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It's a week before Christmas, and Levent Blayock is hunting for critters at the Soulard Farmer's Market. He's stocking up for his annual "wild food" party, a New Year's Day ritual -- more than two decades in the running -- in which he and his buddies cook up a smorgasbord of animals one is not likely to find on the shelves at Schnucks.
Amid the happy commotion of carolers singing "Jingle Bells" and vendors shouting out their wares, Blayock scrutinizes dozens of frozen carcasses that line Scott Harr's food stall -- there's beaver, raccoon, possum and muskrat. For more than 80 years, Harr and his forefathers have made a name for themselves by selling these adventurous delicacies. The family's longevity has earned them legions of devoted customers like Blayock, who, at long last, picks out a 25-pound beaver and two small, bloody muskrats.
A week earlier, the East St. Louis resident bagged the other necessary complements of the big meal: raccoon and possum. Back home Blayock will serve his varmint feast with table wine, Budweiser and Stag beer. And when his guests finish, the animals' severed tails will be unveiled. That's when the party really starts hopping, with the children paddling each other with beaver tails, and the womenfolk screaming at the sight of the rat-like possum.
"Whoa," Blayock says. "They go crazy."
To Harr's faithful customers, the wild-game meat is as much about cultural tradition and family heritage as it is about cutting-edge vittles. It's like Aunt Bertha's fruitcake or Grandma Esther's oyster stuffing -- a homey, acquired taste. Call it four-legged comfort food.
"My father came from Arkansas and was raised on coons, rabbits and possum," says Anna Thomas, a spry 74-year-old from Fairview Heights, Illinois, who every Thanksgiving and Christmas makes certain to get herself a raccoon.
Thomas will serve a Christmas meal of raccoon, goose and ham to some twenty relatives. Her recipe for coon includes soaking the beast overnight in salt water -- a procedure, she says, that strips the "wildness" from the meat. After seasoning the creature with red pepper, salt, garlic and onion, she'll roast the raccoon in the oven along with candied yams and gravy.
"You talk about good eating!" she exclaims. "Good old lean meat."
For 69-year-old Lorraine Wells and her husband, Joe, barbecued coon is the only way to go. The Wellses soak the creature in a mixture of vinegar, water and salt overnight, and then parboil the carcass with seasoned salt, garlic and pepper. When the meat is tender, Joe tosses the carcass on the grill and smokes the meat for a few hours. They insist raccoon tastes better than roast beef.
It's salt-of-the-earth customers like Thomas and the Wellses who make up the majority of Harr's business. They're mostly African-American and elderly, and a good percentage of them pay for their purchases with food stamps. They're also a dying breed. With each passing year, the 30-year-old Harr sells less and less wild game.
A veritable Ellis Island of humanity, the 150-year-old Soulard market has long served as a melting pot for an otherwise segregated city. Here, for a few hours each Saturday, west-county gourmands share space with Bosnian refugees; inner-city blacks mingle with south-county hoosiers; Mexican illegals wait alongside loft-dwelling intellectuals.
It's amid this motley bunch that Harr alone stands out from the crowd. From mid-November through late January (the traditional length of the trapping season in Missouri and Illinois), Harr is best known as "Game Man."
His collection of live rabbits and chickens (which he keeps in wooden crates lined with the pages of this very newspaper) attracts the kiddies. But it's his unusual frozen-food section that gets the most attention. He may as well be displaying shrunken heads, what with the number of people who circle around his stall, ogling his critters.
On a typical Saturday during trapping season, Harr might sell a dozen raccoons and a few odd possums, beavers and muskrats. But on this holiday eve, the carcasses are moving fast. Raccoons go for $7 for a small one, $10 for a large. Possums sell for $5. A big beaver commands as much as $20. Muskrats, a relative bargain, sell for $2 a head. By day's end, Harr will sell more than 50 raccoons, a half-dozen muskrats, a pair of possums and all three beavers he's brought to market.
Lingering in the background this bitter-cold day is Frank Como, a heavy-set, 81-year-old Italian with a nose the size of a tennis ball. Como remembers eating possum during the Great Depression, and the foul taste lingers still.
"Possums eat dead people," he announces for all to hear. "In graveyards, they dig holes and eat corpses. If a horse dies out in the field, they eat it out, starting with the asshole. You hit a dead horse on the stomach and the possums will come running out its asshole. They're greasy, nasty animals."
Harr could do without the rant -- the public's perception of wild meat is bad enough. Where Harr's father and grandfather bought game from trappers in bulk, selling hundreds of carcasses a year, his operation is more piecemeal. He slowly builds inventory, worried that much of the beaver and coon might not sell. Harr's 23-year-old wife, Stephanie, can understand why. "I was appalled when I found out he was selling this stuff," she says. After four years of marriage and countless hours helping operate the family stall, Stephanie refuses to handle any of the carcasses, and she has yet to eat any of them -- and plans to keep it that way.