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Out There: Thing I've et

9/28/2004
For a starving college kid, an opossum up a tree is dinner for two on the hoof. 

I once invited a young lady to my shack for a home-cooked supper. Until that evening, it never dawned on me that most folks have never had the good fortune to eat barbecued coon. I was surprised to learn that some folks would be happier if they never did.

I had spent the previous evening hunting raccoons in east Arkansas' river bottoms. My buddy Leon owned a bluetick that was one fine coonhound.

We turned the dog out at 9 p.m., and, by midnight, had killed six coons, including a trio of masked bandits we put up beside a cornfield where they were feasting on roasting ears.

Now in case you don't know, a corn-fed coon is just about as fine a food animal as ever graced this planet, and I was mighty happy to have one to cook for the young lady coming to visit.

After skinning the coons and stretching their pelts, I cut them in serving pieces and put the youngest in a Dutch oven and covered it with water.

I parboiled the meat until it was almost falling from the bone, then transferred the pieces to a charcoal grill and mopped them with homemade barbecue sauce. They were cooking over the glowing coals when my guest arrived.

"Oh, good, I love barbecued chicken," she said, smiling, when we checked on our dinner.

"Not chicken," I said. "Raccoon."

"Raccoon!" she shrieked. "You sicko! How could you eat a cute little raccoon?" And, with that, she left.

I suppose I was almost as stunned as my dinner guest. Until that time, I had never run across anyone opposed to eating game of any kind.

In the home I grew up in, and the homes of all my friends, game was a staple, and a tender young coon was considered a special treat. That someone might consider a coon "too cute" to eat was beyond me.

Nowadays, even more folks think like my former dinner guest: "Eat a cute little raccoon? You must be sick."

Some uppity dinner guests have made similar comments when offered such delectable entrées as fried rabbit, roast wild goose, marinated bear steaks and even prime venison. I can hardly imagine what they might have thought if they had been around to partake of some of my more exotic repasts.

During my college years, for example, I often ate muskrats and possums. Money and food were scarce then. These furbearers provided both.

To supplement my meager income, I ran several trap lines in winter. Muskrats and opossums were easily caught and brought $3 to $4 apiece at the fur market, so I focused much of my attention on them. I often caught 10 to 15 daily.

In the case of muskrats, I skinned the animals and discarded their carcasses. The pelts were sold weekly. The meat fed backyard scavengers. There came a time, though, when hunger persuaded me to sample the lean, dark meat and determine its palatability.

I cut one into serving pieces, seasoned it with salt and pepper, placed it in a Dutch oven and added vegetables from my garden. I set the covered Dutch oven over hickory coals at the edge of a fire built behind my one-room shack. The stew simmered four hours while I worked, and, when I got home, a scrumptious aroma filled the air.

I quickly got a bowl and dug in, and to my delight, I found the muskrat stew delicious. The meat proved rich and tender, with a unique flavor reminiscent of slow-cooked venison. It was dark but not excessively gamy, with no hint of the toughness and muskiness I expected.

During the next two years, I prepared muskrat in many ways — fried, barbecued, spit-roasted, braised — and it always was good.

I sold the meat of the possums I caught to a nearby family. The carcasses brought 50 cents each, and these folks gladly paid that price for every one.

One afternoon when I dropped by, the lady of the house had just finished cooking a possum I'd sold her two days earlier. She asked if I'd care to join them for supper, and I gladly accepted her offer. The dining table was piled high with foods of all sorts — a bowl of steaming turnip greens, hot cornbread, homemade applesauce, quart fruit jars of fresh-brewed tea, corn-on-the-cob, several desserts and more.

Our hostess said grace then removed from the stove a deep black-iron skillet tightly covered with a lid. When she lifted the top, a heavenly aroma filled the room. I suddenly was eager to taste the somewhat greasy pieces of meat that filled the pot.

To say that possum was good would be a huge understatement. The meat was tasty and tender, with the pronounced flavor that tells you you're eating a creature of the wild and not some domesticated barnyard animal. It was greasy, too, as you may have heard possum to be. But it was greasy in a good way, like a greasy cheeseburger or a rasher of fried bacon. From that day forth, I ate more possums than I sold.

Rattlesnakes also graced my table on occasion. These big, venomous serpents were abundant near my home. I earned extra cash tanning their skins and selling them to folks who turned them into belts, hatbands and wallets. When my college herpetology professor learned of this enterprise, he offered to buy the carcasses of all the snakes I skinned. "For what?" I asked. "To eat," said he.

I joined him one evening for a home-style rattlesnake banquet that featured grilled rattler with a zesty tomato baste. The professor soon regretted the invitation. The snake was so good, his market for fresh rattlesnake promptly dried up.

Although these dishes may seem exotic to modern diners in some parts of the country, they weren't unusual in the part of the South I grew up in. Other things I've put my grinders on, however, would be considered strange in almost any company.

My grandmother, for example, often cooked snapping turtle soup, a dish considered a delicacy in many areas. That in itself wasn't unusual, but when I got old enough to catch, clean and cook my own snappers, I learned that the eggs often found inside a turtle also are delicious.

"They are about the size of golf balls," wrote Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her 1942 classic, "Cross Creek Cookery." "They are boiled in heavily salted water 20 minutes. The white never solidifies, but the hard-boiled yolk is rich, rather grainy, with a fine and distinct flavor. They are eaten 'out of hand,' from the shell, breaking off the top of the shell, dotting the egg with salt and pepper and butter, and popping the contents of the shell directly into the mouth. A dozen turtle eggs, with plain bread and butter and a glass of ale, make all I ask of a light luncheon or supper."

I tried the eggs in the manner she suggested, and Rawlings was correct in all her assessments of this unusual food.

Quail eggs also make good vittles. A neighbor who raised bobwhites showed me how to hard-boil the sweet-tasting eggs for a special treat. When they were done, he often soaked them in a bit of beet juice to add color. The purplish eggs garnished many dishes he brought to church potlucks.

Several years ago, the proprietor of a small fish market invited me to sample the fried steaks from a 190-pound alligator gar. Each was the size of a dinner plate. Although the gigantic fish measuring more than eight feet in length must have been ancient, the steaks were white, flaky and succulent — as good the best-fried catfish I've ever eaten. They were selling briskly in the market at $3 per pound.

In Brazil, I dined on an exquisite soup made from piranhas. A memorable meal in Greece consisting wholly of pickled octopus tentacles washed down with ouzo. The deer amourettes (testicles) prepared in camp by a venturesome cook seemed like a culinary gamble, but these crispy golden-fried morsels proved to be an epicurean delight.

Other "strange" foods I've sampled and enjoyed include squirrel brains, bass cheeks, emu kabobs, kangaroo fillets, crow (now a family favorite) and the traille (worm-filled intestines) of a woodcock spread like butter on triangles of toast.

The strangest meal I ever ate was cooked by my dear grandmother. This was during my college years. I was conducting a mammal survey in the county where I lived. As part of this survey, I set out hundreds of snap traps to catch various types of mice, rats, voles and other small mammals.

The rodents were skinned to make study mounts for the university museum, and the carcasses were placed in cages with dermestid beetles that stripped them of flesh. The skeletons then were added to the museum collection, as well.

I often prepared the study skins, then placed the mammal carcasses in plastic bags and stuck them in my grandmother's deep freeze until I could deliver them to the beetle works. My grandmother was well aware of this. Among the prizes thus frozen were six wood rats, more commonly known as packrats. I skinned them, prepared the study mounts, then froze the carcasses with heads and tails still attached.

I arrived home one afternoon and found my grandmother cooking dinner. "That smells great," I said. "What is it?"

"I found some squirrels you put in the freezer," she said. "And I have a mind to tear up your rear end for leaving the heads and tails on. You know better than doing half a job cleaning them."

I knew immediately I'd be having Neotoma floridana for dinner. No way was I going to tell my grandmother the "squirrels" she was cooking actually were rats.

Surprisingly, the plump rodents were finger-licking good.

"Tastes like chicken," my grandmother said as she got a second helping.

I thought they tasted more like owl.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.