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Tear Into Some Squirrel Cacciatore, Joe Haines Style

November 23rd, 2017 · 3 Comments · Analysis and Comment, Best of Bridgeport

Joe Haines

Joe Haines spared these goslings. Photo by James Prosek.

We all have our Thanksgiving traditions. For me turkey weekend is incomplete without saluting wilderness warrior Joe Haines who enjoys life living off the land. Grab your favorite beverage for an account of this simply adventurous man’s world that first appeared in Connecticut Magazine. This story is also a featured chapter in my book Connecticut Characters: Personalities Spicing Up The Nutmeg State.

Once Muriel Haines’ five friends inhaled the aromas coming from the kitchen, her husband Joe had them practically eating out of his hands. The white wine bubbling in the stovetop pan with the falling-off-the-bones meat sweetened their nostrils beyond their ability to resist.

“Wow, what is that you’re cooking?” one of Muriel’s friends remarked.

“Would you like to try some?” Joe Haines responded. “It’s just about ready. Pull up a seat.”

It seemed to the visitors, under these irresistible culinary circumstances, much too impolite to say no. Haines placed paper plates and utensils all around the table. Within seconds Muriel’s friends tore into the meat like a wolf ambushing a lamb.

“This is delicious,” beamed one of Muriel’s friends, poking at the remains. “But these bones seem so small for chicken?”

“I never said it was chicken,” Joe Haines informed.

“It’s not chicken? Well, what is it?”

“It’s squirrel.”

Three of the women pushed back from the table in horror; the other two friends stayed undeterred to finish the meal.

“The squirrel pieces went so fast I had to grab a few for myself,” Joe Haines recalled from his kitchen in Trumbull, a pot of pheasant and rabbit stew gurgling on the stove.

Joe Haines knows something about wild indigenous meals in Connecticut. He’s the last of Connecticut’s true wilderness warriors, a retired game warden who has spent a lifetime living off the land, an existence few people will ever understand but from whom they can learn a lot. Haines heats his Trumbull home exclusively with wood. “I don’t burn oil.” This man of the woods can tell you anything and everything about nature in Connecticut.

Haines picks wild asparagus from Norwalk islands, fiddlehead ferns in Litchfield County, hazelnuts in Easton, dandelions in the spring, wild mushrooms in the fall. He farms and buries cabbage in his yard for winter consumption. He plucks crabs from Southport Harbor, clams from Saugatuck shores and eels in Westport. The majority of what he’s digested in a lifetime has been hunted, fished, picked or farmed. He has tasted nearly everything in Connecticut that can’t eat him–rabbit, beaver, snapping turtle, muskrat, possum, woodchuck, raccoon, black crow, pheasant, wild turkey–all indigenous to Connecticut, much of it vacuum sealed in his three freezers.

“See, we eat with this,” says the 69-year-old, tapping his temple, “when we should be eating with this,” pointing to his tongue. “If you knew what chickens eat people would turn to squirrels real fast. Squirrels eat nuts, buds, berries and fruit. Squirrel is similar to chicken breast–only better.”

Beaver, he explains, tastes like roast beef. Raccoon is dark, strong meat, favorable for stewing or roasting, “like a black bear,” he adds, just in case taste testers want to know. Snapping turtle he usually prepares in stew. He cooked one 55 pounds and has the shell to prove it.

Haines’ mantra on life “Keep your belly full and your behind warm” comes with an intriguing value system. “I don’t kill things for the sake of killing. I hunt for the pot. If I see a 20-point buck I don’t shoot it–the meat’s too tough–I shoot the small deer.”

And his love for the woods to those who’ve encountered him is profound and legendary–a collection of more than 500 arrowheads a testament to exploration and knowledge of Connecticut.

“I’m lost in Trumbull Shopping Park. I’m at home in the woods.”

Muriel, his wife of 37 years, says “He eats a lot more off the land than I do because he’s always serving it to his friends.”

On any given day, depending on the hunting season, Haines’ home basement smells like one giant protein factory. Venison hangs on hooks, pheasant soaks in buckets, sausage cures on lines. The remains of a deer kill, shared with hungry hawks, reddening the backyard.

“People say how do you eat that stuff. I say look at the South Sea Islands where they raise dogs to eat. Now I would never eat a dog. Some Asians eat cats. Now I would never eat a cat. But if you’re raised to eat this way you don’t think anything of it.”

Haines speaks in a low, modest monotone that’s difficult for new introductions to pierce, but once he reaches a comfort level there’s something about the twinkle in his hazel eyes and the generosity of his folksy experiences that screams out to call him uncle Joe. His squatty 5’5″ body resembles a bear cub, his rounded, ruddy face a salute to meals from the woods. Even at 69 years of age there’s no slowing down this father of two; his sense of recall features exactness that comes only with wilderness skill. If there are no atheists in foxholes there most assuredly are no Joe Haines enemies lost in the woods.

Haines was born in Bridgeport in 1937 to parents who understood the necessity of living off the land. Henry and Mary Haines both were raised on farms in Trumbull. His father was a dairy farmer, his mother cultivated vegetables. Henry Haines was a state worker assigned to guard the Saugatuck River Bridge during the War II. Yet from Joe’s earliest memories farming was a way of life, the dog days of the Depression and then government rationing from the war placing a priority on survival skills. He fed pigs and chickens, tended to the garden and helped his mother jar 280 quarts of tomatoes in the Trumbull farmhouse that today is his home. His maternal grandparents were Italian immigrants and picking raspberries on the Ferrucci family farm mandatory. “When they put you on a 300-foot row of raspberries it looked like crossing the Sahara Desert. But you had to pick that row for hours and hours.”

His mother showed him how to cook and jar food. His father taught him how to fish, hunt and gut prey. Young Joe was seven when he castrated a rooster into a capon and blanched and plucked his first chicken. With a grip on each wing tip, he held the hen by its feet, placed the head on the chopping block and executed a strike with an axe, holding it away until it bled out. He dunked the bird in hot water by its feet and tugged on the feathers. He cut carefully around the vent in the back, sliced the front to remove the windpipe and pulled out the gizzard and intestines from the rear. He then pulled out the heart and lungs, saving the feet for soup.

The pigs they raised were either sold or ended up on the dinner table. Haines shot the pigs between the eyes, cut the throats and hung them out to bleed. The pigs were lowered into boiling water in giant cast iron pots after which the hair was scraped off and cleaned. “Nothing went to waste but the squeal,” Henry Haines used to say. Even the bladders were washed out and used for tobacco pouches by some of the old timers.

“We had to take the intestines, turn them inside out and put them on broom handles and washed them for sausage casings. We used everything. We had a smoke house for bacon and ham. That’s what we lived on.”

One day the neighbor farmer’s cow stepped in a woodchuck hole and broke its leg. No one wanted the meat to go to waste. “There was a real old timer who remembered the Blizzard of 1888 and he came over and showed us what to do with it.” The suffering cow was shot between the eyes, gutted, skinned and drained of blood. “It was summer hot, 80 degrees and we had no refrigeration. So we hung it in our well to keep it cool while my mother prepared the canning jars. We boned out all the meat and gave a quarter to the man who owned the cow. My mother placed the meat raw in jars and preserved it by boiling it right in the jar, to vacuum seal it. None of the cow went to waste. My father salted and dried some of it into a jerky.”

His father eventually rented a freezer locker to store meat. Then around 1946, Haines says, his father went high tech, building a freezer with a compressor in the cellar.

One day Haines’ younger brother, Wesley, took ill and a Trumbull doctor made a house call.

“What do I own you, doc?” Mary Haines asked the doctor of seven children.

“You still have chickens?” the physician queried. “I’d sure like some eggs.”

“Joe, go out and kill one of the old laying hens and gather some eggs,” Mary Haines instructed her son. On the spot Haines killed the hen, dunked it in boiling water, plucked the feathers and cleaned it. He presented the physician with a fresh hen and three dozen eggs as payment.

Harry and Mary Haines instructed Joe in the craft of preservation. They raised and buried cabbage, celery and endive in the fall. “We could hold the vegetables until about new year’s, cabbage even longer. We’d dig a trench in the garden about two feet deep, line it with mesh wire to keep away mice, stacked in the vegetables and place leaves on top. It wouldn’t freeze. In the winter you’d pull away leaves and have vegetables. By the time spring came we were so desperate for something green we would cut dandelions in the pasture and have a big bowl of salad. You only ate what you put away for winter.”

Haines’ father taught him about the woods. Every time Joe had a spare minute he hunted and fished in the woods or the fields, exploring the meadows and waterways. Those days Haines had a wooded, mile-long clear shot to the Merritt Parkway, built in 1935, long before Trumbull became the quintessential Bridgeport suburb. Joe fished with a bamboo pole, a bobber and hand-dug worms. “Whatever we caught came home as a meal on the table. You didn’t go to the store because we didn’t have money to buy.” His father, working for the state during the war, swapped gas-rationing stamps with people who had extra sugar stamps so Mary Haines could make jams and jellies.

By the time Joe was 12 years old he trapped muskrat, fox, mink and skunk. He skinned everything, dried the hides and sold them to mail catalog furrier Montgomery Ward. One year he earned $400. “That was huge money for me.”

Wasn’t he afraid of being sprayed by skunks?

“No. When you pick them up by the tail they can’t squirt. The squirt valve shuts off.”

While on a trapping hunt one day he looked down in a stream and spotted a quartz arrowhead. He placed it in his pocket and during extra time he hunted for them along rivers and streams and wooded areas. He has collected more than 500 arrowheads.

The Haines family was closely knit. On weekends they’d gather hickory nuts and mushrooms. But Sunday night was a treat. His mother boiled a big pot of water on an oil range, dumped the water in a bathtub and then added cold water. Joe and Wesley bathed, put on pajamas and sat in front of a roaring fire listening to the weekly Inner Sanctum Mysteries show on the radio that told stories of ghosts, murderers and lunatics while Joe and his brother cracked hickory nuts they had gathered for inclusion in Mary Haines’ brownies recipe.

After Joe graduated from Bassick High School in Bridgeport his father emphasized a career in state government or a large company that provided a decent retirement. He worked as a carpenter, followed by an Army stint 1958-1961 that included assignments in northeast military units and then worked as a highway driver for the state. But then in 1965 he heard about a job with the water utility the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company that started at $1.35 per hour, a pay cut from his state job but a position that allowed him freedom to work in his true love–the woods.

Haines was sworn in as a special state police patrolman for the water company with arrest powers patrolling roughly 22,000 acres in 17 Connecticut towns from Fairfield County up to the northwest hills of Litchfield County. “I wanted to learn the grounds better than anyone.” As a result the woods became his office. With map in hand he crisscrossed the large tracts of water company land for hours at a time. His job was to find poachers and shag kids swimming illegally in the water company reservoirs.

It didn’t take long for Haines to earn a legendary reputation as poacher apprehender. When homes were burgled in southwestern Connecticut towns such as Easton and Redding suspects often fled into the woods as sanctuary from arrest. Haines was the guy the cops followed when they needed a guide. “I was the dog before the dog.”

Haines tracked an accused Trumbull rapist into the woods. Every time the suspect saw or heard a police car and speaker he ducked backed in for cover. Haines told the cops to shut off all radios and car engines and hide near a log landing. After five hours Haines had the guy trapped in a standoff at the Monroe, Easton and Trumbull triangle where he forced the suspect’s position into the awaiting arms of police officers.

Another time Haines pursued a suspected burglar into the forest. The day was hot and the suspect stripped off his sweatshirt. It was the clue that led Haines to him hiding behind a large rock formation. Haines pulled his pistol.

“Usually, I shoot trespassers,” Haines said, walking the suspect back to his truck where radioed Trumbull police cuffed the suspect.

“Does that guy really shoot trespassers?” the arrested man asked a cop.

“Yeah, sometimes there’s three or four dead down here,” the police office said with a wink to Haines. “Do you know who you were running away from? That guy can track mosquitoes across cotton. You don’t want to come around here anymore.”

But when it came to young people, especially kids dropping a poacher’s fishing line in reservoir-rich towns of Easton and Redding, Haines showed compassion. “I always gave them one freebie. I’d tell them I don’t want to see you around here again.”

In 1990 James Prosek was the kind of 15-year-old who’d rather trout-fish in a hurricane than rake leaves in a mist. Prosek loved fishing and, almost as much, the tantalizing dare of poaching the closed Bridgeport Hydraulic Company waters, noted for bulging trout, without detection from game wardens.

Fishing the Aspetuck Reservoir in Easton, Prosek spied Haines on the horizon through the sheets of rain. Trapped by the swamp on one side and the game warden on the other, Prosek chose the path of least resistance. The boy agonized up the hill to the awaiting warden. Haines did not personally know Prosek, but showed empathy for the boy whose parents had divorced several years earlier. In small towns like Easton the word gets around. “I knew James was hurting from the divorce.” Instead of an extended lecture, Prosek’s introduction to Haines turned into a world-class education. “I’ll show you how to catch fish just as big as when you go poaching,” Haines told young Prosek. Haines was true to his word. He schooled the teen about nature appreciation and playing by the rules of the land. Haines transported young Prosek to fishing locales never before experienced–casting from boats, beaches, mudflats and sandbars in every corner of Connecticut–landing fish that had been a poacher’s dream.

Seven years later, after lighting up the publishing world with an illustrated history book about trout, Prosek chronicled his relationship with Haines in the book Joe and Me. In the journal Prosek describes his first striped bass, a 39-incher that Haines had hooked on a spinning rod along Long Island Sound and quickly transferred to the teen’s hands, coaching him to keep his rod tip up for a correctly executed landing.

Prosek wrote, “Haines had risked losing his fish to give me the chance to feel what he had many times before.”

Sometimes little things mean a lot such as introducing a kid to a four-leaf clover, as Haines had with Prosek. Haines became Prosek’s good-luck charm and mentor. And today their friendship is as tight as ever.

“Haines is so unique,” Prosek says. “He has a lifestyle few people in Connecticut will ever experience.”

And many others marvel at the Haines touch. Mary-Jane Foster remembers sneaking away years ago for a quiet hour fly-fishing the Aspetuck River.

“I had a funny sense that someone was watching me. I looked around and saw nothing and resumed my casting. A few minutes later, I hooked a trout and successfully reeled it in. Joe stepped out into the open to congratulate me on my catch. We talked for a few minutes and as Joe left, he offered me a tip on the best fly to use if I just happened to go down to the pool where he knew some nice brookies were rising. No one will ever know more than Joe Haines about how to catch a fish!”

Or hunt for wild turkey. Foster’s husband Jack McGregor, the retired chief executive officer for the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company, known today as Aquarion, has had Haines by his side during his finest Connecticut hunts.

“Joe has unbelievable ears,” says McGregor. “He hears things no one else can.”

On a hunt in Easton Haines coached McGregor to a flock of male turkeys. “Pick out one and go for it,” Haines advised McGregor. “Don’t get greedy with two shots because you’ll rush the first and pull off the target.”

McGregor steadied and fired, executing a rare double kill: one shotgun blast, two birds fall. “That was an extra special Thanksgiving,” McGregor says.

In the year since Dick Cheney’s hunting misfire put a friend in the hospital, wildlife jokes have unleashed like shotgun spray. There’s the story about a couple of hunters walking in the woods when one is accidentally shot. His buddy grabs his cell phone and calls 911. In a voice full of urgency he tells the emergency operator, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”

The operator calmly tells the man to take it easy. “I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is silence. Then a shot is heard. The guy comes back on the line. “Okay, now what?”

These days, that’s exactly the kind of thing Joe Haines wants to avoid. Now retired from the water company, he voluntarily instructs a 16-hour Conservation and Education Firearm Safety course for the state Department of Environmental Protection, a hunting license prerequisite, that schools students in survival skills, first aid and hypothermia. And a lifetime of experience.

Among Haines’ proudest accomplishments, he cites going 28 consecutive years without missing a day of work due to illness–a validation, he adds, to life in the woods.

“People put on spandex and run up the road for exercise. If you want exercise take advantage of your surroundings. Work in the yard. Take a walk in the woods. For me, every day I’m breathing is a good day.”

That, and a heaping plate of squirrel cacciatore to boot. By the way, is there anything indigenous to Connecticut that Haines hasn’t tasted?

“Yeah, I never tried skunk.”

Spread the word, Pepe Le Pew is safe.

Not so tasty.

Not so tasty.

Joe Haines’ Squirrel Cacciatore
(for two)

Ingredients:

Two Connecticut squirrels, cut up
Olive oil
Onion
Garlic
Salt
Pepper
Oregano
Cup of wine
Two cans of chopped tomatoes
Grated cheese

Preparation:

In a skillet sauté onion until translucent. Add squirrel pieces and sauté until golden brown. Add garlic and sauté briefly. Add wine and allow for reduction. Add tomatoes and seasoning, cover and cook on low heat for at least two hours or until meat falls off bones. Sprinkle with cheese

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