By Mel Tharp © 1985
Issue: January, 1985
I am by nature, very tolerant and open-minded about food. I have very few taboos. While in the foreign service, I ate raw fish in Japan, broiled iguana in Panama and sea urchin pie in Chile. I have this gut feeling that the possibility of world famine and ensuing anarchy is very real for the future. If this means eating grubs, crickets and scorpions, thus, shall the table be prepared. Yet, even this obsession for survival wavered when my friend, Woodrow Horseman, approached me about cooking for the possum social at Wolfpen Creek.
Woodrow and I are considered pretty fair campfire chefs. Our services are in demand on a regular basis, and we have presided over about every type of outing from fish fries to burgoo suppers. Possums on the other hand were something entirely different from anything I had tackled previously. Woodrow assured me that possum cookery was not a difficult art to master.
Although roast possum (or opossum) is considered a traditional dish, the animal had acquired some bad repute as a carrion eater. Much of the possum's adverse publicity has come from television shows like Beverly Hillbillies. (Granny's pickled possum kidneys.) I believe that every Southerner above the age of five has heard that old chestnut about the possum eating his way in the back and out the front end of dead horses. I swear that I have heard that from born-and-bred, confirmed city dwellers, who have never seen a live horse.
Point of fact, the possum is omnivorous. It lives on a diet of small insects, frogs, rabbits; it may stop to pick berries from a bush; or it may climb a tree to rob a birds nest of young and eggs, or to eat a ripe persimmon. It is also an incorrigible chicken thief, which brings us to the motivation behind possum night at Wolfpen Creek.
Wolfpen is a rural community up in the Cumberlands and while the people do have the basic modern conveniences such as electricity and paved roads, they live culturally pretty much as did their grandparents and great-grandparents. They are a close knit people in a social sense. They pitch in to help their neighbors at barn raisings, hog killings, or to assist at whatever crisis might arise. The crisis in this case was a plague of possums which was creating havoc with the farmer's chicken flocks.
So a possum hunt was organized. A nightly roundup of possums was held for five consecutive nights. The possums were treed and taken alive and penned up in anticipation of the weekend social. Woodrow was contacted on Wednesday about doing the cooking and on Friday he invited me to assist him. It was very gracious of him to give me 24 hours notice. After all, he made it clear that there wouldn't be much to cooking a few possums. That statement will take its place in history along with other famous last words.
When Woodrow picked me up at my house Saturday morning, his pickup truck was packed high with pots, pans, ladles, spoons, roasting pans and every other conceivable utensil that might be used in food preparation. We have learned from experience that when cooking for these kind of functions, you run into many and varied types of problems. It's hard to anticipate what kind of equipment you might need.
It was a forty-mile drive to Wolfpen, and although the roads were paved, they were narrow and very crooked. The supper was to be held at the old Wolfpen school building. The school had been converted into a community social center. "All we have to do is cook the meal," Woodrow assured me. "They'll have the possums all killed and dressed for us. I got a bushel of yams and we'll make them some yellow corn bread and coleslaw. There won't be much to it. I don't know why they wanted us here this early." It was after 11 o'clock when we pulled in at the Wolfpen school and it quickly became obvious why they wanted us to arrive early.
The good citizens of Wolfpen had performed the task of killing and skinning the possums. That was it. The animals dangled by their tails from the limb of a maple tree, the pinkish bodies spinning and swinging like macabre ornaments in the mid-morning sun. The possums hadn't even been eviscerated and the heads were still attached. There are few things less charming than 35 undrawn, grinning possums swinging from the bough of a sturdy maple.
The skinning party had disbanded, leaving only one old gentleman to let us in the building. "I'm the janitor," he explained. "I been here all morning and I ain't even fed my hogs. I'm going home. I reckon I'll leave it with you. If you need anything, I live about a mile below the bridge." With this final consideration, he jumped in his car and tore off up the road in a cloud of dust. He never gave us time to ask which bridge.
Actually, dressing a possum isn't such an arduous job once you set your mind to the task. Possum is a very fat animal and you dress it much as you would a suckling pig. You simply remove the entrails, head and tail. Next, wash thoroughly inside and out with hot water. Cover with cold water to which has been added one cup of salt and one cup of apple cider vinegar. Let stand at least three hours. Whenever possible, let stand overnight. Obviously, this was not possible in our case.
"Wait!" Woodrow cried out, and started sorting through the discarded entrails. "I need the livers for my stuffing. They enhance the flavor." I hadn't heard stuffing mentioned previously but then, Woodrow cooks with an aura of spontaneity. I'm used to him making improvisations on the menu. "We'll stuff these possums with my special stuffing."
Here is the recipe for Woodrow's Special Possum Stuffing. (1 possum) 1 large onion, chopped fine. Possum liver (optional). 1 cup bread crumbs. 1 pod red pepper, chopped. Dash Worcestershire sauce. 1 hard boiled egg, chopped fine. Salt to taste.
Brown onion in fat. Add finely chopped liver and fry until liver is tender. Add crumbs, red pepper, Worcestershire sauce, egg, salt and water to moisten. Mix until ingredients are blended. Stuff possum with possum stuffing. Stomach cavity of possum should be closed using string or skewers. Roast in moderate oven (350 degrees F) about 1.5 hours or until possum is tender and brown. Serves 10.
The kitchen was well-ordered with plenty of oven and range space. By mid-afternoon, the possums were roasting and sputtering in the oven while Woodrow and I took turns basting them with a mixture of cooking sherry and possum fat. As they browned in the pans, they looked more and more like succulent roasting piglets.
By late afternoon, the possums were out of the oven and cooling on some sheet pans which Woodrow had purchased at an Army surplus store. As if on cue, people started arriving. Now, in contrast to earlier in the day, we had an abundance of help. Men started setting up folding tables, while several of the ladies present started carrying food out to be arrayed buffet style.
I put the finishing touches on the baked yams with a brown sugar glaze while Woodrow carved up the corn bread in man-sized chunks. From the size of the crowd, I was worried that only another miracle such as the loaves and fishes would feed this multitude. My worries were needless.
As if by magic, plates of country ham and fried chicken started to appear. The ladies of Wolfpen had come through with a vengeance. While roast possum might be the piece de resistance, they had no intentions of letting their culinary skills go unappreciated. There were plenty of cakes and pies on hand to satisfy the sweetest tooth.
I'm happy to say, the roast possum was well-received. Most of the natives of Wolfpen are connoisseurs of possum flesh and they were gracious with their accolades. Even the, old janitor complimented us on the meal and invited us to his house for Sunday dinner. If I ever find out which bridge he lives just below, I might take him up. I have long-since forgotten my aversion to possum. I find the meat somewhat like pork but with a more pronounced flavor. Possum is slightly gamy but not strong. It is very tender.
My sojourn in Wolfpen proved two things to me. First of all; it proved that possum is a wholesome, nutritious food and should be considered an important source of protein. This also applies to small animals such as raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels, and wild rabbits. Tame rabbits are raised commercially as food. These animals could be raised commercially as a protein source. Certainly, we need to seek out an alternative food supply when we stop to think that it takes 30 pounds of grain protein to produce one pound of beef protein in cattle.
I was impressed by one other fact. The people of Wolfpen are not afraid of washing dishes. The food was served on washable plastic plates with real “sho nuff” silverware. The leftover food was taken home. The only leftover waste consisted of biodegradable garbage. Evidently, the Wolfpen folks believe in the golden principle of packaging. One bag of today's groceries produces two bags of trash.