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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

How to Cook the White-footed Mouse

The annals of world cuisine have made one terrible omission, and that is the failure to mention the bravery of Adirondack woodsman at trying new combinations, and preparing meals in ways unparalleled by chefs in the nation's finest and most modern kitchens.

The region is known for its variety of game, from the noble and lazy Moose (Alces alces), the miserly coyote (Canis latrans), noisy Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and delicious Whitetail Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Any huntsman tasked with provisioning a backwoods chef understands that the difficulty of moving through forests of the region often leave the larder bare, and the icehouse, even after a long hunting season, concludes winter with nary a scrap of protein to nibble upon.

Difficult though they may be to hunt, nearly every species in these northern woods is edible; some are truly delicious. A few are downright appalling. However the starving trapper or woodsman often does not have the luxury of choice. What nature provides is what we eat, and are thus grateful. 

North American Beaver, Castor canadensis, is by many considered a delicacy that compares with the finest rib-eye beef. Unrivaled for flavor and tenderness, forest chefs across the country also delight in stews made from the Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina. 

In winter these species are unavailable. The snapping turtle is buried deep in mud and unless one observed him digging his marsh lair, you will not see trace of him until spring. The beavers cuddle in their den, a bank vault of sticks reinforced by ice and snow. In seasons when snowfall is at a minimum, it is possible to excavate a beaver dwelling and pirate the young, though this is rodenticide of the worst kind. It is murder only bears should do, or have the strength for. We shall leave beavers safe and snug in their dens, because we are weak from hunger, and cannot survive the exertion of an unsuccessful dig through four feet of frozen wood and ice.

Loons and ducks have flown south. A few grouse churr quaintly along runways beneath crusts of snow, where only a coyote or fox or owl with superior hearing can gauge where they might be. Birds of prey abound, hawks that may have wintered over or owls, or even an young eagle might fall to a lucky or illegal shot. Don't believe chefs who have claimed to have eaten these avian species. The overused epithet 'tastes just like chicken' is not to be trusted. On the contrary birds of prey are minute in portion, being mostly feather and bone, not tasty at all, furthermore the meat is not healthy for another predator such as Homo sapiens, unless starving.

Crows and jays abound but are amazingly attuned to a hunter's intent. You shall not get close enough for a shot. Forget about crow pie.

So Adirondack ingenuity calls upon a nearly endless source of protein, the very rodent that plagues our sleep at night. Yes, that daring little brat, the White-footed Mouse, Peromyscus leucopus,who performs acrobatics above our heads, tintinnabulates during our dreams, pullulates in our pantries, and poops in our breadboxes, that great boon of rodentia, has saved many a hungry lumberjack from a miserable starvation worse than death.

Yea, though the White-footed Mouse nibbles our tropical fruits, deposits mini-currants on nearly everything, and is the cause of many a hurled and broken piece of china, he is also our savior, and provider of culinary delight especially at the dinner or breakfast table during off-season. As bothersome as this species is to civilized Homo sapiens, he is amongst the most delicious of creatures in the central Adirondack plateau. His grass-fed flesh is succulent, with notes of thyme and wintergreen spiced with raisin accents dropping down into base notes of fetid ammonia.

Note on Butchery: Peromyscus leucopus is not purveyed by local butcher shop shelves, not Clawbins in Copenhagen, nor the Grand Onion in Old Forge, or Canned Peas in Tupper Lake. though the species teems through these institutions at night. Not offered to clientele, they are regarded as a health nuisance due to rodent hantavirus. (More on this pesky syndrome later. See Mort's Pan-Fried Mice with Pork Pants).
So goes the tragedy of Peromyscus leucopus. Our most superior food-source is not only common, free, and universally available, but ubiquitous in parts of our architecture where we would cook and eat them. Transportation costs are nil. Thus the genius of the Adirondack chefs has acknowledged that most ancient of Latin proverbs, “Comede quaecumque habes, Nolite adnuntiare in anima.” Eat what you have, Don't tell a soul."

Species: Please don't confuse Peromyscus leucopus with Rattus norvegicus, the Norway Rat. The larger distant cousin is not as desirable, nor as tender, since it prefers life in cities or temperate farms down-state. These recipes evolved from a genus that are fine-boned and may be eaten entire. Whereas the Vietnamese farmer may delight in his meal of rat meat and rice, so the Adirondack Trapper has adapted his cuisine about the easy to obtain small rodent that is most delicious when consumed whole.

Note on Substitutions: The strong jawed may if necessary make a substitution: 6 White Tailed Mice (approximately) = 3 Field Voles = 1 Norway Rat

Such delicacies must, for purposes of this article, be caught fresh. Fortunately our Brandreth clearings and fields provide an abundance, yeah even a plague of the little rodents who are only to anxious to help themselves to bananas that aren't theirs. After years of experimentation we have settled on the Bucket trap as a method for capturing these varmints, smothering them in a most muscatine manner, and pre-coating them with oil to ready them for the pan:

Brandreth Station Bucket Trap

1 Length of String 120-160"
1 Bucket
1 Board
1 Yardstick
Several books
Stinky Cheese
Water (or cheap wine)
Rancid Oil

If you are planning a mouse feast, the key is quantity. For this we recommend the bucket trap, an aid indispensable to any Adirondack chef.

Procure a bucket, any bucket and fill half full of water. Then pour in 1-3 cups of rancid cooking oil, which is usually very easy to find in this part of the world. (Hint for the less intelligent: Do these two steps first!)

Now stretch across the rim of the bucket some brown butcher's paper so well that you could practice your drumming if you felt inclined. Tie the paper around the rim of the bucket with string. Test it well for tone. Resist the temptation to harmonize all night. If it hums when struck with a fingertip it is tight enough. Taking a straight razor, or equally sharp hunting knife, (this may mean you have to sharpen it) slice an X, with two strokes into the center of the paper. The X should be about half the dimension of the bucket diameter. 

You should be able to ram your hand through the X into the bucket but not your open palm. You're trapping mice, not rabbits.

Now erect a ramp of some boards, or some such scaffold whereby our little procession of delicacies can run on up towards the cattle pond. I advise you do this on a flat part of the floor, not in a place where you will trip over it during the night. Tie a piece of string to one end of the yardstick, and weight the other end onto the kitchen table with books. Suspend the stinky cheese from the string above but out of reach of the cut in the paper, and dangle it there with a tempting spin. If it can be smelled from one's sleeping bag in front of the stove, this is ideal.

The apparatus will resemble a kind of causal proof, a Rube Goldberg performance piece, where Aristotle's cause and effect brings down a thing that swats a fly. Pay no attention to distracting doubts. This contraption works. When erected you will see before you a bucket covered neatly with brown paper, with a wooden gangplank leading to a gallows with a piece of rancid dairy product hanging just above it.

Now sleep, smug in delight that breakfast is on its way. 

During the night you may become conscious of some scratching as the Peromyscus leucopus that have plague your rest run with delight up the catwalk, exhort a Disney-like gasp, then 'splash' as they fall through the paper X into the oily mire you've prepared below.

You strain to hear the wheeze of lungs pleading for life, but alas, as butcher you have provided a quick and easy death. The pinging sound of claws against bucket slows as they swim helplessly looking for an exit, and attempt in vain to raise noses above the level of the oil.

Were the lights on during this show of horrors you would not be able to proceed. As a general principle never watch the process of killing an animal for the kitchen larder lest you instantly convert to vegetarianism. There are cooks in this world, and there are butchers. It seems cruel, yes, but death must visit all of us. Night is the appropriate time for nocturnal Peromyscus leucopus.

If gas-lamp were on or candles were lit you could not help but admire the athleticism of our tiny distant cousins. You might see the bravest amongst them at the end of the yardstick looking down. You would pity the human grasp of their tiny white hands as they reached out in vain for the cheese before breaking the pucker of the paper and popping like pebbles into a pond. One acrobat may reach the string grasp it and slide down, before realizing that to shift position in order to eat the cheese means jumping off,  alas his final leap.

Others lead a procession of loyal friends up the gallery to the museum and out onto the skating pond of brown paper. And there fatally, you would see the ice break as the little procession falls through. You would be captivated with admiration as courageous followers plunge into the void after their friends, never to emerge again.

Worry not, breakfast will quiet soon enough. Finding it impossible to remain buoyant in the layer of fat floating at the surface, our delicacies soon drown but first have a good breath of oil which seals in their good flavors ahead of your morning treat.

Rise, shine, and remove the paper. There, if you have done it right you should find petit dejeuner for one two maybe four compatriots in arms who have been unlucky in their pursuit of the Odocoileus virginianus. Here I would add that many a guide's commission has been saved, for the chase that ends in failure is likely to cause resentment especially when the checkbook is brought out. This dish is certain to add percentages onto a total previously agreed.

Tell them, "Mourn no more, for a more delicious treat awaits you. The trout, the deer, the noble grouse or bear, are all sullied nasty snacks compared to . . . 

Meadow's Edge Pancake-Batter Fried Mice

This recipe originates from one of the coldest little cabins in the north, a six hundred square foot runion shack at the edge of the forest, perched with a field-view of mustardy Golden Rod, and subject to fierce winter winds from the south.

Meadow's Edge is of ideal construction for summer use. The original owner, Paulina Brandreth, heaped firewood against the sides for extra insulation. However those not making a regular practice of laying over during the coldest months will freeze if attempting a brief January holiday.  The most frequent miscalculation is not enough high energy food to combat the cold. But nature provides as she always does. Mice congregate at the little way station, as word passes amongst throngs of rodent kin that there is a wood stove alight that offers secluded shelter from the wind. 

One wonders if the eating of mice did not first occur simply to reduce their numbers. All manner of delicious confections have roots in the most improbable cause.

Prepare: Gather up a litter of the little mammals, rinse briefly in luke-warm dishwater . . dry thoroughly.

Mix up a frying batter. For this we suggest fermented neglected leftover pancake batter. The more gone the better. Stir it up, add some breadcrumbs, parmesan, spices. Use your imagination.

Dip each mouse holding the tip of the tail into the batter. Drag the fellow around like an Olympic swimmer going backwards until he is liberally coated from head to tail.

As a pepper substitute sprinkle on desiccated black flies gathered from the window sills, perfectly preserved by a long autumn in the sun.

Drop mice into a pan of very hot oil.

Note on Fats: Waverly Root opines on the gastronomy of fats used to prepare fine feasts in France, land of overweight monarchs.  They are briefly the South, land of Olive Oi, the West, land of Lard and Duck Fat, and the north, Land of Butter. This all very convenient when the ingredient list includes vast herds of Charolais cattle waiting to be sacrificed, or gaggles of degenerate geese barely able promenade their livers after a force-fed meal, or hillsides of giant olives guarded by vipers swaying in Mediterranean breezes.

Indeed Normandy butter is so delicious that one breakfast delicacy in the Isle de France consists solely of a 200 gram slice of butter eaten raw with a fork, and lubricated by a shot of brandy.

Have you ever tried 2 pounds of Adirondack bear fat washed down with a bottle of Thunderbird?

No? You haven't lived.

For these dishes any fat that may be rendered, scraped, melted or rescued may be used. Starving trappers in Tupper Lake heated motor oil to fry their mice, a culinary catastrophe that set fire to their cabin. Texan guests may swoon over the flavors of Sweet Texas Crude, but alas the auto industry up north has added too many chemicals to make motor oil safe for ingestion. Bear fat is most ways preferable and recommended with a good shot of brandy afterwards. 

Tips on Preparation. Squeeze your mice well. Try to eject the colorful runs from either end. This alleviates some of the bitter aftertaste. If you are in a hurry to eat your freshly caught mouse you may dispense with this crap, I mean step. Some chefs elect to pull incisors out with pliers, this being the only part of the beast that does not do well in the jaws, however adept diners dispense with this step and compensate by eating technique. (See tips on Eating below) 

Cooking: Some chefs elect to parboil their mice before removing hair with a dull razor, preferably not one to be used later to shave with. Others will skewer the mice on a stick and thrust them into flames of a wood-stove briefly to burn off the layer of hair. But the true Adirondack cognoscenti allows the hirsute mouse felt to gather folds of yellow batter and become crispy along with it, adding to the je ne sais crois never adequately described in the annals of French deep-frying. The piece de la resistance, needless to say, is the tail. It is said that the finest of batter-fried field mouse tails will break off on the tongue like a crispy pretzel . . . and melt in the mouth, albeit with a bit of flossing afterwards.

Audire ad murium: Allow the mice to remain in boiling oil until bubbles from each begin to slow down. In a sense, as these bubbles slow, the mouse is saying to the trapper, "I'm done. Eat me!" Finitus sum. Comedere mei!"

Listen to your mice. 

We recommend frying up litters of Peromyscus three or four at a time, and placing the cooked critters on a layer of clean paper (or terry cloth) towels to drain. A cotton undershirt will also do though guests may prefer it if said undergarment is clean.

Eating: Cogniscenti of this fine dish, trace the descent from fried Ortolan, Emberiza hortulana, the little bunting of France that gorges on pourriture noble or noble rot of the vineyard grapes. Ortolan inspired the following ditty which is sung by French schoolgirls to this day (rough translation).

    When first I swallowed Ortolan,
    I thought I'd die from that ordeal.
    But when the dish had worked-a-day,
    All the birds flew the other way!

Ethnomusicologists traced iterations of the vineyard children's song through Canadian lumberjacks and trappers to the Central Adirondacks and observed a similar rhyme sung by Potter children around Easter.

    After rodent feasting on Muridae
    I knew my parents had gone on holiday,
    In Tupper Lake, we knew they ate steak
    But at Brandreth each had a mouse-a-day!

Note: Muridae family of order Rodentia, eg. 'mouse'.

Ortolan must be held properly by the beak when eaten. So with Peromyscus leucopus, or Adirondack Pan-Fried Mice. The rest of the bird, or beast, may be devoured in one satisfying implosion of hot gastric juices, protein, and ribcage crunch. 

Ortolan are eaten with a napkin draped over the head. This may be in consideration of one's neighbors, though it also concentrates precious aromas of the bird's flesh. The principle reason though, given by experts is:

". . . this is to shield – from God’s eyes – the shame of such a decadent and disgraceful act."
                        (Wallop, H. (2014). "Why French chefs want us to eat this bird". The Telegraph. March 16, 2015.)

When eating Peromyscus, hold the crispy bite-full between thumb and forefinger by the incisors, dangle the tail into open maw of one's throat, then close jaws with a spasmodic smack. Allow hot deep-fried juices of the central cavity to bathe over the tongue, being sure also to close lips else you splatter your trapper-at-arms with overheated mouse offal.

(Serves 1-12)

Whole-Roasted Mouse ala Thunderbird

We've spent enough time on ways to prepare Peromyscus fried in fats of various origins. However this most adaptable and flexible food is equally fine roasted. For this delicacy we have to plan ahead and vary our butchering technique. 

As all cooks know, frying is the form of cooking that most easily preserves juices inside the flesh of an animal, or vegetable, whereas roasting desiccates the flesh somewhat, depending on technique, and reduces its weight. This is both a blessing and a curse. It concentrates flavors, but also dries out what is being served. The French chefs in their cooking of Ortolan, opt for both methods. The little carcasses are kept moist and succulent by drowning them first in Armagnac. 

We therefor make the following substitution. Instead of water, fill your bucket trap with Thunderbird wine, or any other dollar wine that you find in the cheaper stores of the area. The little babies when they drown, will inhale the wine and this will infuse their bodies with a most delicious cooking medium that will keep the flesh moist when roasted.

Whole-roasted mouse is not gutted at all. You are eating the finest diet nature can offer. For what is inside the little darlings but the greenest grasses, and grains that he has eaten from the fields, seeds of the forest, tidbits of bread that he found on your countertop after you went to sleep, and yes, other delicacies that you yourself so love. He is a creation of nature one-hundred percent.

Tie him to a green maple stick using fine steel wire, dip in liquified bear fat, then put into an open fire for 5 minutes until crispy brown. Remove and serve.

Roast Sides of Mice

Peromyscus may also be halved like a carcass of a beef. Whereas a side of beef or pork may be grilled over an open fire, the half-rack of mouse, or Rack of Mouse, are tiny illustrations of a classic gastronomic problem, how best to convey heat to flesh without burning the thinner portions and undercooking that which is thickest. 

Whole-Roasted Mouse ala Thunderbird (above), accomplishes this with the cooling effect of wine and innards left within to hydrate the flesh that contribute to the sauces of satisfaction. 
Roast Rack of Mouse is the dish offered to meat purists, who eschew eating innards. This dish is kept moist by shorting the time of cooking, splitting it open evens out the presentation of flesh to flame.

For this reason we do not recommend roasting heads with this version. Instead, remove and put aside with all innards after gutting the animals, for a sauce.

Using a razor sharp chef's knife - a cleaver will take pinpoint skill and accuracy - cut Peromyscus exactly in half up the spine, leaving a portion of the skin at the back to bind the two halves together like the spine of a miniature book. What results is more than a 'rack', it is a full carcass that includes both fore and hind legs.

Don't worry about the hair, this will all burn off.

Lather well with bear fat, garnish with dried black flies. Do not use wolverine musk on roast mouse.

Place over a blazing fire for 2-4 minutes per side. You will need to turn the little beasts once.

Garnish with pine-needle jelly. Serve immediately. 

Mouse-House Pie

It would be irresponsible of the author to present this fabulous dish without context or history. It was first served by the great Adirondack chef Morte Laporte to General Edwin A. McAlpin, a military man turned tobacconist turned hotel magnate, and a cognizant of outdoor food. The General hired Morte who flung up a menu of deep-woods dishes over an open fire beneath a lean-too at the edge of Brandreth Lake, in the Central Adirondacks. 

Also served at the meal were Laporte classics as: Coupes de Balles Orsine dans son Jus, (Rounds of Bear Testicles in their own Gravy), Tête de Cerf mariné aux Framboises, (Pickled Deer Head with Raspberries), Hachée foie d'Ours avec la verge d'or, (Hashed Bear Liver with Goldenrod), and Piperade de la Couleuvre avec de la gomme Epicéa, (Piperade of Gartersnake and Spruce gum).

So impressed was the General with the bounty of the region and the innovation of Mssr. Laporte at preparing meals when served this version of Mouse Pie, that he declared: "My sons and their son's sons shall eat this dish in memory of this great meal, Mssr Laporte. They shall eat it and build upon this place a home to celebrate the great flavors you have brought forth from the forest. We shall call this home Mouse House, in memory of this dish."

And so, today in honor of that very same spot there is a dish, named after a house, named after a pie, named after a mouse: Mouse-House Pie:

Preparation: Dress a Peromyscus litter just as you would for Meadow's Edge Deep Fried Critters (above).

For crust use any mixture of flour eggs, water, sugar baking powder, salt . . . whatever powders you have on hand. Ingredients matter not at all, what matters is consistency. The pie crust dough should be strong enough to stand a hunting knife when stabbed into it. 

Shape the pie crust into a pie plate. If such a pan or plate doesn't exist use a hubcap. If an old style metal hubcap is not to be found, shape the pies into pop tarts, and cook on a cookie sheet liberally smeared with bear grease if available, motor oil or auto grease if not. 

Form the first layer of crust carefully in or on whatever metal form nature has provided. Fill whatever shape is available with de-haired mice. Add butter if available, else bear rind will do in a pinch. Add pine or spruce needles for flavor, and seal up the topside with another piece of crust.

Puncture your crust with your hunting knife, but no need to stab. You are simply allowing the steamy souls of Peromyscus leucopus to ascend to Orion.

(Serves 6)

Mouse Sandwich au Crus

    The greatest Adirondackers of all,
    Whack and eat their field mice raw,
    They sharpen their teeth with a knife that's unsheathed,
    Then eat intestines, skeletons, and claws.

Make a selection of three of your finest mouse carcasses, properly de-haired. Alternate in an attractive pattern upon one side of a piece of carefully buttered, or bear-greased toast. Dribble on dabs of peanut butter, mustard or cheese. Fold in half. Consume. 

(Serves 1)

We refer this dialogue on mouse preparation, cooking and eating to the master of many deep woods dishes, Mr. Morte Laporte. His volume, Cookery of the Great Camps, published in 1933, was dictated by Morte after he completing a five-year tour as celebrity chef, concocting delicacies for the Adirondack rich and famous.

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