Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Summer seemed to arrive punctually, on June 21st. The first truly hot hazy days arrived then and the air conditioner was turned on for the first time. With the haze came asthma and I unpacked my yet unused inhalers to deal with the side effects of the limited visibility that now cloaked the holler across from my house.

The driving rains of spring showed no sign of letting up. My once cleared hilltop and gullies were now sprouting tall grasses and weeds with abandon. I seemed powerless to keep up with it all. The garden was infested with ragweed and it seemed to resist my most diligent efforts to eradicate it. By the time I'd weeded and hoed and cultivated it…it was back in two days.

I was now facing a more eminent threat. My chickens were being killed at an alarming rate. I was now glad that I'd purchased 35 of them…for it now looked as though the flock was being decimated. This was partly my fault. I'd gotten a bit lazy about locking them down in the evenings…. The thought of slogging up there in the mud, rain and crashing lightening on some nights was more than I could bear. This changed on the morning I came out to find 9 of my precious pullets gone. The marauder had left only one sad little gizzard behind. The consensus on my chicken list is that the culprit is a raccoon. I began locking them all down every night. This was war…make no mistake about it. The chickens were being terrorized by an unknown intruder who left no sign behind and I was determined to catch him. I began calling him Osama bin Raccoon.

I'm past warm, fuzzy, ecologically correct thinking at this point. I'm looking up coon recipes. I bought a "Hav-a-heart" raccoon trap. It's a complicated gizmo that is evidently harder for me to operate than for the raccoons to evade. It's a live trap. After four nights of finding the bait stolen out of the damn thing...I've now set snares.... they are deadly traps. I haven't used snares since I was 10 years old and a wild little "Lord of the Flies" hunter child. It's really weird how it all came back to me. As the war escalates...I might be spending my nights up on the hill with the .22 and the spotlights on my Jeep. My chicken list people tell me if I can kill one, that tacking it's hide and head on the coop, as a sort of warning will keep them away. I always wondered why people did that.

I find myself morphing into Bill Murray's character in "Caddy Shack". I keep coming up with more inventive ways to do away with Osama. He seems to be a master of trap evasion….capable of snarfing all of the delicious bait without tripping the device. One night, he does trip it but escapes. Evidently, this pisses him off and he rips up the barnyard, overturning grain bins and exacting terrible damage in his rage.

I trip down the back way to Newport for advice. On the edges of Newport is a small farm supply that deals mostly with the poultry folk in the area. Most people with chickens here raise game fowl and one can find an amazing array of fighting chicken supplies at this place. I've gotten sort of chummy with the folks here. I buy my dog food there…I feel sort of guilty about getting the less expensive scratch and feed at the big Co-op rather than there, so I try to ease my guilt by getting the dog food at their small establishment. They always have the most interesting, if sometimes completely off-base advice.

I recount my raccoon problems to the large friendly woman who works there. I like all of the folks who work here…the handsome, sad-eyed fellow with the blue-eyed dog and the smart, thin lady who owns the store, but this large friendly woman, I enjoy talking to the most. She can lift a 50 pound bag of dog food into my jeep with far more ease than I can and I envy her that strength.

She tells me I need to use marshmallows as raccoon bait. Yep, coons can't resist a good marshmallow. Every fiber in my being tells me this is wrong, but I dutifully pick up a bag of stay-puffs at the grocery store later.

Our conversation starts predictably with the weather. This place is so like where I lived in England…every conversation should start with the weather then move to other topics. I mention the return of my asthma and how the hazy days had brought it back.

"You needs to get yourself a Chihuahua!" she proclaims as though this was the most natural thing in the world.

My brain does a few flips as I try to connect small rat-sized dogs with breathing problems.

"A Chihuahua?" I repeat. I find myself repeating things quite often up here. I know I heard her correctly, I just need some sort of verification that I'm not completely off my rocker.

"Oh, yes," she says in a tone that suggests she can't believe I don't know this, "A Chihuahua will 'take' your asthma."

She goes on to relate to me an anecdote of a relative who has been able to completely go off her oxygen since getting her Chihuahua.

My skeptic's mind thinks about this. The Chihuahuas I have know have all been owned by elderly ladies who doted on them and fed them boiled chicken. Most of these dogs suffered from breathing problems and quite often engaged in reverse sneezing…a canine event brought about by the dog's inability to deal with post-nasal drip. Quite harmless, but gives the impression that the dog is near death. I decide that watching these little guys gasp could only make you feel better since you obviously can breath better than they can. At least, that's my explanation for the Chihuahua Cure.

I recount this tale to the lady at Black's Market. She gave me an unlikely insect repellant idea that involved vanilla extract. I think I probably repeated it to show that I was hip to the local "cures".

"Oh…everybody knows about that one!" she told me.

Once again, I had failed to impress. Perhaps I should start repeating the cures I know from my own rural area of South Carolina. I'm not sure the raw oyster poultice for head colds cure would be something they could relate to.

I return from Newport armed with marshmallows and fish flavored cat food for the Raccoon War. I artfully disguise the trap as suggested by folks on my chicken list. The next morning reveals, as I expected, raccoons don' t much care for marshmallows. Back to square one and frying up crispy bacon each night.

It took a few more days, but finally sweet victory was mine!

A big ole tom Coon was in the trap at long last. I was really glad it wasn't a momma surrounded by all her little baby coons...that would have had me pretty sad. I dispatched him with a .22.

His hide is now tacked up on the far side of the coop where the race trail lets out. I threw his head and entrails down the mountain. I imagined that the message left for other coons would be ominous. We are Killer Chickens and are fed up and ain't gonna take it anymore!

At least that's the theory. The rest of the coon is cleaned and aging in my fridge.

I ran into Aurthur, my muleskinner friend on the road. He's started visiting again, but is much better behaved. I told him I'd caught the coon I'd been telling him about. He asked me what I did with it. I could see the mountain man approval in his eyes when I told him. I expect he thought I'd just dump the carcass instead of putting it to use.

The dogs were completely beside themselves. Shadow and Aegis were mostly interested in the live coon in the trap...very exciting. Fat Buddy registered the exact moment...somehow...that it went from scary critter to tasty snack. He had to be locked up for me to scrinch and clean it since he completely lost all sense of decorum and kept trying to steal it. Poor Hi-Lite couldn't tell if it was alive or dead...he just didn't like the way it kept looking at him.

A few weeks later, I am about find out exactly how much of an "orphan" meat coon is.

In researching the preparation of coon, I found that one of the more important elements of its preparation was finding and removing the scent glands. These are little kidney-shaped globs that hide in the armpits and secreted away in other parts of the carcass. I'm pretty sure I got them all.

I researched different coon recipes. I was hoping to find some in my antiquarian cookbooks. See...I had this idea that coon might be sort of like ribs. Ribs used to be "poor folks" food and I can remember my parents talking about how you didn't eat ribs unless you were really hard up. Now...they are a perfectly acceptable and tasty food option.

Seems from my research that I was wrong about coon. Mssr. Escoffier has no coon recipes...ditto for Fannie Farmer. I was most disappointed that Marjorie Rawlings (The Yearling) completely ignored the entire genre of coon cuisine in her "Cross Creek Cookery". This is a woman who has at least three cooter (turtle) recipes, possum ...but no coon. River Road did have one recipe for Coon Delta Style.

I spoke with the locals around here. Most said..."Coon is nasty...they'll eat anything".

After collecting a number of recipes...I decided to wing it. Here is my own coon recipe that I came up with.

Coon de Resistance

Get one youngish coon. Clean and dress taking care to remove all scent glands and remove all fat. Cut into serving size pieces. Soak overnight in brine.

Dredge in a mixture of flour, pepper and Old Bay Seasoning. Brown in hot Crisco. Place all coon parts in a pressure cooker with red wine, four quartered onions and six large cloves of garlic. Cook for 20 minutes at 10lbs pressure. Let cooker depressurize on the stove.

Discard liquid with onions and garlic. Place coon parts in a baking dish. Cut and place with coon pieces, carrots, new potatoes, onions and peeled butternut squash. Cover with chicken broth and more red wine. Cover dish and bake at 350 until vegetables are tender. Serve on a bed of pokeweed wilted in bacon grease. Accompany with sweet potatoes and biscuits.

This came out really well. The meat tastes like and has the texture of beef.

My theory is now this: On one hand is an animal that weighs between 15 and 25 pounds and produces tasty stew meat. On the other hand is an animal that weighs between 1200 and 2000 pounds and produces the identical tasting meat plus some tasty by-products like tongue and sweetbreads. I've now answered the age old question, "Why are there no coon ranches?"

I chatted with my friend in New York City about the whole thing. She's also from South Carolina and has a similar background to mine. She said the same thing most of the locals said to me…"Coon is nasty…they'll eat anything!"

I was shocked to hear myself reply, "Well…they aren't as bad as possum…they really will eat anything!"

My veneer of polite civilization seems to be gradually tarnishing as I, too, will now eat anything.

1 Comment:

  1. Anonymous said...
    Oh my gosh, I just found your site and this is freakin hilarious! Your story about the coon had me laughing so hard I couldn't see through the tears.

    What a great story. You are now my new favorite writer. Thanks for sharing!


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