There's talk of expanding the Post to accommodate bigger crowds. Why mess with small-town perfection?
"Sit down, have something to eat if you can, talk to some people."
There were fifty-three raccoons in the Delafield American Legion Post 196 on Saturday, January 29 -- and the only person up on the table screaming was an unhappy baby.
Since 1927, a similar scene has been unfolding every year around this time, though the scale hasn't always been so grand. What started as a private hunting party feeding a handful of people has blossomed into a feast that cooks up 300 pounds of raccoon for hundreds of people, local and otherwise.
Raccoon is one of those animals -- like squirrel, possum, and nutria -- that gets pigeonholed as hick food in modern conversation. The Simpsons, recognized arbiter of the national cultural consciousness, has Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel scooping up possum roadkill for his daughter's "elegant" wedding feast. Coon (as its devotees call it) just doesn't get the same credit as other game animals.
This hasn't, however, always been the case. Mark Twain, in 1880's A Tramp Abroad, lists raccoon as one of the 80-some American food items he missed while touring Europe on foot.
It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one -- a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive -- as follows: ..."
'Possum and coon are together near the top of the second column. And only someone of Twain's wit could call the massive list, in total, "modest." (Twain's list is the subject of the 2010 non-fiction book Twain's Feast by Andrew Beahrs.)
Sue Schiller has a raccoon hat and her husband, Chuck Holland, tells me that he's pretty sure no one's ever gotten a picture of it in any published articles on the coon feed. I'm happy to oblige; it's a fine hat, and the other reporter milling about, taking notes and photographs, doesn't seem to be rushing to it.
This event isn't under the radar, no sir. Plenty of articles have been published in newspapers small and large. The Chicago food blog "Sky Full of Bacon" produced a very nice short documentary on the event. There were two members of the print media at this year's feed, and I'll just say that I was the only one buying a ticket, getting in line, and actually taking a bite.
And how could I not? Organizer and grande dame Lillian McNulty stands near the cash register and front door, greeting people as they go by and serving as curator of the event's long history. She's been there for most of it; her late husband Tom started the event to raise funds for the local youth baseball team, and since his death in 1991, she's been running the show.
She's a little woman (but not frail), with a voice that's impossibly tiny (but not weak). Saying hello to Lil is itself worth the ticket price and more. When she gave me the advice up at the top, I was pretty sure it was meant for me as a newcomer and member of the media -- but I suspect it's the same encouragement she'd give anyone, and you just have to abide by that kind of dedication.
The line is long. Really long. The ticket is cheap: $10 for adults, $5 for kids. There's stuffing and mashed potatoes, cole slaw and a gloriously pungent sauerkraut. There's always another protein -- a guiltily yummy meatloaf this year -- for those who prefer something "more traditional." That's an insult to the true tradition of the feed, if you ask me.
The raccoon is cooked slow, with all the usual aromatics plus herbs, spices, and apples. Chopped up into roughly equal hunks, the raccoon comes out more or less just like corned beef. It's maybe a little tougher, and a little oilier, but the taste is wonderful. I'm quite sure that a mess o' coon, tossed on a plate with some potatoes and egg, would make a killer hash.
The most surprising part of the evening was the veritable glut of social media presence. D'Arcy Rea and Dan Peloza of the Elmhurst. Ill., blog Food Mongrel were there, live-tweeting the event from start to finish. On my way out, I spied food writer Louisa Chu with Cathy Lambrecht of LTHForum. (You might know Louisa as occasional guide to Tony Bourdain during his Chicago episode.) All of the above have been to multiple coon feeds.
But at the table, I chatted with Don Camplin, the former president of the Waukesha County Conservation Alliance and current member of the DNR Congress. He's a 35-year regular at the coon feed, and told all sorts of tales about Tom and the history of the feed. It was a pleasure to be able to learn real food history over a plate of the most unlikely delicacy I've ever eaten.
After all, that's what Lil said to do.