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Originally published December 28, 2011 at 9:18 PM | Page modified December 29, 2011 at 1:07 AM

Dinner gets very local for squirrel-eating Seattleite

Melany Vorass is serious about eating locally. She raises goats, chickens, bees and worms at her Seattle house — and traps squirrels in her front yard for protein.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Melany Vorass called to say dinner was trapped in her front yard.

A few hours later we were eating risotto di rodentia — eastern gray squirrel braised in Lopez Island white wine with mushrooms and Italian-style rice. It did not taste like chicken.

As you might guess, Vorass is serious about eating locally. She teaches urban foraging. She raises goats, chickens, bees and worms at her Green Lake house. And she believes she's the only person in Seattle harvesting squirrels for protein.

"I know how out there it sounds," says Vorass, a former state environmental analyst. "But the alternative is to close your eyes and eat what comes on a Styrofoam tray."

In a city that savors local food initiatives, allowing up to eight chickens and three goats in every back yard, Vorass is exploring new frontiers.

"I don't see any reason why we would object," chuckles City Council President Richard Conlin, prime mover of Seattle's locavore agenda. "From a public-policy standpoint it's an individual making a choice, and that's fine."

Vorass and her husband, Carlos Herrera, an environmental engineer, aren't quite weed-eating hippies — though they do munch on dandelions and daylillies.

Vorass, 49, who says "we're kind of upper middle class," is just trying to quiet her conscience.

She likes prime rib. But she can't eat it without a bad case of guilt.

Veganism doesn't work for Vorass, either. If widely embraced, she believes, its reliance on soy for protein would lead to declining biodiversity and catastrophic mono-crop collapses (think Irish potato famine).

Squirrels came to her stove top thanks to an angry neighbor, old cookbook and quirky cuisine of the United Kingdom, she says.

Sciurus carolinensis had long been a nuisance around her house, crawling into the eaves and making a mess. She demanded that her husband "repatriate" the cute critters. He'd trap and then release them at nearby Cowen Park. Until, that is, an outraged man cursed at Herrera for dumping his bushy-tailed problems on neighbors.

Vorass had read about the British appetite for squirrels. In England, eating nonnative gray squirrels has been viewed as a way to save the indigenous red squirrel. Following a "Save a red, eat a gray!" campaign, some of London's finest restaurants started serving up the Yank transplants, according to The New York Times.

While leafing through "Joy of Cooking," Vorass spotted a squirrel recipe. If they were going to exterminate the varmints, she told Herrera, they were going to try eating them.

She checked with authorities. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote back that homeowners are allowed to trap and euthanize animals causing property damage, including eastern gray squirrels.

Seattle doesn't regulate the trapping of animals on private property for personal consumption, according to Bryan Stevens, a city spokesman.

Seattle-King County Public Health defers to Fish and Wildlife on squirrel trapping. But Public Health spokesman Matias Valenzuela says squirrels can't be served in county restaurants because they are not a licensed and inspected source of food.

Using a metal cage baited with crackers and peanut butter, Vorass nabs them just a few steps from her front porch. Then she drowns them, which she says takes about four seconds.

Vorass says death by other predators would probably take longer.

After looking into execution by blunt trauma, lethal injection and gun, she decided drowning was the best option for the squirrel, and the edibility of its meat. She says she'll continue to experiment with an electric Rat Zapper, but squirrels seem wary of the device.

The American Veterinary Medical Association considers drowning inhumane. King County Public Health veterinarian Sharon Hopkins agrees, saying she'd "strongly oppose" drowning.

Vorass' blog (essentialbread.com), which tends toward pleasant topics such as making rose hip chutney, depicts in photographic detail how to dress a squirrel. It's easy, "like peeling a banana," Vorass says — if you had to cut off the head and feet of a banana and sometimes resort to pliers to peel it. (Although never proven scientifically, Hopkins says, there are concerns that squirrel brains could carry a variant of mad cow, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.)

The risotto squirrel tipped her chef's scale at 11.2 ounces of ready-to-cook meat. Enough protein, she says, to anchor a main course for her, her husband and stepson. They've eaten squirrel about 15 times, she says. Squirrel-itos are a favorite.

Herrera was reluctant to try it at first, but not Vorass. She grew up in northern Wisconsin where, she says, her mother was a deer poacher and local cuisine included porcupines.

Squirrel isn't as gamy as venison, she says, and tastes like rabbit. (Adhering to the journalistic creed of "trust but verify," we sampled the squirrel; it had a nutty flavor and tender, slightly greasy texture.)

Reactions to her squirrel-eating, Vorass says, range from "you're a monster" to "gross!" But the one she probably gets most is: "Are you sure it's safe?"

"I did a lot of research," she says. Squirrels tend to have a foraging range of a few blocks, she found. In the Green Lake area they eat a lot of nuts, seeds and bulbs, she says. "There's plenty for them to eat without going into someone's garbage."

But just because an animal is healthy and eating right doesn't mean it's free of bacteria or parasites harmful to humans, Hopkins says. Cooking the meat properly, to 165 degrees, would eliminate almost all risk, she says. "What I'd be worried about is getting it to the cooking stage." Trapping and skinning an animal could expose a person to disease. Hopkins recommends protective gloves, goggles and a mask.

There's no denying squirrels are cute, Vorass says. "But so are cows."

And talk about cute, you should see photos of the two male goat kids, Leo and Rafe, that Vorass and Herrera raised. But male goats don't give milk. Early one morning, while Vorass slept, Herrera took the kids out to the country and let them frolic for a while before he shot them. Their freezer is now full of goat meat.

Vorass hopes to write a book about our relationship with the animals we eat, focusing on squirrels. She also wants to write a book on edible weeds, about which she recently gave a demonstration at a women's shelter. (The women seemed "insulted," she says, by the idea they should stoop to eating weeds. Vorass says she wasn't telling them to eat weeds, "but if they had to, wouldn't it be nice to know which ones are safely edible.")

Snails are the next challenge for Vorass. Instead of spending time and money trying to get rid of them, she says, "we could be eating the enemy." She collected and cooked some, and liked them enough to buy a terrarium for snail-ranching.

"There could be lots of people doing things we don't know about," says Conlin of Seattleites pursuing their own food initiatives. "The most important thing is be respectful of your neighbors. I mean, don't trap their cats and eat them."

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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