Eat on the wild side
A lamentation on the bland American diet
Opossum, anyone? Slice of racoon?
Among readers of The Critic, takers for such fare may be as rare as enthusiasts for the works of George Cary Eggleston. His novels in a dialect of the western Ohio region were best-sellers in the late nineteenth century, generating a lot of surprising attempts to translate them into European languages: my Danish isn’t good enough to judge how well the translator rendered, “Put in my best licks,” or, “Things is awful juberous.”
Eggleston’s output occupies so conspicuous a shelf in the library of my university that I have been unable to resist it. Slap-up meals of opossum and racoon occur in Jack Shelby, a sprightly saga of a pioneer family in the backwoods of southern Indiana in the 1830s.
Because schoolboys were the intended readers, the author intersperses the action with erudite disquisitions, in the manner of Moby Dick, instructing us in the botany and geology of his native country. His wisdom is almost always respectable. An itinerant Irish schoolmaster, who befriends the Shelby family on their trek to their remote smallholding, is the fictional vehicle for much of it. When one of the boys catches a raccoon for the value of its hide, the Irish sage urges his companions to vary their habitual diet of squirrels baked in clay.
“Eat it?” The young huntsman jibs. “Why ’coons aren’t fit to eat.”
The schoolmaster explains that “ignorance and prejudice” account for dietary scruples. “In some parts of the country,” he adds, “there’s a similar prejudice against squirrels and — ”
“Squirrels? Why, I thought everybody liked squirrels.”
“Nevertheless there are parts of the country in which people would as soon eat rats and parts in which the racoon is a rare delicacy, which in fact it is. Even here people eat opossums and think them very dainty.”
Roast racoon proves so enjoyable that the family resolve to add opossum to their table, too. Their successors have reverted to a squeamishly narrow diet, in which game of any kind hardly appears.
The history of American food is of ever more restrictive taboos: you will be hard put to find any meat other than chicken, turkey, pork and beef on supermarket shelves in the land where the real-life Shelbys once felled forest and roasted racoons.
fussy eaters can find reasons to recoil in disgust from almost anything edible before it is dressed for the table
Taboos are cultural. So, I think, is taste: despite the research grants wasted on genetic explanations, we like the food that Momma made or whatever other combination of hot, sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury sensations marks us as members of our groups. To be mainstream and modern in America, you eat what mainstream, modern Americans eat, and misrepresent prejudice as preference.
Snobbery, as well as history, condemns varmints and critters that formerly fed poor homesteaders and slaves. In Europe, the bourgeioisie has rediscovered the virtues of cuisine pauvre. If anything other than the ignorance and prejudice Eggleston condemned keeps opossums off American menus it is probably economics: mass-production makes currently popular domesticates so cheap that it is hard for any other meat — whether innovative or nostalgic — to displace them.
Racoons revolt us, because we see them rootling in our rubbish, while opossums, who are similarly carnivorous, make us mindful of the carrion and insects they devour in the wild. But fussy eaters can find reasons to recoil in disgust from almost anything edible before it is dressed for the table: think of a lettuce beslimed by a slug, or the poisons that pass for pesticides and coat your berries or brassica.
I can’t conscientiously recommend a recipe for opossum or racoon, because I haven’t been able to acquire the ingredients. For both, however, all the cooking instructions I have been able to find in eighteenth- and nineteenth-
century sources are essentially the same. Though almost all speak of roasting, the method is what we should now call braising, in juices yielded by boiling the meat in advance, with a garnish of sweet potatoes.
The black minstrel, Sam Lucas (who inaugurated the stage role of Uncle Tom and starred in such forgotten musical classics as A Trip to Coontown, in which he sang “The Wedding of the Chinee and the Coon”) put the case for braised opossum unbeatably in one of his vaudeville-act songs, published in 1875:
De way to cook de possum sound,
Carve him to de heart;
Fust parbile him, den bake him
Carve him to de heart;
Lay sweet potatoes in de pan,
Carve him to de heart;
De sweetest eatin’ in de lan’,
Carve him to de heart.
This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
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