February 2nd, 2015
Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian.
The humble groundhog. Few animals have had such an interesting history. The lowly critter has been the subject of both good and bad intentions. On the plus side, the groundhog was painted by Audubon, starred in a Hollywood blockbuster movie, and revered as a weather prognosticator. However, the flip side of the equation sees the groundhog vilified as a garden thief as well as a tasty addition to a hunter’s stew.
Bill Murray could be considered an expert on what not to do with groundhogs. In his 1993 film, Groundhog Day, Murray’s character is a prime example of the trouble a person can get into when they decide to tangle with the seemingly gentle groundhog. Driving a truck is simply no job for a groundhog, even if he is Punxsutawney Phil, and the expected crash is just verification. While Murray can be seen as taking an adversarial approach to the common backyard groundhog, others developed a fondness for the velvety critter and sometimes kept them as pets, as this Webster County boy did in the early years of the 20th century (see below).
My father, a country boy himself, kept a groundhog as a pet when he was growing up. He said they were little trouble and slept pretty much all winter. He also kept flying squirrels as pets, but that’s another story.
Whether you call them groundhogs, wood chucks, or whistle pigs, most people aren’t fond of groundhogs and the damage they can do to ripe tomatoes in a summer garden. Long considered a varmint, groundhogs have been hunted both for meat and to rid the garden of devastating pests.
These hunters, seen below, worked the woods outside Morgantown and proudly display a mess of squirrels, probably for the dinner table, and one very large, unlucky groundhog to boot.
Here’s a recipe for Stewed Wood Chuck from Easy Game Cooking: 124 Savory, Home-Tested, Money-Saving Recipes and Menus for Game Birds and Animals by Joan Cone, EPM Publishing, 1974, Call Number W 641.691 C756 on the WVRHC’s shelves:
Stewed Wood Chuck
½ cup vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, chopped
4 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
Quarter wood chuck and remove and discard any fat remaining on meat. Place quarters in a deep pot, cover with water and ¼ cup vinegar, and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes. THROW THIS WATER AWAY. Boiling removes the gamey taste. Again, cover wood chuck quarters with cool water and ¼ cup vinegar. Add all other ingredients. Bring to a boil and simmer until meat is tender in approximately 1 to 1 ½ hours, depending on size and age of the wood chuck. Remove meat from pot, thicken remaining broth with a paste of flour and water for gravy. Serves 4.
As for me, I prefer to celebrate Groundhog Day visiting French Creek Freddie, pictured above, at the West Virginia State Wildlife Center in Upshur County. Whether he can predict an early spring, as groundhog legend goes, is up for debate, but it’s a very pleasant way to spend the day.
For this recipe and others, visit the West Virginia and Regional History Center’s extensive collection of West Virginia cookbooks.
Banner image: John James Audubon, Wood Chuck. http://libraries.mit.edu/news/libraries-receive/1283/
Groundhog Day with French Creek Freddie: http://www.wvdnr.gov/2012news/12news019.shtm
Other images: West Virginia and Regional History Center’s photo database, West Virginia History OnView