Tag: Joy of Cooking – Mississippi Sideboard
People who are paid to apply on such matters have theorized that the reason we don’t have herds of brontosaurs trampling in our swamps is due not only to Alvarez’s event, but also to egg-eating opossums. One would think we would be grateful for this service to our fellow mammals, but as in the case of the pigeon (which brought Noah the most significant tidal measurements in human history), the opossum has been served unapologetically at meals throughout the South since humanity appeared.
Southern culinary icons tend to be traditional and domestic, the comforting produce of home gardens and kitchens. Those game dishes brought in from the woods and fields have come in recent years to play a surprisingly diminished role on our tables because fewer people are hunting these days, particularly for sustenance, and while most, if not all, might consider having opossums on the table a disgusting prospect at best, The simple fact of the matter remains that opossums have long been esteemed for their porcine taste. An early recommendation comes from John Boynton, a New England resident who came to Mississippi (near Vicksburg) to teach in 1836. Boynton was amazed at the “Old Southwest,” writing to his father, “It would take more than 19 letters to tell you half of what I have seen in a week.” He hunted turkeys and deer, as well as an exotic animal: “(or) opossums for the scores. I had one for dinner today, first class.”
Faulkner included opossums on the Sartoris family’s Thanksgiving table in Flags in the Dust, his first novel set in Yoknapatawpha County (called “Yocona”). Written in 1927, the novel is set just after World War I and focuses on the once-powerful, influential and aristocratic Sartoris family struggling with decline but still clinging to the vestiges of wealth. Here is Faulkner’s description of the food:
tag. Simon appeared again, with Isom in procession now, and for the next five minutes they moved constantly between the kitchen and the dining room with a roast turkey and a cured ham and a plate of quail and another of squirrel, and a baked opossum on a bed of sweet potatoes; and Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes, and pickled pumpkin and beetroot and rice and hominy, and hot biscuits and whipped biscuits and long, thin sticks of cornbread and canned strawberry and pear, and quince and apple jelly, and stewed blackberry and blueberry jam.
By far the strongest recommendation for the opossum comes from Bill Neal, who is widely regarded by many as the dean of Southern cuisine, the man who played a key role in elevating Southern foods to national prominence and continues to influence new generations of Southern culinary artists. In his authoritative Southern Cooking, Neal begins his post on the opossum by saying, “All Southerners, black, white or native, who know the roasted opossum with sweet potatoes. The two components are inseparable; The dish is practically a cultural symbol of regional pride in the Piedmont and mountain areas.” It continues with a recipe from Camp Cookery (1910) by Horace Kephart that says: “To call our opossum opossum, outside of a scientific treatise, is an affectation. Possum is its name wherever it is known and hunted, this country ended. He’s not good until you have freezing weather; nor should it be served without sweet potatoes, except in desperate limbs.” (Possum season in Mississippi is October through February.)
The recipe reproduced here comes from another authority, Joy of Cooking by Erma Rombauer (13th edition, 1975). Note that the recipe recommends “feeding” it (i.e. capturing the animal before slaughter and feeding it soft food not only to give the meat a less playful flavor but to purge the opossum, which is a notorious scavenger), and while a good southerner will always serve opossum with sweet potatoes, the Rombauers were from St. Louis, which is marginally southern and urban, so turnip greens were probably suggested as they are, like the opossum, an iconic southern dish.
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