While some might consider him a sign of the season, some Berks County residents consider him dinner! That’s right, groundhog is a little-known culinary secret in Berks County.
As an avid hunter, Executive Director, Sime Bertolet is no stranger to this local food tradition. Groundhog, like other small game (rabbit and squirrel), can be hunted and prepared in a variety of ways. Sime prefers young groundhogs, which can be determined by size. After tracking and shooting a small groundhog, Sime prepares the meat by skinning and gutting the animal. He then places the meat in salted, cold water, refrigerating it overnight, which helps to draw the blood out of the meat. After 24-48 hours in a salt bath, the meat is butchered by separating the hind quarters and removing the ribcage. The tenderloin is cut into about 3 different pieces. Seasoning with salt and pepper, Sime dusts the meat with flour before pan frying the groundhog in hot oil and butter until golden brown. Fried groundhog is best served with dandelion and hot bacon dressing (recipe coming later this spring) and mashed potatoes.
Another favorite groundhog recipe involves a Berks County classic: pot pie! For a groundhog pot pie, Sime leaves the meat on the bone and simmers it in water with chopped onion, celery, carrots, and a few peppercorns. The mixture is simmered gently until the meat starts falling off the bone. He removes the meat from the broth and separates the meat from the bone. The broth is strained and both the meat and the broth are used to make a traditional Berks County pot pie – no pie crust needed! (We will also share more stories on Berks County pot pie this year).
Elaine Vardjan, a docent at the Berks History Center, is also familiar with preparing this local dish. Although, for her, the novelty has worn off. “I don’t care to cook or eat one (groundhog) ever again,” she says. “I don’t like the taste. I thought it would taste better because groundhogs mostly eat vegetation.” Elaine cooks groundhog on the stove with carrots, potatoes and onions. She agrees that the young ones are best because “the old ones are tough.” Her son Mark, however, truly enjoys groundhog, which he always cooks in a crock pot with vegetables on a very low heat.
The origins of trapping and eating groundhog are somewhat unclear. However, one could logically conclude that eating groundhog is a tradition rooted in necessity. And with the amount of destruction that a single groundhog can impose on a garden or farm, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched that rural residents would want to economically rid themselves of these pesky marmots. Also, farmers often trap groundhogs because their dwelling habits can cause serious injury to farm animals.
This article was written as part of the Berks History Center’s 2018 Berks County Foodways Project. Click here to learn more about Berks County Foodways.