Curse of the Squirrel

Food for Thought

I'm available as a postcard. Can you believe it?

Squirrel Brains May Be Unsafe

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) -- Squirrel brains are a lip-smacking memory for Janet Norris Gates. They were the choicest morsels of the game her father once hunted in Tennessee. ``In our family, we saw it as a prized piece of meat, and if he shared it with you, you were pretty happy. Not that he was stingy,'' said Mrs. Gates, an oral historian in Frankfort, ``but there's just not much of a squirrel brain.'' Now, some people might want to think twice about eating squirrel brains, a backwoods Southern delicacy.
Two Kentucky doctors last month reported a possible link between eating squirrel brains and the rare and deadly human variety of mad-cow disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, thought to strike one person in 1 million, produces holes in the brain. Symptoms include loss of muscle control and dementia. It may take years, even decades, for symptoms to appear.
Dr. Eric Weisman, a behavioral neurologist who practices in rural western Kentucky, reported in the distinguished British medical journal The Lancet that he has treated 11 people for Creutzfeldt-Jakob in four years, and all had eaten squirrel brains at some time. Six of the victims, ranging in age from 56 to 78, have died.
The normal incidence of the disease in the area should be one case in about 10 years, he said.
Weisman and co-author Dr. Joseph Berger, chairman of the neurology department at the University of Kentucky, cautioned that the number of cases is small, and no squirrel brains have actually been examined for the disease. They said many questions remain, including how the squirrels would contract the disease, since they do not eat meat.
``However, it is perhaps best to avoid squirrel brains and probably the brains of any other animal,'' Berger said.
Philip Lyvers, a farmer and hunter in central Kentucky whose wife simmers squirrels, head and all, with sauteed onions and peppers and serves them over rice, said ``two guys' opinions'' in a medical journal won't make him change his ways.
``I know more old hunters than I know of old doctors,'' Lyvers said. Mrs. Gates said that given all the other environmental hazards around, she is not frightened by the doctors' findings. ``There's no way I can undo what I've done. But I certainly enjoyed eating them,'' she said. Cooked squirrel brain is about the size of a pingpong ball and is said to taste something like liver, only kind of mushy.
Hunters annually bag about 1.5 million squirrels in Kentucky. Some people have also been known to cook up road kill squirrels, which concerns Berger. A crazed squirrel may be more likely to dash into traffic and get killed.
Exactly how many people eat the brains is not clear.
The menu for the 18th annual Slone Mountain Squirrel Festival in Floyd County last weekend did not include squirrel brains, or any other part of the squirrel for that matter.
``We don't even fix squirrel gravy anymore,'' said Otis Hicks, one of the organizers. ``We don't serve any wild animal whatsoever. The health department said they'd all have to be checked, so we just decided not to fool with it.'' Michael Ann Williams, who teaches food customs in a folklore program at Western Kentucky University, said some students can recall their parents eating squirrel brains, usually scrambled with eggs.
``I don't think I've had a student who said, `Oh yeah, I think squirrel brains are yummy myself,''' Ms. Williams said.
By Charles Wolfe
Associated Press Writer
 Copyright 1997 The Associated Press