in Plainfield with her husband, George, and their four chickens.
Illustration: wikimedia.org, Pearson Scott Foresman collection