Rodents as Food

Rodents are a classification of mammal that, on the surface, don’t sound appetizing as a food source.  But, if you think about it, examples of rodentphagia aren’t all that unusual.  I enjoy a bit of rabbit every now and again.  In New Orleans, I used to hear about people eating nutria, though i never had the chance to try any.  Dormice were popular during Roman times and are still eaten in Slovenia today.  My dad’s college roommate used to get weekly deliveries of squirrel brain sandwiches from his family (okay, so that one is a bit odd).

I’ve been reading an almanac of food trivia lately (Schott’s Food & Drink Miscellany), and mention of porcupine (said to taste like suckling pig or fowl) and beaver (said to taste like pork) as food sources got me thinking about how wide-ranging of a habit eating rodents might be.

A brief bit of internet research turned up a very informative article on “Rodents as Food Source” from the Proceedings of the Fourteenth Vertebrate Pest Conference in 1990.  It turns out that rodentphagia is a much more widely spread phenomenon than I had ever imagined.

The only religion to specifically ban the eating of rodents is Judaism and cultures on every continent are reported to eat various types of rodents, from squirrel eating in the Southeastern United States to Guinea Pigs in Peru to a wide range of rodents eaten in Asia, more than 89 commonly consumed rodent species from around the world are listed.

Additionally, the report cites many reasons why rodents represent a sustainable food source:

Rodents generally are not encompassed by game laws and are usually abundant and easy to catch.  Some rodents are… numerous near dense human populations where larger animals are scarce.  …Most are small enough to be consumed in one meal, thereby eliminating the need for refrigeration….  Relatively high reproduction rates… allow for continuous harvesting without depletion.

Of course, that isn’t to suggest that every rat around ought to be viewed as a possible meal.  The report points out that rodents in agricultural areas where pesticides are heavily applied should be viewed as suspect because “Pesticide materials may be retained in meat.  If a person consumed enough rodents containing such residues, the potential for health effects would be of concern” (though the paper does not address the possibility of health risks associated with eating more commonly raised livestock animals that are fed a diet of pesticide-treated corn…).

Also, not surprisingly, city rats are very rarely found on plates “because they are associated with urban filth or diseas, [though] the siege of Paris in 1871 and food shortages during World War II forced many people to eat city rats.”

Of particular interest to my father-in-law would be the practice of eating Capybara (one of his favorite animals) in Venezuela, where “the net cash return per hectare is nearly three times higher for capybara than for cattle ($11 versus $4).”  Apparently, the meat of the capybara must be pleasant to prompt that sort of return—but I’d be curious to try one for myself, especially as “Taste varies, probably due to the oil content in the fat.  All recipes call for the removal of fat, usually by boiling three times and throwing away the fat and water.”  That concept is a bit surprising to me, especially because for almost all animal species consumed, fat is equivalent to flavor and a high amount of intramuscular fat is highly prized—think Kobe beef, which demands astronomical prices for its high degree of marbling.

An objection that I have often heard cited against the practice of animal husbandry is that the number of calories of grain expended  and amount of land devoted to raising cattle and swine is extremely inefficient as compared to the number of calories of meat produced.  I wonder if folks who argue in that vein would find rodents to be a more acceptable protein source, as they could be raised more efficiently—for instance, “In Peru there are 20 million domestic guinea pigs which annually produce 64 million edible carcases” on a “diet of household food scraps.”  Food for thought, I suppose–dinner is as close as your nearest pet store.

9 Responses to “Rodents as Food”

  1. SamChevre Says:

    Beaver might taste like pork to some people; I’d describe it as tasting like fish-flavored young beef. Groundhog is the animal that tastes like pork to me.

  2. Martha Says:

    I just don’t think I could knowingly eat a rodent. I know it’s hypocritical, but ewwwwwwww. Of course, goodness knows what we’ve all had in school lunches and shredded and doused in sauce…..
    Tofu, anyone?

  3. Jim Says:

    Not squirrel brains; just squirrel. Whatever cut it was, it was dark meat.

  4. intheyearofthepig Says:

    ate some nutria sausage in Louisiana a couple times…tasted like sausage, probably had pork fat in it anyway.

    squirrel in stew like burgoo or brunswick and roasted squirrel are, like most things, quite delicious if the hunter/cook knows how to cook them, but I believe some cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease were traced to eating squirrel brains in Kentucky.

  5. mom Says:

    I made the mistake of reading your post while eating (or trying to eat) my lunch. Not good timing! I remember once that your grandfather decided that he really wanted some squirrel to eat so he went hunting and shot himself a “mess” of them. My mother (your grandmother) then proceeded to cook them in the pressure cooker. I don’t remember much about how they tasted except that they were “gamey”. The thing that I do remember is that the house smelled of the squirrel for days and it was awful!

    It was common among the poor rural folks in the area where I lived to eat all sorts of small animals including groundhogs, porcupines, and possums. The bottom line is that in days gone by people found whatever they could to eat and thought nothing of it.

  6. Jeremy Says:

    There’s a story in today’s WSJ about how the bird flu scares (among a number of other forces) have increased consumption of rats in Vietnam.

  7. Rob R. Says:

    If you’re going to eat one kind of animal, why not try them all? We have lots of funny opinions about what is OK to eat and not.

  8. Jeremy Says:

    On the subject of the arbitrary lines we make between food/ not food, the NY Times had a story yesterday on the merits of eating insects:

  9. Cobra's Revenge Says:

    I’m looking for mongoose cooking recipies, & cooking history, please let me know if you can find anything.

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