It's a week before Christmas, and Levent Blayock is hunting for critters at the Soulard Farmer's Market. He's stocking up for his annual "wild food" party, a New Year's Day ritual -- more than two decades in the running -- in which he and his buddies cook up a smorgasbord of animals one is not likely to find on the shelves at Schnucks.
Amid the happy commotion of carolers singing "Jingle Bells" and vendors shouting out their wares, Blayock scrutinizes dozens of frozen carcasses that line Scott Harr's food stall -- there's beaver, raccoon, possum and muskrat. For more than 80 years, Harr and his forefathers have made a name for themselves by selling these adventurous delicacies. The family's longevity has earned them legions of devoted customers like Blayock, who, at long last, picks out a 25-pound beaver and two small, bloody muskrats.
A week earlier, the East St. Louis resident bagged the other necessary complements of the big meal: raccoon and possum. Back home Blayock will serve his varmint feast with table wine, Budweiser and Stag beer. And when his guests finish, the animals' severed tails will be unveiled. That's when the party really starts hopping, with the children paddling each other with beaver tails, and the womenfolk screaming at the sight of the rat-like possum.
"Whoa," Blayock says. "They go crazy."
To Harr's faithful customers, the wild-game meat is as much about cultural tradition and family heritage as it is about cutting-edge vittles. It's like Aunt Bertha's fruitcake or Grandma Esther's oyster stuffing -- a homey, acquired taste. Call it four-legged comfort food.
"My father came from Arkansas and was raised on coons, rabbits and possum," says Anna Thomas, a spry 74-year-old from Fairview Heights, Illinois, who every Thanksgiving and Christmas makes certain to get herself a raccoon.
Thomas will serve a Christmas meal of raccoon, goose and ham to some twenty relatives. Her recipe for coon includes soaking the beast overnight in salt water -- a procedure, she says, that strips the "wildness" from the meat. After seasoning the creature with red pepper, salt, garlic and onion, she'll roast the raccoon in the oven along with candied yams and gravy.
"You talk about good eating!" she exclaims. "Good old lean meat."
For 69-year-old Lorraine Wells and her husband, Joe, barbecued coon is the only way to go. The Wellses soak the creature in a mixture of vinegar, water and salt overnight, and then parboil the carcass with seasoned salt, garlic and pepper. When the meat is tender, Joe tosses the carcass on the grill and smokes the meat for a few hours. They insist raccoon tastes better than roast beef.
It's salt-of-the-earth customers like Thomas and the Wellses who make up the majority of Harr's business. They're mostly African-American and elderly, and a good percentage of them pay for their purchases with food stamps. They're also a dying breed. With each passing year, the 30-year-old Harr sells less and less wild game.
A veritable Ellis Island of humanity, the 150-year-old Soulard market has long served as a melting pot for an otherwise segregated city. Here, for a few hours each Saturday, west-county gourmands share space with Bosnian refugees; inner-city blacks mingle with south-county hoosiers; Mexican illegals wait alongside loft-dwelling intellectuals.
It's amid this motley bunch that Harr alone stands out from the crowd. From mid-November through late January (the traditional length of the trapping season in Missouri and Illinois), Harr is best known as "Game Man."
His collection of live rabbits and chickens (which he keeps in wooden crates lined with the pages of this very newspaper) attracts the kiddies. But it's his unusual frozen-food section that gets the most attention. He may as well be displaying shrunken heads, what with the number of people who circle around his stall, ogling his critters.
On a typical Saturday during trapping season, Harr might sell a dozen raccoons and a few odd possums, beavers and muskrats. But on this holiday eve, the carcasses are moving fast. Raccoons go for $7 for a small one, $10 for a large. Possums sell for $5. A big beaver commands as much as $20. Muskrats, a relative bargain, sell for $2 a head. By day's end, Harr will sell more than 50 raccoons, a half-dozen muskrats, a pair of possums and all three beavers he's brought to market.
Lingering in the background this bitter-cold day is Frank Como, a heavy-set, 81-year-old Italian with a nose the size of a tennis ball. Como remembers eating possum during the Great Depression, and the foul taste lingers still.
"Possums eat dead people," he announces for all to hear. "In graveyards, they dig holes and eat corpses. If a horse dies out in the field, they eat it out, starting with the asshole. You hit a dead horse on the stomach and the possums will come running out its asshole. They're greasy, nasty animals."
Harr could do without the rant -- the public's perception of wild meat is bad enough. Where Harr's father and grandfather bought game from trappers in bulk, selling hundreds of carcasses a year, his operation is more piecemeal. He slowly builds inventory, worried that much of the beaver and coon might not sell. Harr's 23-year-old wife, Stephanie, can understand why. "I was appalled when I found out he was selling this stuff," she says. After four years of marriage and countless hours helping operate the family stall, Stephanie refuses to handle any of the carcasses, and she has yet to eat any of them -- and plans to keep it that way.
Still, Harr is optimistic that as long as there are open-air markets, the demand for his meat will continue. "The younger generations may turn their nose up at it in public, but when it's on the dinner table, they'll eat it."
That few people today eat varmints does little to mitigate their role in America's culinary history.
For centuries beaver was considered a delicacy among Native American tribes. In the more recent past, beaver provided much sustenance for pioneers, its meat a staple for the men of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Muskrat, sold under the pseudonym "marsh hare," was a popular turn-of-the-century dish in many of the finer restaurants of the northeast. Raccoon and possum meat continues to be highly sought-after throughout the American South.
When Pierre Laclede and August Chouteau founded St. Louis in 1763, the area was the largest fur-collection point in the world. Think our ancestors didn't eat beaver every now and again?
The definitive book on varmint-eating in America has yet to be written, but most culinary scholars point to the nation's population shift last century as the primary reason the food has all but disappeared from the American palate.
"This is a phenomenon of the emerging middle class and industrialization," says S.G.B. Tennant Jr., author of the game cookbook Wild at the Table. "Prior to that point, game is what kept people alive. It was America's first food."
As more and more people moved off the farm last century, they left behind the traditions of their rural heritage, including the trapping and eating of animals. Perhaps the swan song for the meat came in 1997 when Joy of Cooking, the nation's most authoritative cookbook, removed its recipes for beaver, muskrat, possum and raccoon. The recipes no longer reflected the "modern tastes" of America.
Even among the dozens of cookbooks dedicated to wild game, few pay heed to recipes concerning these delicacies. The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook, perhaps the foremost depository of recipes for North American game, likens the taste of muskrat to that of duck, and sort of like turtle. Raccoon the book describes as tasting akin to squirrel and better than rabbit.
In his book Fowl and Game Cookery, the late James Beard, considered by many the "godfather" of American cuisine, describes muskrat as having a pleasant flavor but filled with so many bones that "it's hardly worth the effort."
Janie Hibler, author of Wild About Game, writes that an old beaver tastes like "the underside of a Mexican saddle." A.D. Livingston, author of the Complete Fish & Game Cookbook, suggests that a trapped possum be fed milk and grain for several days in an attempt to "clean out" the otherwise foul taste of the creature.
Looking for some local advice, we contacted Larry Forgione, owner of the much-ballyhooed new downtown restaurant An American Place. An acolyte of Beard, Forgione has earned acclaim as much for his culinary skills as for his dedication to only using food grown and harvested in the United States.
So is Forgione surprised that people still eat this stuff? Not at all. In the mid-'80s he served marsh hare in one of his New York City restaurants.
"I think what people don't realize is that a lot of this type of food was extremely popular at the turn of the century," he says. "Back then people ate everything they killed, which was a good thing."
Fur-trapping, though not as popular as it once was, is still practiced in this region in genocidal proportions.
Last year trappers in Missouri and Illinois harvested more than 166,000 raccoons, 25,000 possums, 45,000 muskrats and nearly 15,000 beavers. Still, state conservationists say populations of fur-bearing mammals in the two states remain at near-record highs. Concerned that the burgeoning numbers of varmints may lead to starvation and disease, the Missouri Department of Conservation has extended the trapping season this year by an extra three weeks -- the first time it has done so in 30 years.
But for all they do in helping control animal populations, trappers remain a suspicious lot. The trappers that supply Harr with his meat declined interviews for this story. Trappers we were able to contact would not allow us to accompany them as they checked their traps, and several requested that we not print their names.
The reason for the reticence, they say, comes from their fear of the anti-fur movement. Since the founding of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and similar splinter groups in the early 1980s, the price of fur in the United States has plummeted. Where 25 years ago a raccoon pelt brought a trapper as much as $30, today it commands just $10 to $15 in the overseas markets of Greece, Russia, China and Korea -- the major players in the international fur trade.
"It's a shame we have to send our fur overseas," says 73-year-old Harry Deatherage, a farmer in Granite City who has trapped these parts for more than 50 years. "If it wasn't for the 'antis' [the anti-fur movement], this would be a big market."
Deatherage is one of perhaps a few dozen trappers who continue to ply their craft in the St. Louis metropolitan area, running his trap line in suburban neighborhoods that twenty years ago were farmland. Where he once tracked his prey following paw prints, droppings and other tell-tale signs of wildlife, today Deatherage scopes out toppled trash cans, nuisance reports and indignant homeowners.
"After the raccoons have gotten in someone's trash a few times, people no longer have much appreciation for the animals," says Deatherage. "I'd say 99 percent of the time I ask someone for permission to trap on their property, they give me the okay."
Once skinned of its pelt, the animal's meat is simply a byproduct that can earn the trapper a little extra income. They sell it to vendors such as Harr for a few bucks, and Harr, in turn, marks it up a couple more dollars for sale at the market.
Wild game is generally a leaner meat than domestic livestock and is therefore considered a healthier alternative to farm-raised meat. Possum, for example, is said to have twice the protein of T-bone steak and less than one-third the fat.
But farm-raised meat must also undergo stringent safety inspections. The same cannot be said of wild game.
"The question you have to ask here is, 'Where are they getting these animals?'" says Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University. "If you hunt your own meat, you at least know where you got it and how quickly the animal was processed. In buying trapped animals, I think one would have to ask a lot of questions, such as what's the potential for food-borne illness?"
At best, the trading of wild meat is a loosely regulated industry. Because it is such a niche product, neither the United States Department of Agriculture nor the Missouri Department of Agriculture monitors its sale or safety. Instead, inspection is left to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which monitors the licensing of trappers and hunters, and to the local health department in which the meat is processed or sold.
In the case of St. Louis City, the wild-game trade falls well under the radar. When asked about the sale of the meat at Soulard Farmer's Market, Virginia Phillips, environmental health supervisor for the city, was unaware of the practice. "This is not something we run into day-to-day," she explains. "I'd have to call Missouri Department of Conservation."
David Hamilton, a resource scientist for the conservation department, says trapped game is the only wildlife meat other than fish that the state allows for sale. Little, if any, of the meat is ever inspected.
"It's kind of an open market, 'buyer beware' sort of thing," Hamilton concedes. "We don't have much jurisdiction other than licensing the person to trap."
Even so, Hamilton says he cannot think of any public-health epidemic that has resulted from people eating wild game harvested by Missouri trappers. Raccoon and possum rabies are extremely rare in Missouri. Beavers and muskrats, while both members of the rodent family, are largely free of the diseases associated with their cousins, rats and mice.
"The trappers aren't going to sell something if they think it's bad," says Hamilton. "They have an economic interest in this. They don't want to negatively affect the market."
For chef Larry Forgione, varmint meat will always be associated with good eating.
It was in the late 1970s that he teamed with Justin Rashid, a wild-food forager in northern Michigan, who was friends with many of the Native American tribes of that region. The tribes provided Rashid and Forgione with their unused meat.
With a boundless supply of game, Forgione would experiment with different ways to prepare the animals. Often he tested his recipes on his friend and mentor, James Beard.
When asked if he will do the same for a taste-testing committee from the Riverfront Times, Forgione agrees on one condition: Make sure our readers (and, more important, the health department) realize that An American Place does not include such vittles on its regular menu. By law, no restaurant is allowed to sell meat that has not been inspected by state or federal authorities, and Harr's butchered critters don't come with the USDA's seal of approval.
Eager for beaver, we arrive at An American Place promptly at 6 p.m. the Monday before Christmas. As our taste-testing brigade assembles in the restaurant's lobby, Forgione emerges from the kitchen, a coy smile on his round face. In his hand is a five-course menu, beginning and ending with beaver.
Our meal starts with a sampling of beaver tail on toast. It is not well received. "Oh, gross, I got some on my finger!" screams one of our testers when a piece of fatty white flesh falls from the toast.
Beaver tail, Forgione will later tell us, is akin to whale's blubber. A highly fatty and greasy meat, it's full of energy but has a taste and texture like congealed Crisco. Among Native American tribes, the meat was thought to aid virility, but for our taste-testers, its lasting impression is the sensation left in the back of the throat as the meat "shimmies" its way toward the stomach.
The Asian-style marsh hare wonton is definitely a step up. The wontons are in a sesame-spiked soy sauce and seasoned with shiitake mushrooms, ginger and cilantro -- you'd hardly know you were eating muskrat. Ground into tiny patties, the meat inside the wonton is dark and rich, its gamey flavor an excellent complement to the salty sweetness of the soy sauce.
For the third course, Forgione serves sauerbraten-style raccoon, having soaked the meat overnight in a mixture of apple cider and apple-cider vinegar. The marinating of wild game is a time-honored technique to remove the gamey flavor from the meat. In this case it worked to marginal success. Served on a bed of thick noodles, the raccoon is a fibrous, dark meat that might best be compared to beef brisket.
Still, the remnants of the meat's wild taste is too much for our panel of critics. Even Forgione admits that the pugnacity of the raccoon is beyond his liking.
"I don't know if I would eat raccoon again," he confesses. "I'm sure there are those out there who probably cover the meat with some horrible barbecue sauce so all you're tasting is the sauce. I was trying to give you an idea of what the flavor tasted like."
Like any good chef, Forgione saves the best for last. His wood-roasted leg of beaver is nothing short of sumptuous. An incredibly mild meat, the beaver leg might pass as roast beef to the unsuspecting diner. The final course, pan-roasted mignon of beaver, is even more succulent and comes accompanied with roasted parsnip purée, Brussels sprouts and wild huckleberry.
At the end of the meal, our host takes a seat at the table and readily admits he's outdone himself. Traditional recipes for this type of meat do not include such garnishments as parsnip purée and gingersnap crumbs.
"I wanted to have a little fun with this," says Forgione. "Back when this food was most popular, there weren't gourmet meals. It was about how to get the healthiest, heartiest meal you could for the least amount of money. Really just whatever you caught, you threw in the pot, be it squirrels, raccoon, beaver, whatever."
Today attitudes are different. Even if there weren't the regulations prohibiting him from serving the wild game to his customers, Forgione doubts he'd put it on the menu.
"From an adventurous point of view, I think people should try it. But I seriously doubt there'd be enough demand to have it on a menu. Besides, I think anything that ends in the word 'rat' is sort of hard for most people to swallow."
One 8-10 lb. beaver
salt and pepper
1 tsp. thyme and rosemary
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup currant jelly
Stuff the beaver and salt and pepper it all over. Place beaver in uncovered roasting pan and bake for 15 minutes in 450 degree oven. Add wine, water, jelly and herbs. Cover and continue roasting at 325 degrees for 3.5 hours. As the beaver bakes, skin the fat from time to time.
from The L.L. Bean Game & Fish Cookbook by Cameron and Jones
1 raccoon, including liver
bouquet of parsley, chopped
2 onions, sliced
sprig of thyme and rosemary
2 tbsp. butter
Wash carcass with hot water and lemon juice. Slit along the belly and remove intestines. Sautee parsley, onions and liver in butter. Stuff contents into carcass and roast for two hours, basting frequently with butter or bacon fat. Salt and pepper to taste.
from Fowl and Game Cookery by James Beard
Muskrat in Cream
2 young muskrat
1/2 pint cream
juice of two lemons
salt and pepper
Cut the dressed muskrat into serving-size pieces. Sprinkle with lemon and refrigerate overnight. Rinse the meat and sprinkle salt and pepper. Cover with flour and brown the meat in the skillet. Transfer to casserole dish, add cream and bake for 25 minutes.
from Complete Fish & Game Cookbook by A.D. Livingston
1 young, fat opossum
8 sweet potatoes
2 tbsp. butter
1 tbsp. sugar
Wash possum thoroughly. Freeze overnight. Boil peeled potatoes with sugar, butter and salt. Stew the possum until tender in a tightly covered pan. Arrange the taters around the possum, sprinkle with thyme or marjoram, or pepper, and brown in the oven. Baste often with the drippings.
from North Carolina State Wild Game Recipes