ONCE A MONTH, 10 amateur chefs gather in the no-frills kitchen of the Potlatch Education Center on Cook’s Lake in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Ingredients are set out in mismatched ramekins, recipes are passed around, and everyone crowds in close to the center island—personal space forgotten for now. At 6 p.m., Wil Hafner fastens his apron. With an eager smile, he calls class to order, introduces himself and goes over the evening’s agenda. Formalities out of the way, it’s time to get started on tonight’s lesson: squirrel and dumplings.
Wil’s wild-game cooking classes have been a hit, despite (or perhaps because of) an unconventional menu from an unlikely chef. As the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s east central regional educator, Wil spends his days teaching everything from shooting skills to bird identification. But once a month, he heads over to the old duck-hunting lodge next door and preheats the oven. He welcomes participants from around the state to join him in the kitchen and learn new ways to prepare their harvest beyond the tried and true and tired. No deer steak or turkey nuggets here.
Culinary tutelage might not be in Wil’s job description, but it seems to be in his bones. On Saturday mornings throughout his childhood, while most other kids in Cabot were watching cartoons, Wil was enthralled by the Food Network. Although he can’t be certain, he reckons he was the only 12-year-old in town who dressed up as Emeril Lagasse for Halloween, dying his hair black and donning one of his mother’s white blouses.
“When they’d open the door, I’d yell ‘Bam!’” he remembers. Then he’d hold out a stock pot to collect his candy.
Although both of his parents cooked—his mom inside, his dad on the grill—Wil says his passion for cooking was innate. His love of hunting, he got from his father, who was an avid outdoorsman and a career taxidermist.
As a fisheries and wildlife biology major at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Wil didn’t have a lot of free time for cooking, but internships with AGFC kept him afield. After graduation, he worked a number of jobs for the agency before taking on his current role, which required him to relocate to the heart of the White River NWR.
The post is remote. Hafner jokes that “our only neighbors are the bears,” but the job has its perks. For one, Hafner and his wife, Amanda, were provided a private residence on the property, right next to the former duck-hunting lodge that just so happened to have a sizable kitchen.
The idea to host wild-game cooking classes seemed like a no-brainer. The center already hosted on-site mentored hunts and hunting clinics. Why not show participants what to do with their take? But as a lifelong home chef, Hafner wanted the recipes to—like Emeril would say—kick it up a notch.
“Recipes just pop into my head,” Wil says. Some of the most memorable have been a spinach, artichoke and turkey burger; a duck and goose Reuben; and yes, those squirrel and dumplings. The classes are arranged by theme, such as nonfried fish, wild-game backyard barbecue or an all-waterfowl feast. Basics such as cleaning and butchering are often covered at the beginning of class. Wil harvests all the wild game and fish himself, and he is committed to using equipment that average people would have in their kitchens.
He may cater to casual chefs, but Wil has a specific kind of hunter in mind: the brand-new ones.
According to a 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey, the number of adult hunters is nearly half of what it was 50 years ago. A third of them are baby boomers who will soon put down their rifles for good. This decline has been attributed to everything from more people living in cities to more streaming devices at their fingertips. Even Arkansas—a largely rural state with a rich hunting tradition—has seen a 15 percent decline in resident hunting licenses and an 18 percent drop in fishing licenses during the last five years, according to the AGFC.
While some mourn the loss of a way of life, state and federal wildlife management agencies are wringing their hands over the funding shortfall it has caused. Conservation organizations in America still rely heavily on revenue from hunting and fishing permits, as well as taxes from guns, ammo and equipment sales. While the great outdoors is more popular than ever with hikers, bikers and birders, funding to maintain it is in peril.
To reverse the shortfall, conservation advocates, government officials and folks passionate about hunting are scrambling for innovative ways to engage novices.
“I call them adult-onset hunters,” Wil says, “people who start hunting because they want to learn where their food comes from.”
People, he means, like Margie Wofford.
A Sherwood native, Margie was 50 years old when she was taken on her first hunting trip by a cousin. She says she enjoyed the experience, but the real reward was the “organic, free-range and lean protein” of the venison she took home. Her interest piqued by the experience, she then turned to AGFC programs such as Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, where she honed her hunting, shooting and angling skills. But her education felt incomplete.
“I hunted it. I harvested it. And then I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it,” she admits.
After coming across Wil’s classes on social media, she drove an hour and a half to attend a class, where she found herself making squirrel egg rolls. A few classes later, Wofford began recruiting other women to hit the trail with her, catching, cleaning and cooking fish together over the campfire. She also started seeking out and perfecting her own wild-game recipes (her favorite is a venison and baby portabella pot pie).
These are the kinds of personal transformations that Wil loves to hear about. He says most people don’t realize the culinary potential of wild game.
Last February, for instance, at the World’s Conservation Snow Goose Hunt in Stuttgart, he whipped up goose fajitas to feed the crowd.
“Everybody kept coming up to ask what kind of steak it was,” he says with a laugh.
But mostly, Wil hopes to show Arkansans that hunting is about more than a trophy: “I want to teach people that hunting isn’t just a sport. It’s about fresh, local food. It’s about conservation.”
Wil Hafner’s Squirrel Dumplings
4 squirrels, deboned
½ pound pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 yellow onion
½ cup green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon Sriracha
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
1 teaspoon ground ginger
A dash or 2 of ground red pepper
1 package wonton wrappers
1 cup water
1 cup chicken or squirrel broth
½ cup canola oil
Start by mincing the squirrel and pork in a food processor (approximately eight 1-second pulses). Place the meat into a bowl. Mince the yellow onion, and add to the meat. To the meat, add the egg, green onion, soy, Sriracha, garlic powder, salt, pepper, ginger and red pepper. Mix thoroughly by hand. Set aside.
To assemble, lay 4 to 8 wonton wrappers on a hard, dry surface. Place ½ teaspoon of filling in the center of each wrapper. With a finger, brush the sides of the wonton wrapper with water. Fold up the two sides, and pinch together in the center. Pinch together the remaining edges, forming pleats along one side. Set aside until all dumplings are formed.
In a hot skillet, heat enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Cook the dumplings about 3 minutes over medium to high heat. With dumplings still in the skillet, add ¼ cup squirrel or chicken broth, cover, and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the dumplings, place on a baking sheet, wipe out the pan, and repeat the process until all dumplings are cooked.
Wil Hafner’s Squirrel and Dumplings
2 quarts squirrel or chicken broth
2 cups flour
2 cups biscuit mix
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of mace or poultry seasoning
4 ½ eggshells of water (use eggshell to measure the water)
To prep the squirrel, either boil squirrel in a large pot until tender (about three hours), use a pressure cooker for about 21 minutes or wrap in foil and bake until tender. Separate meat from the bone. If using squirrel broth, strain and reserve broth for later.
For the dumplings, combine dry ingredients. Add eggs and water. Mix by hand until dough forms. Add more flour if the consistency is too sticky. Add more water a tablespoon at a time if the dough is too dry. Roll out on a well-floured surface until the dough is very thin. Cut into squares and drop into boiling broth one at a time. Add the prepared squirrel to the broth and cook covered for 20 to 40 minutes depending on the thickness of the dumplings.
Dumplings can be made ahead of time and laid out to dry before being frozen in parchment paper for later use.
For future classes, keep an eye on Potlatch Conservation Education Center’s Facebook page.