A groundhog was a Southern critter and a woodchuck or whistle pig was the same critter known to Northerners by another name. The garden at the fort has become home to a groundhog that grows fatter by the day through feasting on the various vegetables growing there, and by the fall garrisons should be just about ready for roasting, providing the French marines can bring about his demise.
Groundhog has fed man since he learned rudimentary cooking skills, therefore, a demonstration of cooking one should be found proper for just about any time period.
The refuse pits of the Baum Prehistoric Village in Ross County, Ohio (AD 1000-1650) contained the broken bones of several animals archaeologists determined had been a source of food, among them the groundhog.
Groundhogs slumber through the winter sustained on the fat they packed on during the summer and fall.
The negroes of the South are keen hunters of the poor creature, who, in winter, a mere ball of fur, during the summer grows into a perfect ball of fat, and is considered a great luxury at the ‘quarters’.
Actually, groundhogs were eaten by pretty much everyone at one point or another—Indians, slaves, campers, pioneers, and homesteaders. The groundhog was said to be relatively scarce during the Colonial era, but as farm land replaced woods the groundhogs multiplied and by the 1870’s they were, “among the most common mammals in eastern North America”.
From the time those first crops were planted the groundhog has been referred to as the scourge of the farmer because of his destructive burrowing and eating up valuable crops and garden produce.
Audubon wrote in the 1840’s that woodchuck flesh was tolerably good and, “is frequently purchased by the humbler classes of people, who cook it like a roasting pig”.
The following receipt, short and sweet, was obtained from an Oneida woman after the turn of the century.
Stuff the chuck with bread, butter, pepper, salt, onions, and dried herbs. Roast it for about two hours, basting it well. Make a nice gravy, as you would for roast pig.
Arthur Hankins wrote an interesting account of how a groundhog was cooked.
You get your groundhog and skin ‘im and clean ‘im all nice and everythin’, and hang ‘im up to freeze—see? Then that night you ketch one o’ your big yellow-legged chickens about five months old—see? And you pick ‘im and clean ‘im all nice and everythin’. Then you go make sure that your groundhog has froze, because freezin’ takes the rank taste out of ‘em and makes ‘em fit to eat—see? Well, then you get you some butter an’ pepper an’ salt an’ sage an’ breadcrumbs, and you make a fine dressin’. And then you get your groundhog and cut ‘im up into little pieces, an’ scrape all the meat off the bones. And then you take your stuffin’ and pack it inside the yellow-legged chicken, and’ put your chicken in the roastin’ pan, and cover it and put it in the oven. And then you take your groundhog that you’ve cut up and chop it until it’s all fine and nice—see? Then you open the oven and take off the lid o’ the roastin’ pan and baste the yellow-legged chicken with a big spoon. And you keep on doin’ this every now and then, and while you’re restin’ you keep choppin’ the groundhog meat finer and finer, to have it all ready. Then when the chicken is roasted nice an’ brown, you make gravy and pour it in a bowl; and then you set the gravy and the chicken on the table and call the folks. And if you ever ate anything better in your life I don’t know what it was! There’s nothing better than a groundhog—it’s all in knowin’ how to handle ‘im’.
Gentle reader, I’m fairly certain you caught the fact that the author never actually cooked that groundhog, the chicken being the supper in question, but never fear, we’ll have a look at how they were really cooked.
Next we go to the Ohio slave narratives, stories of the lives of freedmen written down by agents for the Federal Writer’s Project during the Depression years. Celia Henderson told an interviewer that groundhog was as good as fried chicken. Her cooking instructions were to clean it, boil it in salt water until tender, make a flour gravy and put the groundhog in it in the oven, with a lid on, and bake it till it was a nice brown.
Appalachian cooks are known for cranking out simple country vittles that were biscuit soppin’ good, and you can bet they knew how to cook woodchuck.
Cut the leetle red kernels out from under their forelegs; then bile ‘em, fust—all the strong is left in the water—then pepper ‘em and sage ‘em, and put ‘em in a pan, and bake ‘em to a nice rich brown…
Before I determine how I want to cook our vegetable-stealin’ critter, I’d like to see what other ways of fixin’ him up might suit my fancy. Advice from a reader in The Century will determine how tough his flesh may be and help me decide on a recipe. “The woodchuck must be young: you tell that by the teeth, which should be white and not yellow”. One might be obliged to check out his molars after he’s been rendered docile by some means since, “these animals bite severely and defend themselves fiercely…”
Remove the axillary glands…This is an absolute necessity in order to do away with the too-strong flavor. Soak in salt water for twenty-four hours, boil in a pot with not too much water until tender, put in a pan and lard it with bacon well placed into the flesh. Cut up one onion and lay the pieces over it, with a bayleaf and with two or three cloves stuck in. Bake till slightly brown and then lay another pan over the top until the woodchuck is thoroughly steamed in its own vapor. Season with salt and pepper—no butter.
Mrs. Owens called ground-hogs an esteemed delicacy in Pennsylvania, and said, “Where fire-places are used, people cook them on a spit over a dripping-pan”. Roasting over hot coals would turn a fat groundhog into a savory golden brown morsel.
Juliet Corson advised baking sweet potatoes in the pan with the woodchuck or making it, “into a savory stew with sweet herbs and spices”.
In 1942, WWII was in full swing with its Victory Gardens and food rationing the order of the day. Gourmet contained a recipe for Creamed Woodchuck. The meat was soaked in salted water after which it was well drained. It was boiled until tender and then a cup of heavy cream, 2 tablespoons of butter and salt and pepper were added. This mixture was simmered for 5 minutes and then thickened with a flour and water slurry. The recipe suggested serving it with boiled yams and baking powder biscuits.
Groundhog can also be fried or fricasseed, made into a pie, in short, cooked just about any way other game is cooked. Decisions, decisions…
Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly. 1906.
Hankins, Arthur Preston. The Jubilee Girl. 1921. NY.
Farmer, John Stephen. Americanisms—Old and New. 1889. London.
Federal Writers’ Project. Ohio Slave Narratives. 1936-38.
National Cookery Book. 1876. Philadelphia.
Kephart, Horace. Camp Cookery. 1910. NY.
Audubon, John James. The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Vol. I. 1847. London.
The Century. Oct. 1913.
Owens, Frances Emugene. Mrs. Owens’ New Cook Book and Complete Household Manual. 1899. Chicago.
Corson, Juliet. Family Living on $500 a Year: A Daily Reference Book. 1888. NY.
Gourmet. Nov. 1942.