Every fall, hundreds of chefs from all around the country head to Bentonville, Arkansas, to take part in a heated competition. They baste, emulsify, marinate, and flambé. They make everything from bratwurst to lollipops. But they all have something in common: They’re cooking with squirrel.
Over the past decade, Bentonville has become a hotspot for “high South” cuisine, which is characterized by local ingredients combined in unusual ways and tends to come at a relatively high price point. “To keep us somewhat grounded, I wanted to show the public that … we also still have the ability to cook squirrel,” says Joe Wilson, who organized the inaugural World Champion Squirrel Cook-Off in 2012.
It’s now an annual event, drawing hundreds of squirrel-cookers and thousands of spectators. Chefs compete in teams of two or three, and have 2.5 hours to prepare a squirrel-based main dish, along with a side. All prepping, marinating, and cooking occurs on-site. Judges rate dishes based on presentation, texture, and “use of squirrel,” and the winners take home a cash prize. (The remaining proceeds are donated to charity.)
Squirrel meat has been a part of the American palate since before the colonial era, but Wilson has done his best to rebrand the protein for the current age. “We call it ‘tree bacon’ and ‘limb chicken,’” he says. “I coined the term ‘The Tofu of the Woods’ because it absorbs any flavor that we apply to it.” Many cook-off entrants take advantage of this flexibility in their dishes. Highlights of past years have included squirrel ice cream, squirrel fajitas, squirrel corn dogs, and a sugar-cured “squirrel ham.” Wilson tries it all: “A couple of years back we had squirrel sushi and I was a little leery of that,” he says. “But I just went for it.”
Interested viewers and tasters are welcome at the event from start to finish. If you’re new to this particular form of protein, “be prepared to eat something that doesn’t taste like chicken,” says Wilson. “It’s going to taste exactly like squirrel.”