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How to Roast a Possum
There are few kinds of critters that roam the countryside that I haven’t eaten at least once. Deer, squirrels, armadillos, raccoons, wild hogs and the like. I haven’t always liked them, but sometimes it was all we had. In the late 80’s, my folks lost their jobs at the mill due to a strike and if we didn’t they didn’t grow it or kill it, we didn’t eat. But one dish that stands out from the rest is roasted possum and sweet potatoes.
Possums get little love. But if a man has a will to do it, they can be eaten. The Virginia opossum walked with the dinosaurs. It is a semi-arboreal marsupial, which means it lives mostly on the ground but can climb trees if it so chooses, and carries its young in a pouch, like a kangaroo. It has beady eyes that glow red, a white face, pointy snout, prehensile tail, silvery hair, and fifty teeth.
Folks have been badmouthing possums as long as Europeans have strolled this land. James Smith of the Jamestown Colony said of the creature, “An opossum hath a head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the Bigness of a Cat.” Though he doesn’t flatter her with regard to her looks, he does extol her motherly nature, “Under her belly she hath a bagge wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”
When I was a kid I got tired of having to eat better than half a dozen fox squirrels to get full, so my cousin Matt and I decided to catch a possum for Grandmother to cook. After dusk, we took Papaw’s coon dog, Cricket, and headed to the woods.
Cricket was a good coon dog, but he had a tendency to run right past his quarry once he had treed it. His singsong voice would go into overdrive when he chased his mark up the side of an old water oak, then he’d get so excited he’d run a tenth of a mile further before doubling back and baying like a Banshee. We learned to just stand still when we heard his treeing voice and then see where he ended up after all the commotion.
High Life, a streaky white and tan hound with a mess of scars around his snout, was Papaw’ best coon dog but we chose to take Cricket because he didn’t seem to know the difference between a trash panda and a possum. We’d know the difference because when a dog gets on their trail, a raccoon will find a high tree to perch in. Whereas a possum isn’t that particular and will run up the nearest bush it comes to. Then all a body has to do is shake a branch and the possum will fall right out on the ground.
“You tote the sack,” I told Matt. “When we knock one out of a tree I’ll have to hold the dog. Cricket will kill it or mess it up so bad it won’t be worth eatin’.”
“What if it tries to bite me?”
“It won’t,” I says. “When he falls he’ll just sull up and play dead. Then I’ll knocked it in the head.”
“What if he wakes up though?”
“He ain’t gonna’ wake up. Possums pass clean out. They can’t help it. But we need to tree one and knock it out. Can’t try to corner one on the ground. They get real brave on the ground.”
“Why don’t we just shoot it?”
“You can’t just eat a possum straight out of the wild. Don’t you know what they eat?!?” I says. “We have to put it in live trap and feed it for a few days. Flush all that nastiness out of it.”
After half an hour or so, Cricket took off like blue lightning and start singing his soul song.
“He’s on somethin’,” Matt yelled.
Cricket took off towards a persimmon tree on the bank of the creek where Tommy Thompson was in the habit of emptying the tank of his sewage truck.
“That’s got to be a Possum,” I said. “No self-respectin’ coon gonna hide in a persimmon tree.”
And just like expected, the dog went a good hundred yards past the tree bellering like his tail was on fire before coming back and crowing toward the branches.
The tree wasn’t very tall but for it was too big for either of us to reach the lowest limb. “Climb up and knock him out,” I said. “I’ll hold Cricket.”
Matt shucked his shoes and clambered up the trunk like he was half possum himself. In a minute, I heard an awful racket of hissing and cussing.
“Damn thing’s tryna bite me!” Matt hollered.
“Well, don’t let him.” I said, trying to be encouraging.
Matt latched on to the branch the possum was sitting on and commenced shaking it. Directly, both of them fell right in front of Cricket and me.
“I think I broke my rear end,” Matt said.
“You’re fine,” I said. “Grab that thing and stick him in that sack before he comes to.”
Matt dusted himself off and reached for the possum.
“Might better put your shoes back on first,” I said. “Just in case.”
Now shod, Matt lifted the varmint by the tail. “He’s as stiff as a board,” he said.
“Yeah, he thinks he’s dead. Hurry up and put him in that poke before he remembers that he ain’t!”
Matt stowed our catch in the pillow case we were using as a tote sack, threw it over his shoulder, and we headed back to the house.
The next thing I know, Matt is wailing like he’d stepped in a bear trap.
“What’s wrong with you,” I asked.
“He ain’t dead no more!” Matt screamed.
I looked around and saw that the pillow case had grown teeth and was bearing down between Matt’s shoulder blades.
“Turn it loose!” I yelled!
“I did!” He whimpered through tears. “But he ain’t!”
I looked around and found a piece of a stick and started whooping indiscriminately on Matt and the Possum attached just below the nape of his neck.
I got in a few good licks and eventually the Possum fell off in a heap on the ground.
“I think he’s asleep again,” I said. “Put him back in the sack.”
“I’ll hold the light,” Matt insisted. “You carry that damn thing.”
I stuffed it back into the sack, taking care to hold it a fair distance away from my extremities. By the time we made it home, the possum had reanimated itself and was determined to shed the pillow case. Fortunately, I was able to pour him into a cage with no further injuries.
Matt and I took turns feeding him for the next week, keeping him on a strict diet of table scraps and ripe persimmons. Somehow we were able to keep our catch a secret until it was time to turn him into supper.
“How long has it been since you cooked a possum,” I asked Grandmother.
“Oh, Lord. I haven’t eaten possum since I was about your age.” She said.
“If I’s to catch one would you cook it?”
“Haha! I reckon if you’s to catch one I’d fix it for you.”
“Well, me and Matt done caught one. We been feedin’ it out for nearly a week.”
“If y’all don’t beat all I ever seen.”
“How do you even cook a possum?”
“First, you have to clean it. I always had to wrap my face in an old shirt to keep from gagging. Then burn the hide because you don’t want the dogs rolling around in that nasty mess.”
“Yes ma’am. I know this one is mighty rank. We smelt him as soon as he fell out the tree.”
“After you clean it, quarter it up and parboil it. Otherwise he’ll be so greasy you can’t even keep the meat on a fork. Once boiled, we lay the meat on a bed of peeled sweet potatoes.”
“Ooh I like sweet potatoes!”
“Let me back up. I should’ve said that you need to soak a clean hickory board in some water and put that in the bottom of a roasting pan. That’s for the taters and possum to lay on.”
“Then you just cook it in the oven for several hours. The possum will render lard all over the sweet taters and the skin will get crispy. When it has finished releasing all the oil it can, you take it out of the oven and fling everything but the hickory board out the back door. That’s the only part worth eating.”
“Grandmother! I was being serious.”
“I was too.”
“Well, I wanna try it.”
“Suits me,” she said, smiling.
The next day, me and Matt dispatched and cleaned our fattened possum (and almost put an eye out burning the hide in a trash barrel half-full of empty spray paint cans). Grandmother was kind enough to fix cook it just like the recipe she described.
I haven’t liked the taste of hickory since.
*If you’ve got a hankering to try some and don’t have a good coon dog or a friend named Matt, you can order a canned version online. But I don’t expect it’s half as good as wild caught possum.