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Food Detective: Groundhog, predict more snow and we’ll eat ya!

2-2-04 Brookfield Zoo...Groundhog Day feature.....Stormy Groundhog leans out his wooden box get peek visitors. Stormy reportedly did not see his

2-2-04 Brookfield Zoo...Groundhog Day feature.....Stormy the Groundhog leans out of his wooden box to get a peek at visitors. Stormy reportedly did not see his shadow which means spring is "just around the corner".....Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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Updated: March 2, 2012 8:01AM

Years ago, I went to dinner at Cafe Salamara on Clark, a restaurant owned by a Peruvian lady who was excited to share with us some off-menu foods from her homeland, including cuy, the roasted Guinea pig favored by traditional Peruvian cooks.

Eating Guinea pig was kind of creepy. The beast was cooked in its entirety, so you could see the tiny face with two buck teeth. The meat was lean, though paradoxically a little greasy. I cannot say I’ve longed for this dish since I had it that first time.

In flavor and texture, Guinea pig probably is a lot like groundhog: both are members of the order Rodentia, which includes almost 2,000 species. This grouping of mammals, as the name implies, also covers rodents like mice and rats, detested enemies of kitchen staff everywhere.

Although I’ve never tried groundhog — also known as woodchuck and whistle-pig — there are sources out there that offer guidance in its preparation.

Nancy Friday, an Evanstonian food friend, remembers “My father had a trap for them on the farm. We used to bake it in the oven. As I remember, it had a taste similar to rabbit.”

Our well-used edition of Joy of Cooking covers woodchuck/groundhog preparation. This classic cookbook explains that the groundhog has scent glands (much like the raccoon) that must be removed or the meat will become tainted with an unsavory flavor.

Groundhog recipes on frequently suggest up to an hour of parboiling. Groundhog meat — like much feral food — is usually more muscular than it is fatty, so it dries out easily; you need to prepare it with a lot of moisture.

Just-killed animals undergo rigor mortis, the stiffening of muscle tissue. If meat is butchered too soon after the hunt, it could become tough; when you hang up the carcass, the blood fully drains, rigor mortis subsides, and enzymes break down collagen, which holds muscles together, rendering meat more tender.

Joy of Cooking suggests you might want to hang the meat up for a few days after the kill to allow it to naturally tenderize itself.

So, if you haven’t already snagged yourself one of these wild things to enjoy for Groundhog Day, it’s probably too late. Maybe next year.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and

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