The Cajun town that closes for ‘Squirrel Day’

Squirrel hunting in Ville Platte, Louisiana.
Squirrel hunting in Ville Platte, Louisiana. Brent Humphreys

It’s the first Friday of October in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana, and the KVPI French morning radio show, Charlie Manuel reminds listeners: “Squirrel season will officially start tomorrow morning.” Tomorrow is the first day of squirrel season.

Ville Platte, my hometown, is located in central Louisiana, four square miles of city surrounded by farmland and forest. The population of just over 7,000 is a mixture of Creole, European-French, and Acadian-French descent, evident in the various accents and French woven into everyday conversations.

The language goes hand in hand with a culinary tradition of several generations. This isn’t Instagrammable Cajun food from New Orleans or from Lafayette, the nearby epicenter of Acadian. A Ville Platte plate of gravy rice is nothing to sneeze at, but as anyone lucky enough to partake can attest, nothing measures up. It is a tradition marked by the heat of the cayenne, the dense aroma of the roux, medium grain rice and plenty of fresh game. And here, the calendar revolves around the hunting seasons.

On the Friday before squirrel season begins, the population of Ville Platte migrates en masse out of town. Businesses close, school is cancelled, and the high school football game is rescheduled. All ammo, camouflage, beer, and boudin in town are gone. Are you looking for all men? Try the camp.

Clay pigeon shooting before the hunt.
Clay pigeon shooting before the hunt. julien fontenot

“The Camp” can mean anything from RVs to a sleeping bag placed in the bed of a pickup truck. For the past decade, my family’s campground, a comfortable cabin in our little patch of woods, has served as the host of Squirrel Day for a variety of family and friends. But of the 20 or so people joining us 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 on the camp wall, the one with the crooked nose, is mine. But check the ads in your local papers and you’ll see a common slogan: “He’s hunting for food. He is looking for a bargain! And this, for me, was true. Mom and I take advantage of the few days without masculine energy. We shopped, caught up, and reveled in the girl time that Squirrel Weekend provided. This year, however, he had previous obligations.

Having recently moved out of Louisiana for the first time, I felt, as October 5th approached, a growing homesickness and craving for spicy food. I called my dad and told him I wanted to come in.

Guns and ammunition at a sporting goods store in the city.
Guns and ammunition at a sporting goods store in the city. Brent Humphreys

On Friday, the first order of business is always clay pigeon shooting, making sure everyone is on target. A family friend, Garrett Mire, helps my dad set up the trap launcher, a device designed to shoot neon clay disks into the sky. They both laugh out loud at the local politics while smoking cigars. It’s a beautiful day: the continuous blue of the sky is broken only by the flying discs that burst to pieces with the song of a shotgun that breaks the air. My brother Joshua comes home from college for the weekend, and he and my dad help our little brother, Luke, shoot. Butterflies flutter through the chaos and the smell of the damp forest mixes with the smoke. There are eight guns propped up against the tailgate, and the stories of last year’s hunts get more elaborate by the hour.

When our neighbor Mike Fontenot arrives, we can start thinking about dinner; he’s brought 20 teals with him, fresh from last week’s duck hunt.

While the group shells out to store firearms, make drinks, and cook dinner, Dad invites me for a ride. We walk paths where I once ran wild, chasing brothers and fairies. The trees have thickened and we stop at everything that has changed. We visit the deer feeders, observing the mosaic of footprints. Point out places in the forest marked by walnut trees. “That’s where the squirrels will be tomorrow morning,” he says.

Squirrel Day dishes are delicious, not photogenic.
Squirrel Day dishes are delicious, not photogenic. julien fontenot

Back at the house, we join a circle of family and friends sitting on lawn chairs. Joshua is browning onions and Mike’s brother is handing out shots of apple pie. My other brother, Ellis, boasts that in the last four years he has brought home the most squirrels, the biggest squirrel, and the most delicious squirrel.

He’s still talking big 10 hours later, at 5am, as we drink coffee, put on our camouflage, and spread out in designated corners of the woods. I am paired with my boyfriend, Julien, who has to repeatedly remind me not to delay. In the thicket of tightly packed pine and pecan trees, the morning turns gray and is covered with a mysterious and wonderful silence. The first squirrel we see is out of range, and by the time we’re under his tree, he’s gone. We are too loud, too visible, too slow.

As I focus on becoming smaller, disappearing, the world around me becomes more vivid. I am enraptured by each leaf that falls, each bird that spreads its wings, each gust of wind pushing the branches above me. So when I see the silhouette of the bushy tail jump between the branches, I freeze. Julien raises his gun, waits a moment and shoots.

“Damn,” he says. “I got lost.”

The city is empty;  the woods are full.
The city is empty; the woods are full. julien fontenot

When we meet up with Ellis a few hours later, he sheepishly shows us his meager reward: three squirrels. My third brother Jack’s account is one. The rest of us are empty-handed. Just as we’re considering going into town for chicken breasts, Mike and his team arrive with 19 squirrels for the pot.

Back at camp, while the group naps and watches college football, Mike makes the sauce. “Some people make squirrel gumbo,” he says, “but man, I love a brown sauce.” He drops the ground beef, drenched 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, you take them out and add freshly chopped onions, bell peppers, and garlic. “This is what the whole weekend is about. Get together and enjoy a good meal.” Once the vegetables are cooked, the squirrels go back inside and cover everything with water. “Once it goes down, we’ll drop it! For two hours or so. His son Wacen intervenes: “Drink a couple of beers while you wait. Makes it taste even better!”

The family gathers in
The family gathers at “the camp” every year. julien fontenot

grow up in a little city ​​like Ville Platte is to exist in a world in constant growth. During my first semester of college in Baton Rouge, just a two-hour drive away, I was surprised to learn that school wouldn’t be canceled for squirrel weekend. When I explained the holidays to new friends, they reacted with amusement, disbelief, and even horror. I was reminded, not for the last time, of what a small and strange place I come from.

And yet, even as my world gets bigger and I travel farther from my little Francophone village of prairie rodent hunters, often, especially on that first weekend in October, I long to go shopping with my mom, a walk in the woods with my dad, and a nice brown squirrel sauce.

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