Eat More Beaver

Missourians have a healthy appetite for wild game meat. Some say raccoon tastes better than roast beef.

Still, Harr is optimistic that as long as there are open-air markets, the demand for his meat will continue. "The younger generations may turn their nose up at it in public, but when it's on the dinner table, they'll eat it."

That few people today eat varmints does little to mitigate their role in America's culinary history.

Frozen raccoon carcasses? Now that's worth 
a closer look!
Jennifer Silverberg
Frozen raccoon carcasses? Now that's worth a closer look!
Larry Forgione, proprietor of An American Place, 
honed his beaver-cooking skills with the legendary 
James Beard.
Jennifer Silverberg
Larry Forgione, proprietor of An American Place, honed his beaver-cooking skills with the legendary James Beard.

For centuries beaver was considered a delicacy among Native American tribes. In the more recent past, beaver provided much sustenance for pioneers, its meat a staple for the men of the Lewis & Clark expedition. Muskrat, sold under the pseudonym "marsh hare," was a popular turn-of-the-century dish in many of the finer restaurants of the northeast. Raccoon and possum meat continues to be highly sought-after throughout the American South.

When Pierre Laclede and August Chouteau founded St. Louis in 1763, the area was the largest fur-collection point in the world. Think our ancestors didn't eat beaver every now and again?

The definitive book on varmint-eating in America has yet to be written, but most culinary scholars point to the nation's population shift last century as the primary reason the food has all but disappeared from the American palate.

"This is a phenomenon of the emerging middle class and industrialization," says S.G.B. Tennant Jr., author of the game cookbook Wild at the Table. "Prior to that point, game is what kept people alive. It was America's first food."

As more and more people moved off the farm last century, they left behind the traditions of their rural heritage, including the trapping and eating of animals. Perhaps the swan song for the meat came in 1997 when Joy of Cooking, the nation's most authoritative cookbook, removed its recipes for beaver, muskrat, possum and raccoon. The recipes no longer reflected the "modern tastes" of America.

Even among the dozens of cookbooks dedicated to wild game, few pay heed to recipes concerning these delicacies. The L.L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook, perhaps the foremost depository of recipes for North American game, likens the taste of muskrat to that of duck, and sort of like turtle. Raccoon the book describes as tasting akin to squirrel and better than rabbit.

In his book Fowl and Game Cookery, the late James Beard, considered by many the "godfather" of American cuisine, describes muskrat as having a pleasant flavor but filled with so many bones that "it's hardly worth the effort."

Janie Hibler, author of Wild About Game, writes that an old beaver tastes like "the underside of a Mexican saddle." A.D. Livingston, author of the Complete Fish & Game Cookbook, suggests that a trapped possum be fed milk and grain for several days in an attempt to "clean out" the otherwise foul taste of the creature.

Looking for some local advice, we contacted Larry Forgione, owner of the much-ballyhooed new downtown restaurant An American Place. An acolyte of Beard, Forgione has earned acclaim as much for his culinary skills as for his dedication to only using food grown and harvested in the United States.

So is Forgione surprised that people still eat this stuff? Not at all. In the mid-'80s he served marsh hare in one of his New York City restaurants.

"I think what people don't realize is that a lot of this type of food was extremely popular at the turn of the century," he says. "Back then people ate everything they killed, which was a good thing."

Fur-trapping, though not as popular as it once was, is still practiced in this region in genocidal proportions.

Last year trappers in Missouri and Illinois harvested more than 166,000 raccoons, 25,000 possums, 45,000 muskrats and nearly 15,000 beavers. Still, state conservationists say populations of fur-bearing mammals in the two states remain at near-record highs. Concerned that the burgeoning numbers of varmints may lead to starvation and disease, the Missouri Department of Conservation has extended the trapping season this year by an extra three weeks -- the first time it has done so in 30 years.

But for all they do in helping control animal populations, trappers remain a suspicious lot. The trappers that supply Harr with his meat declined interviews for this story. Trappers we were able to contact would not allow us to accompany them as they checked their traps, and several requested that we not print their names.

The reason for the reticence, they say, comes from their fear of the anti-fur movement. Since the founding of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and similar splinter groups in the early 1980s, the price of fur in the United States has plummeted. Where 25 years ago a raccoon pelt brought a trapper as much as $30, today it commands just $10 to $15 in the overseas markets of Greece, Russia, China and Korea -- the major players in the international fur trade.

"It's a shame we have to send our fur overseas," says 73-year-old Harry Deatherage, a farmer in Granite City who has trapped these parts for more than 50 years. "If it wasn't for the 'antis' [the anti-fur movement], this would be a big market."

Deatherage is one of perhaps a few dozen trappers who continue to ply their craft in the St. Louis metropolitan area, running his trap line in suburban neighborhoods that twenty years ago were farmland. Where he once tracked his prey following paw prints, droppings and other tell-tale signs of wildlife, today Deatherage scopes out toppled trash cans, nuisance reports and indignant homeowners.

« Previous Page
Next Page »