Bear’s Grease, Bullfrog Legs, Back Strap of Wild Hog, Armadillo Cheeks, Roasted Coot, Fried Mink, Turtle Claws. . . And Did We Mention, for the Main Course, a Nice Braised Shank of Free-Range Possum?
The South's true country cuisine rises again
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“What we have here is a radial pattern of wild meats,” Jeff Jackson says, pointing his spatula at a cast-iron skillet. Four small mounds of mangled protein, each a different shade and texture, lie in a perfect parabola, like tissue samples from a crime lab. “First you’ll eat them,” Jackson says. “Then I’ll tell you what they are.” Lifting my fork, I probe a mushroom cap brimming with a gray, speckled, liverish substance. To my right, Jackson’s wife, Phyllis, picks at her salad and watches. “Back before we were married, we spent a whole summer living off roadkill,” she says. “I remember one time, we ate a mink. That was one tough little animal. Can’t say I liked the taste, either. There was this urine flavor, like the kidneys hadn’t filtered out all the impurities.” Jeff settles into the chair across from me. “Leeches were disappointing too,” he sighs. “Tasted just like the marinade. Didn’t have any leech flavor at all.”
Glancing up at their expectant faces, I feel a wave of peer pressure such as I haven’t experienced since junior high. It’s early April, and the air is thick with the scent of sweet gums and pines, of things busy being born and busy dying. I have come to Georgia to expand my palate, to see what pockets of resistance remain in the South to the advancing army of Whoppers and Big Macs. But I was hoping to ease into the topic more gradually. The Jacksons, I thought, could offer a sober, academic accounting of the politics and economics of hunting and gathering for one’s own table. After all, Jeff, 60, is a professor of wildlife management in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Georgia, and Phyllis, 55, rounds out her homemaking and carpentry by documenting the vegetation of the Smoky Mountains for the University of Georgia’s Center for Remote Sensing and Mapping. But scientific dispassion, I find, makes its own gustatory demands.
Two centuries ago, an explorer would have thought nothing of sitting down at a stranger’s table and eating whatever flesh was placed before him. When Indian guides led British explorer John Lawson through the Carolina wilderness in 1701, he dined on beaver, polecat, and bear, among other delicacies. (“A roasted or barbakued Turkey, eaten with Bears Fat, is held a good Dish,” Lawson wrote in his diary. “And indeed, I approve of it very well; for the Bears Grease is the sweetest and least offensive to the StomachÉof any Fat of Animals I ever tasted.”) As late as 1909, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce served persimmon beer, turtle soup, and barbecued possum to the president-elect. “Surely the famous smile of William Howard Taft never kindled across a happier evening,” a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote. Years later, another reporter at the paper mused: “It was believed to be the last time that a U.S. president supped on marsupial.”
But in the decades since, the American diet has cut loose from its wilderness moorings. I grew up in Oklahoma, where southern cooking once left off and cowboy carbo-loading began. Yet after two years spent researching and writing a book on clandestine southern traditions, I am led to believe that everyone eats the same stuff. To most northerners, the South is the last refuge of strange food—of Moon Pies and pig organs and pickled eggs bobbing pinkly next to the cash register. But from what I’ve seen, southerners are the least adventurous eaters of all. Their cities are girdled with an extra layer of fast food, their vegetables invariably canned or overcooked, their palates tuned to the twin wavelengths of ketchup and processed meat. And so I’ve left the beltways and strip malls and gone in search of something more savory.
Now, chewing on another rich yet fibrous flap of mystery muscle, I wonder what it is, exactly, that makes something inedible. Is it just a matter of physiology, of nutrient deficiencies and taste-bud densities, or is it more psychological—a habit of mind shaped by culture, temperament, and parents telling us to eat our vegetables? Taste is a mind-body problem of the most intractable kind, and nothing brings it into focus as vividly as eating something unknown and potentially disgusting. Jeff, smiling faintly, informs me that this particular mouthful is armadillo meat. Why should that make my throat constrict and my stomach leap into my diaphragm? Does the fact that some southerners call this “possum on the half shell” make it any less palatable? The answers may determine whether true southern food can ever rise again.
The Jacksons, I’m happy to report, no longer content themselves with roadkill—though Jeff says he might eat a monkey if it was served to him. In fact, they exemplify a new kind of southern land ethic, one that is cosmopolitan yet self-sufficient, discerning yet omnivorous. In their house, everything has a dual purpose: The chimney is a nest for swifts; the cabinets, made of salvaged oak, are a lesson in recycling; the pear trees are food for deer and an orchard of heirloom species. Whenever a hunter leases his land, Jeff takes him around front to see the pyramid of deer skulls nailed to the front of the house. Arranged in order of size, with the largest on top, the skulls are a point of pride—an austere decoration, a warning to trespassers, and above all, a teaching aid. See those? Jeff says to the hunters, pointing to the ones with horns just budding from their foreheads. Those are less than a year old. Don’t kill those.
One afternoon, Jeff takes me on a tour of his 350 acres, a patchwork of hardwood forest, hay meadow, and fruit trees outside the town of Arnoldsville. With his graying beard and kindly manner, his beat-up hat and blue eyes that go wide with feigned amazement, he looks like a latter-day Merlin. Living off the land isn’t worth the bother anymore, he declares—”In terms of protein per effort, you can’t justify it in any way”—but hunting still has its rewards. Jackson believes hunting is the missing link in most Americans’ environmental education. Boys once learned how a forest works from spending hours in it, keeping perfectly still. But from 1975 to 1996, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, annual sales in hunting licenses dropped from 16.5 million to 15.2 million, and the percentage of Americans who hunt dropped even further. To Jeff, the main effect has been a rise not so much in ignorance as in sentimentality.
Take our attitudes toward deer, he says. As hunters have dwindled, deer have multiplied: There are nearly as many whitetails now as when the Pilgrims arrived, though only four percent of America’s old-growth forests are still standing. As a result, songbirds and small mammals are being browsed out of house and home, rare plants are under attack, and hundreds of thousands of motorists crash into deer every year. And yet when new hunting permits are granted in places like Hilton Head, South Carolina, to try to control deer, wildlife-conservation groups protest and file lawsuits. “Deer aren’t stupid,” Jeff insists. “They realize that the rules have changed. Subdivisions used to be where they got shot; now it’s where they’re safe.” As for the Jacksons, 95 percent of the red meat they eat is venison. Whenever the freezer is empty, Jeff simply wanders out into his meadow with a shotgun. “If I see a deer, I’ll shoot it,” he says.
The next morning Jeff has a class to teach in Athens, and I have hundreds of miles to drive by noon. But we head into the woods before dawn anyway, to stalk wild turkeys. Hunters sometimes go an entire season without bagging a bird. Nevertheless, only minutes from the house Jeff signals for me to stop. “Hear that?” he whispers, as a chortling sound echoes through the oaks. “That’s the love song of the male turkey.” He sits down, pulls a small cedar box from his pocket, and gently draws the lid across the frame, mimicking the female turkey’s high, piping response. A few calls and responses later, he lifts his 12-gauge double-barrel and sends a ragged blast ripping through the trees. “This was an efficient hunt,” he says, carrying the turkey back to the house by its feet. “It didn’t take time away from other income-generating activities.” He wraps the bird in a garbage bag, throws it into the trunk of his car, and strips off his camouflage. Beneath his canvas coveralls, a suit and tie emerge perfectly clean and unwrinkled, ready for his morning class.
As I head south from the Jacksons’ across the Piedmont hills, the country clubs and subdivisions give way to brick-and-magnolia county seats and the tarmac turns to red clay. “This program is brought to you by The Last Resort Grill,” an Atlanta station announces, “featuring nouvelle southern cuisine in a casually elegant setting enhanced by the work of local artists.”
Even as hunters become an endangered species, more people are choosing to have their wilderness served to them on a platter. Not long ago, catfish were considered fit only for other bottom-feeders; now U.S. farms grow more than half a billion pounds every year. Crawfish gross on average $50 million annually in Louisiana alone, and other animals are making the same transition. In the last 15 years, bison ranches, deer ranches, pigeon, alligator, and turtle farms have sprung up across the South, and urbanites have begun to develop a taste for game. In Boston, at Savenor’s Market, kangaroo meat sells for $15.99 a pound, camel for $39.99, lion for $19.99, and zebra for $39.99. All of it is raised on game farms in the United States.
Over the next few days I meander through Georgia’s sand hills and along the coastal plain, gathering wild meats as I go. In Alapaha I talk to a man named Ken Holyoak who traps turtles for the voodoo trade and other religious purposes. “The Haitians, they put the turtle on a pedestal and worship him,” he says. “The Cubans tie him to their stomach and dance around.” He also claims to have perfected the first system for mass-producing bullfrogs. (I leave with one of each.) I investigate the cult of the wild ramp—”the world’s most potent onion”—and watch a young man called Big Foot shoot, skin, and gut a wild hog. (He gives me the “back strap” to consume later.) But to find a true test for the modern American palate, I have to cross the border into Alabama, favored dwelling place of the creature once savored by William Howard Taft.
Opossums are America’s great “underutilized meat,” Jeff Jackson told me: plentiful, easy to catch, and twice as high in protein as beef cattle, pound for pound. Opossums were here before the Ice Age and will likely be here long after global warming. Like frogs and squirrels, they were a subsistence food for generations, their fat a godsend to calorie-starved settlers. For years, Appalachian families fattened one up every fall for Thanksgiving dinner. But when packaged foods came in and fatty foods went out, marsupials were the first items dropped from the menu. What culinary currency the animal still has is due almost entirely to one man: Frank Basil Clark.
Born in the North Carolina hills in 1930 and raised on anything he could kill, Clark moved to Clanton, Alabama, as a young man and managed a drive-in theater. It was there, in 1969, that a thought struck him with the force of revelation: “America has put a man on the moon, but it hasn’t done a thing with the possum.”
Clark was living in a mobile home at the time, and he had no real experience as a revolutionary, but he knew this thing was bigger than just one man. Pooling his meager resources, he founded the Possum Growers & Breeders Association of America in 1971 and hatched plans to breed a superpossum. He organized possum beauty contests and crowned a Possum Queen. He convinced the U.S. Agency for International Development to look into raising possums for food and physically handed a particularly handsome specimen to Richard Nixon during a presidential campaign stop in Birmingham in 1972. Most of all, he flooded the country with his bumper stickers, turning his motto into a redneck rallying cry: “Eat More Possum.” The possum campaign grew beyond any rational bounds. By the mid-1980s the PGBAA’s membership had ballooned to more than 100,000, and Clanton was an obligatory photo-op for presidential candidates. “George Bush Sr. said if he was elected, me and a possum could spend the night in Abraham Lincoln’s bed,” Clark remembers.
Unfortunately, by the time I arrive in Clanton, the possum madness has died down. Buoyed by his celebrity, Clark served two terms as mayor, from 1976 to 1984, but realpolitik seems to have let the air out of his possum propaganda. In the late eighties he took a job installing telephone lines and left town for a spell. He’s back now, still spinning the same spiel, but PGBAA membership is way down, and even the bumper stickers have started to grow scarce. “I lost a bunch of good possum growers to them crazies,” Clark says, referring to activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who “wouldn’t leave [him] alone” for a while. “You’re not one of them crazies, are you?”
Bulb-nosed and rheumy-eyed, with a widening gut, Clark proudly shows me the swimming pool he had built as mayor, and the nice new curbs in the black part of town. But when I ask him for some possum meat for the road, he looks away uncomfortably. “If I start sellin’ possums,” he says, “the other growers will think the market is bad.” And that would presumably lead to a frenzied sell-off—the possum world’s own Black Tuesday. Eventually we have to drive out to his friend Barney’s house to find an animal. “I don’t like to eat ’em much,” Barney says, dropping the writhing animal in Clark’s cage. “I just like to catch ’em in the woods and then watch ’em with their babies.”
These days, Clark’s son Tom does most of the possum breeding in town—though he’s shifted his sights from feeding the poor to starting a possum theme park. Not long ago, a church in Opelika called to see if he might bring a couple of possums to a wild-game cookout they were hosting. There would be a thousand guests or more, they told him, and crow and squirrel would be on the menu as well. “I picked some nice ones ahead of time and fattened ’em up good,” Tom says. “But when I called the preacher later, he said people hardly touched ’em. “We had a lot of folks,’ he told me,” but we had too much possum.'”
What happened? Why can Americans stomach catfish and crawfish—not to mention scrapple and Twinkies and electric-blue Gatorade—but not possum? Thirty years ago, the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss divided all food into a “culinary triangle”—the raw, the cooked, and the rotten—and then examined how cultures deal with each category. The French have little tolerance for raw food, he wrote, while Italians love it. Americans can’t stand rot—after D day, GIs sometimes destroyed Normandy dairies because their cheeses smelled like decaying corpses—whereas some American Indians preferred a rotted buffalo carcass to a freshly killed one. “The cooking of a society,” Levi-Strauss concluded, “is a language in which it unconsciously translates its structure.” The most famous case of dietary prejudice, if only because so many cultures have had to grapple with it, is in the Bible. “These shall ye not eat,” Leviticus declares, and proceeds to list half the animals of ancient Israel: camels, coneys, hares, and swine; fish without fins or scales; eagles, ospreys, ravens, and owls; hawks, swans, pelicans, and storks; herons and bats and “all fowls that creep”; weasels, mice, tortoises, and ferrets; chameleons, lizards, snails, and moles. (Grasshoppers, for some reason, are just fine—but only in Yemen.) Jews who keep kosher still follow Leviticus to the letter, and anthropologists have made the book a favorite case study. Yet despite many elaborate explanations ranging from food safety to cultural xenophobia, no one has quite puzzled it out.
Except, perhaps, Calvin Schwabe. In 1979 Schwabe took a look at all this irrational smirking and gagging and decided it had gone far enough. As a veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, with years of experience in the Third World, he’d seen too many people starving in places where food was everywhere to be found. Schwabe’s answer was admirably practical: He wrote a cookbook. The most disgusting cookbook ever written. Unmentionable Cuisine gathered nearly 400 recipes from all over the world—from baked bat and stuffed dormouse to stewed cat and Cajun muskrat. The only criteria was that the recipes offend someone. (Turkey testicles are apparently a fail-safe dish, as long as diners don’t know what they’re eating.)
Schwabe’s aim was less sensationalist than revolutionary. “Some 3,500 puppies and kittens are born every hour in the United States,” he wrote, “and the surplus among them represents at least 120 million pounds per year of potentially edible meat now being totally wasted.” When thousands of Americans go hungry every year, and when the Romans considered suckling puppy a dish “fit for the gods,” Schwabe’s conclusion was obvious: Our prejudices don’t just define us; they can kill us.
Back in March, before I’d fully hatched my Strange Southern Foods tour, I put a call in to the Big Canoe, Georgia, satellite office of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Where could I find a chef, I asked, who specializes in “low-country cooking,” the sophisticated cuisine woven together from African, American Indian, and European sources that plantation owners like Jefferson Davis once enjoyed? “Oh, dear,” the woman at the other end said. “There aren’t many places like that left.” After a pause she directed me to The Horseradish Grill, in the heart of Buckhead, one of Atlanta’s gilt-edged eastern neighborhoods. I called David Berry, the Grill’s 32-year-old chef, and asked him if he would make me a meal.
There’s one catch, I added. I’ll be bringing the meat.
And so, on a cool, sunny Friday afternoon, completing the circle from Georgia to Alabama and back, I find myself waiting on the loading platform in back of the Grill, holding a bloody Ziploc bag full of bullfrog, wild hog, turtle, and possum. Berry emerges in chef’s whites, his red beard closely trimmed, his manner crisp and professional. He grabs the bag, flips it over, squeezes it pensively, and examines the turtle claws, jutting under the plastic, with a herpetologist’s eye. “All right,” he says. “We’ll do it up nice for you. Maybe add some southern vegetables.” Then he smiles: “I hope you’ve got an open mind.”
Five hours later, after a shave and a shower and a quick change into my least rumpled traveling clothes, I take my seat in Chef Berry’s dining room. The decor could be called Nouvelle Hunting Lodge: The ceiling is vaulted, a fire blazes in the corner, mullioned windows are set off by bright oils on the wall, and jazz wafts down from hidden speakers. “Let me suggest a Sancerre,” the sommelier says. “It’s a great summer wine from the Loire Valley, with a bit of tang to stand up to what you’ll be eating.” Then he laughs, despite himself, and leans in closer. “The truth is I have no idea what to suggest. About the only thing I’ve done with frogs is flatten’em with a post as a kid.”
That thought is lodged in my mind when the first course arrives, but it’s hard to connect it with the thing on the plate. On the one hand, no meat is quite so luridly anatomical as a pair of frog legs. Stripped of their slinky tights, every ligament and tendon, muscle and articulated joint looks ready to leap across the room. But the taste is worlds away from the swamp. Tender and buttery, with a subtle, amphibian chew, it’s so mild the Sancerre almost overwhelms it. “I sauted it for three or four minutes and then drizzled it with a lemon-caper, brown-butter sauce,” Berry explains, settling in next to me. “Frog doesn’t need a lot more than that.”
Next up is the turtle soup, and with it a more jolting image: Ken Holyoak, the frog and turtle farmer, slouching against his truck at dusk a few days earlier, watching as I try to butcher a six-pound softshell. “You ever cleaned one of them before?” he asks me. “That’s one nasty job.” Half an hour and two broken knives later, I’m carving out the meaty thighs, prying open the joints, and reaching in to tear out the viscera. By the time I’m done, I’m actually humming to myself. The tune is “Passionate Kisses.”
If the frog legs were a still life, this soup is pure abstraction. The broth is moss-green and perfectly limpid, scattered with flakes of scallion and cubes of white and brown protein. There’s no trace of ornery musculature, just a rich, tranquil flavor—a mixture of brine and fern and slumbering beast, as ancestral as chicken soup. “It’s an old delicacy,” Berry says, “so I didn’t try to get too fancy. I just soaked the meat for a while, to pull out some of the blood, then simmered it in onions, garlic, celery, and a little carrot.”
It’s tasty, but Berry still wouldn’t serve it in the restaurant. The problem is partly cultural and partly political. Like every other state, Georgia forbids restauranteurs to serve game or freshwater fish unless it’s raised on a farm. “I can serve Chilean sea bass any day,” Berry says. “But if I serve largemouth bass from a local lake, the health department could shut me down.”
If Berry can’t serve an acknowledged classic like turtle soup, what hope is there for my last dish?
The plate arrives looking like a hillbilly coat of arms: a proud possum shank emblazoned on a shield of grits, flanked by asparagus fleurs-de-lis and chevrons of wild hog tenderloin. “Gusta Plus Possium,” the motto above it might read. Up until now I’ve tried to stick to things that a modern diner might reasonably adopt, under the right circumstances. But this possum has me worried. On the day that he killed it, Clark assured me that its fat was 100 percent polyunsaturated. “It’ll clean your arteries like a Roto-Rooter,” he said. But mostly I remember the possum’s inscrutable, prehistoric face, its way of hissing and spitting when cornered, and its long, naked tail. “That’s a natural air-conditioner!” Clark explained. “The possum licks its tail, the blood circulates through it, and then the cool air cools it off.” Somehow that image made it no more appetizing.
I start out slowly, with Berry watching my every facial tick. First the grilled hog—tender, smoky, and more flavorful than any pork loin I’ve ever tasted. Then the vegetables and grits (the latter a creamy revelation). And then, finally, the shank: big as my foot and dripping with thick possum gravy. I hold my breath at first but then slowly break into a smile. The gravy is strong and gamy, but with an uncomplicated charm, like something a cowboy might get served from a chuck wagon, and the meat is meltingly tender. “It’s all in the preparation,” Berry says. “I braised it very, very slowly in a little veal and chicken stock. I put in some onion, carrots, celery, mushrooms, and red wine, too. But that taste is all possum.”
All possum. The words trigger an odd reaction in my mouth. It starts with the texture: Fluttering pockets of fat are interleaved throughout the muscle fibers. Rubbery and slick, they bring to mind countless childhood dinners when my parents made me eat the fat from my pork chops. Then there’s the aftertaste: that feral, faintly glandular presence rising through the sauce. This is an ancient animal, it tells me, one that was scurrying through primeval underbrush long before my ancestors, or their taste buds, had even evolved.
A solipsist might conclude that taste is all in the mind, but that’s too easy. Our taste buds are just chemical receptors, designed to detect sweet and sour, salty and bitter, and no amount of prejudice can make them call a lemon sweet. Every taste is a story, a mystery for our minds to solve. Depending on the taster, the result may be tragedy or farce, hors d’oeuvre or abomination. Or, if we’re lucky, something beyond categorization altogether.
A few years ago my father-in-law was driving to Nebraska to visit his 90-year-old mother. He was fiddling with the radio dials, he says, looking down for just a second, when something hit the windshield with a terrific crash. Being a man of steady nerves and stoic Swedish character, he calmly maneuvered the car to the side of the highway and climbed out. There, lying in the road, was a wild turkey. He stared at the bird. The bird stared back. Then he picked it up and threw it in the trunk. No sense letting a thing like that go to waste.
When he arrived, he handed the bird over to his mother. She took it without comment—like him, she’d seen stranger things on the farm growing up. But that night, when he was dressing the bird, he found a surprise. Reaching inside like a magician, he pulled out an egg the size of his fist, still intact.
“What about that?” she asked him.
“Fry that up for breakfast,” he said.
Long before I went to Georgia, that story served as a blunt reminder of my own culinary prejudices. I might think of myself as an adventurous eater, but my tastes had their limits too: The bird I would eat; the egg, never. Now I’m not so sure. Had I joined my father-in-law for breakfast that day and not known where the egg came from, I would have eaten it over-easy or sunny-side up. But he would have had the better meal. For an egg, eaten without prejudice, is like any other under the sun. But an egg with a story behind it, whether of a people, their history, or of a turkey crossing the road—that egg tastes like nothing you’ve ever imagined.