It was Campbell River’s Ruth (Rootitoot) McCusker who taught the world that an Instant Pot can cook a squirrel in just 15 minutes.
According to the B.C. woman’s legendary recipe for squirrel stew — best served over rice, cornmeal mush or grits — you have to cut it up into “cute little squirrel pieces.”
McCusker, an Instant Pot aficionado whose recipes and warmth made her a beloved online figure, died earlier this month at the age of 65. But the unlikely B.C. influencer’s legacy lives on, as does Rootitoot Instant Pot Recipes & Help, the private Facebook group where she continues to be mourned by nearly 100,000.
The group’s members or “flowers,” as McCusker called the visitors to her “secret garden”, grew accustomed to interacting with Rootitoot daily. But in early February, she suddenly stopped posting, and then came a stunning message from her children Brian and Linda Wilkowski: Their mother died peacefully on the night of Feb. 12, just two months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“It was in late December when we found out that she had more than a gallstone, (which) is what we thought it was originally,” Brian Wilkowski, 42, told Postmedia. “She went downhill so fast that there was just no opportunity to break it gently.”
McCusker was a household name, albeit exclusively in households with an Instant Pot. The pressure cooker-style device, which can make yogurt, bread and roast a pound of pork butt in 15 minutes, has been the hottest thing in home cooking since selling 300,000 units on Amazon Prime Day on 2016.
But the Instant Pot came with a steep learning curve, and as millions more joined the craze in the following years, a need arose for collaborative spaces in which home cooks could share tips, tricks and troubles about the novel technology.
This is where Rootitoot came in.
McCusker had a passion for helping people with new technology. Long before she became an Instant Pot guru, the B.C. resident wrote tech troubleshooting column Computer Savvy for the Campbell River Courier-Islander. When she discovered the Instant Pot community on Facebook shortly after buying her own device in 2018, she dove right in.
The lovable, engaging Rootitoot, a childhood nickname coined by her father, soon became the community’s breakout star.
“She was (…) getting lots of attention from people in that group,” said Wilkowski. “One of the admins in there mentioned that she should consider opening her own group because her name, Rootitoot, was being posted so often.”
More than 900 people followed “Rootitoot” to her new online space, and over the next two years, that number bloomed to over 94,000. Many were drawn to McCusker’s unmistakable sweetness — she began most posts with the words, “Good morning, O Best Beloveds.” But she was also endlessly helpful, spending the majority of her waking hours fielding queries and developing recipes as needed.
In recent days, followers have fondly recalled the day a woman asked about preparing a whole squirrel. McCusker, who grew up in Banff, initially balked at cooking up a “cute little furry creature,” but eventually she gave in, surprising even herself with an Instant Pot recipe for Rootitoot Squirrel Stew.
Sadly, this recipe does not appear in either volume of the Rootitoot Cookbook, but that hasn’t hindered their popularity, especially lately. Orders for both of McCusker’s spiral-bound recipe collections have increased in recent weeks, Wilkowski said, and there may eventually be a third. McCusker left behind several flash drives full of unpublished content — enough content for another book, perhaps.
At American sports and pop culture website The Ringer, where the little-known Canadian woman earned a surprise feature last week, columnist Katie Baker described the 65-year-old as “pure digital sunshine.”
It only makes sense. That’s what flowers need to grow, and according to her son, Rootitoot’s “flowers” were among the greatest joys in her life.
“It’s so fantastic how many lives she’s touched over the last couple years of her life,” he said. “Even when she found out that it was going to be a terminal diagnosis (…) she was grateful for what she had experienced, especially in the last portion of her life.”