The other dark meat: Raccoon is making it to the table

Kansas City StarJanuary 13, 2009 

He rolls into the parking lot of Leon's Thriftway in an old, maroon Impala with a trunk full of frozen meat. Raccoon — the other dark meat.

In five minutes, Montrose, Mo., trapper Larry Brownsberger is sold out in the lot at 39th Street and Kensington Avenue. Word has gotten around about how clean his frozen raccoon carcasses are. How nicely they’re tucked up in their brown butcher paper. How they almost look like a trussed turkey … or something.

His loyal customers beam as they leave, thinking about the meal they'll soon be eating.

That is, as soon as the meat is thawed. Then brined. Soaked overnight. Parboiled for two hours. Slow-roasted or smoked or barbecued to perfection.

Raccoon, which made the first edition of The Joy of Cooking in 1931, is labor-intensive but well worth the time, aficionados say.

"Good things come to those who wait," says A. Reed, 86, who has been eating raccoon since she was a girl.

"This right here," she says, holding up a couple of brown packages tied with burlap string, "this is a great value. And really good eatin’. Best-kept secret around."

Raccoons go for $3 to $7 — each, not per pound — and will feed about five adults. Four, if they're really hungry.

Those who dine on raccoon meat sound the same refrain: It's good eatin'.

As long as you can get past the "ick" factor that it's a varmint, more often seen flattened on asphalt than featured on a restaurant menu. (One exception: French restaurant Le Fou Frog served raccoon about a dozen years ago, a waiter said.)

Eating varmints is even in vogue these days, at least in Britain. The New York Times reported last week that Brits are eating squirrels with wild abandon.

Here in Kansas City, you won't see many, if any, squirrel ads in the papers. But that's where Brownsberger was advertising his raccoons last week.

The meat isn't USDA-inspected, and few state regulations apply, same as with deer and other game. No laws prevent trappers from selling raccoon carcasses.

As for diseases, raccoon rabies doesn't exist in Missouri, state conservation scientists say. It's an East Coast phenomenon. Parvo and distemper kill raccoons quickly but arent transferred to humans. Also, trappers are unlikely to sell meat from an animal that appears to be diseased.

"Raccoon meat is some of the healthiest meat you can eat,"\" says Jeff Beringer, a furbearer resource biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

"During grad school, my roommate and I ate 32 coons one winter. It was all free, and it was really good. If you think about being green and eating organically, raccoon meat is the ultimate organic food," with no steroids, no antibiotics, no growth hormones.

And when people eat wild meat, Beringer says, "it reminds the modernized society — people who usually eat food from a plastic wrapper — where food comes from."

Statewide, consumption of raccoon meat can be tracked somewhat by how many raccoon pelts are harvested each year. In 2007, 118,166 pelts were sold.

But there are plenty more out there, Beringer says. The raccoon population "doubled in the '80s. There's more now than when Missouri was first settled."

He estimates there are about 20 raccoons per square mile of habitat.

In the wild, raccoons typically live five or six years. Populations that grow too dense can be decimated by disease, especially when temperatures drop, Beringer says.

"The animals huddle together, passing on the infections. In the winter, we sometimes have massive die-offs. If we can control the fluctuations in the populations by hunting and trapping, we can have healthier animals."

Fur trappers, who harvest most of the raccoons sold in Missouri, "try to kill as humanely as possible," says Beringer, a trapper himself. "It's part of the culture."

Pelts last year sold on average for about $17. They're used for coats and hats, and many are sold to Russia. But the conflict between Russia and Georgia severely cut into the fur-trading market, Beringer says. "Pelts will probably be less this year."

For the average person, who probably doesn't spend much time thinking how a steer or a pig or a chicken might meet its maker, raccoons may seem too cute to eat.

Until you try one.

At the Blue Springs home of Billy Washington, raccoon, fish, bison and deer are staples on his family's table.

On this day, it's raccoon.

All night he has been soaking a carcass in a solution of salt and vinegar in a five-gallon bucket. Now he rinses the raccoon in his kitchen sink.

"Eating raccoon has never gone out of style. It's just hard to get unless you know somebody," he says as he carefully trims away the fat and the scent glands.

"My kids love eating game. They think eating deer and buffalo make you run faster and jump higher. My grandkids will just tear this one up, it'll be so good."

The meat is almost ready to be boiled, except for one thing: Although its head, innards and three paws have been removed, it still has one. That’s the law.

"They leave the paw on to prove it's not a cat or a dog," Washington says.

He cuts off the paw and drops the carcass into a stew pot, slices up a carrot, celery and onion, and sprinkles some seasoning into the water. Two and a half hours later, he transfers it to a Dutch oven. It looks a lot like chicken.

He bathes the raccoon with his own combination of barbecue sauces. Stuffs the cavity with canned sweet potatoes and pours the rest of the juice from the can over the breast.

"I follow the same tradition I watched when I was little. My uncle would cook 'em all day, saving the littlest coon for me," he says.

"If stores could sell coon, we’d run out of them. It's a long-hidden secret that they're so good."

After several hours, a delicious smell — roast beef? chicken? — drifts from the oven.

A mingling of garlic and onion and sweet-smelling spices.

And when Washington opens the lid, a tiny leg falls easily from the bone.

"See that? Tender as a mother's love,” he says with a grin. "Good eatin’."

And the taste?

Definitely not chicken.

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