It’s the first Friday of October in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana, and on KVPI’s morning French radio program, Charlie Manuel is reminding listeners, “La saison des ecureuils va commencer officialment demain matin.” Tomorrow is the first day of Squirrel Season.
Ville Platte, my hometown, is situated in the center of Louisiana, four square miles of city surrounded by farmland and forest. The population of just more than 7,000 is a mélange of Creole, European-French, and Acadian-French ancestry, evident in the distinct accents and Franglais woven into daily conversations.
The language goes hand in hand with a generations-old culinary tradition. This isn’t the Instagrammable, well-plated Cajun fare of New Orleans or even Lafayette, the nearby Acadian epicenter. A Ville Platte plate of rice’n gravy ain’t nothin’ purty, but as anyone who’s had the fortune to partake will attest, nothing quite measures up. It’s a tradition marked by the heat of cayenne, the thick scent of roux, medium-grain rice, and lots of fresh game. And here, the calendar revolves around the hunting seasons.
The Friday before Squirrel Season starts, Ville Platte’s population migrates, en masse, out of the city. Businesses close, school is cancelled, and the high school football game rescheduled. All the ammo, camo, beer, and boudin in town has been wiped out. Looking for all the men? Try the camp.
“The Camp” can mean anything from mobile homes to a sleeping bag set in the bed of a pickup. For the past decade, my family’s camp, a comfortable cottage on our own little bit of forest, has served as Squirrel Day headquarters for a motley of family and friends. But of the 20 or so people who join over the weekend, I will be the only woman.
It’s not radical for a woman to wield a gun in Ville Platte. One of the deer skulls displayed on the camp wall—the one with the crooked nose––is mine. But check the local newspaper ads, and you’ll see a common slogan: “He’s hunt’n for a meal. She’s hunt’n for a bargain!” And this, for me, was true. Mom and I took advantage of the few days devoid of masculine energy. We’d shop, catch up, and revel in the girl-time that Squirrel Weekend provided. This year, though, she had prior obligations.
Having recently moved out of Louisiana for the first time, I felt, as October 5 approached, increasing homesickness and a craving for spicy food. I called my Dad and told him I wanted in.
On Friday, the first order of business is always skeet shooting, making sure everyone’s on target. A family friend, Garrett Mire, helps my dad set up the trap thrower, a device designed to shoot neon clay disks high and wide into the sky. Both guffaw over local politics while smoking cigars. It’s a beautiful day—the sky’s continuous blue broken only by the flying disks bursting into pieces at the air-splitting song of a shotgun. My brother Joshua arrives, in for the weekend from college, and he and my dad help our youngest brother Luke shoot. Butterflies flutter right through the mayhem, and the smell of wet forest mixes with smoke. There are eight firearms leaning against the tailgate, and the stories of last year’s hunts get more elaborate by the hour.
When our neighbor Mike Fontenot drives up, we can start thinking about supper; he’s brought 20 teal with him, fresh from last week’s duck hunt.
As the group disburses to store firearms, fix drinks, and prepare dinner, Dad invites me for a walk. We wander paths where I once ran wild, chasing brothers and fairies. The trees have grown thicker, and we dwell on all that’s changed. We visit the deer-feeders, noting the mosaic of tracks. He points out spots in the woods marked by hickory trees. “That’s where the squirrels’ll be tomorrow morning,” he says.
Back at the house, we join a lawn-chair circle of family and friends. Joshua is browning onions, and Mike’s brother is passing out shots of apple pie moonshine. My other brother, Ellis, brags that, over the past four years, he’s brought home the most squirrels, the biggest squirrel, and the damn tastiest squirrel.
He’s still talking big 10 hours later at 5 a.m. as we gulp down coffee, don our camo, and disperse into designated corners of the wood. I’m paired with my boyfriend, Julien, who has to repeatedly remind me not to drag my feet. In the thick of tightly clustered pines and pecans, the morning is shaded gray and blanketed in an eerie and wondrous silence. The first squirrel we see is out of range, and by the time we are below his tree, he has disappeared. We are too loud, too visible, too slow.
As I concentrate on becoming smaller, on disappearing, the world around me grows more vivid. I am enraptured by every falling leaf, every bird that opens its wings, every gust of wind nudging the branches above me. So when I see the furry-tailed silhouette leap through the branches, I freeze. Julien lifts his gun, waits a beat, and fires.
“Damnit,” he says. “I missed.”
When we run into Ellis a few hours later, he bashfully shows us his meager bounty: three squirrels. My third brother Jack’s count is one. The rest of us are empty handed. Just as we’re considering heading to town for chicken breasts, Mike and his crew arrive with 19 squirrels for the pot.
Back at camp, as the group naps and watches college football, Mike works on the gravy. “Some people do a gumbo with squirrels,” he says, “but man I just love me a brown gravy.” He drops chopped meat, soaked in a day’s worth of Cajun seasoning and mustard, into the black pot to brown. “You know, I put my heart and soul into it.”
Once the squirrels start to brown and stick to the pot, he takes them out and adds fresh-cut onions, bell peppers, and garlic. “This is what the whole weekend’s about. Getting together and just having good food.” Once the vegetables are cooked, the squirrels go back in, and he covers it all with water. “Once that boils down, we’ll just leave it! For two hours or so.” His son Wacen interjects, “Drink a couple beers while you wait. Makes it taste even better!”
Growing up in a small town like Ville Platte is to exist in an ever-growing world. During my first semester at college in Baton Rouge—a mere two hour drive away—I was shocked to learn that school would not be canceled for Squirrel Weekend. When I explained the holiday to new friends, they reacted with amusement, disbelief, and even horror. I was reminded, not for the last time, what a small, strange place I come from.
And yet, even as my world grows larger, and I travel further from my tiny, French-speaking, rodent-hunting town on the prairie, I’ll often, especially on that first October weekend, find myself craving a shopping trip with my mom, a walk through the forest with my dad, and a good old brown squirrel gravy.
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