The great old American cookoff is a longstanding tradition that stretches from chili competitions to bacon throwdowns to the more obscure but equally delicious Mac 'n' Cheeze Takedown, among others. Now a new festival has emerged, championing a meat that you can't find at your local butcher but that has been eaten by hunters and conservationists for ages: The World Championship Squirrel Cook Off in Bentonville, Ark.
"For years, in this area it's been a tradition for us to try to outcook each other," said Joe Wilson, who organized the 2013 World Championship Squirrel Cook Off. "But this is our second year opening it up to the whole world. Conservation is important to hunters and we wanted to share our culture and what we love with others." The competition, which was in the city square of Bentonville, Ark., attracted 30 teams from nine different states and about 7,000 spectators. While the cookoff was free to the public, proceeds from raffles raised $5,000 for the Northwest Arkansas Children's Shelter.
No marinades or prepped ingredients were allowed at the competition. Teams of two were all required to cook their dishes from start to finish within the two and a half hours. Creativity was encouraged. "The biggest misconception about squirrel meat is that people consider it a rat," Wilson said. "Squirrel has a mild game taste, closely related to rabbit. I always tell people it's 100 percent organic and sustainable. In Europe you can find it at the butcher, but here it's not USDA certified."
Entries ranged from spring rolls to Italian pasta dishes to traditional "country" preparations like fried squirrel smothered in gravy. But in the end, first place was awarded for the second year in a row to brothers Brandon and Blaine Estes, who created a squirrel bratwurst served on a bun with a side of pheasant salad. Second and third place honors went to Stephen Tolbert (stir-fried squirrel served over rice) and brothers Joe and Jason Phillips (squirrel fajitas), respectively.