Eat More Beaver

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

"After the raccoons have gotten in someone's trash a few times, people no longer have much appreciation for the animals," says Deatherage. "I'd say 99 percent of the time I ask someone for permission to trap on their property, they give me the okay."

Once skinned of its pelt, the animal's meat is simply a byproduct that can earn the trapper a little extra income. They sell it to vendors such as Harr for a few bucks, and Harr, in turn, marks it up a couple more dollars for sale at the market.

Wild game is generally a leaner meat than domestic livestock and is therefore considered a healthier alternative to farm-raised meat. Possum, for example, is said to have twice the protein of T-bone steak and less than one-third the fat.

For Native Americans, beaver tail was a delicacy 
believed to aid virility.
Jennifer Silverberg
For Native Americans, beaver tail was a delicacy believed to aid virility.

But farm-raised meat must also undergo stringent safety inspections. The same cannot be said of wild game.

"The question you have to ask here is, 'Where are they getting these animals?'" says Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University. "If you hunt your own meat, you at least know where you got it and how quickly the animal was processed. In buying trapped animals, I think one would have to ask a lot of questions, such as what's the potential for food-borne illness?"

At best, the trading of wild meat is a loosely regulated industry. Because it is such a niche product, neither the United States Department of Agriculture nor the Missouri Department of Agriculture monitors its sale or safety. Instead, inspection is left to the Missouri Department of Conservation, which monitors the licensing of trappers and hunters, and to the local health department in which the meat is processed or sold.

In the case of St. Louis City, the wild-game trade falls well under the radar. When asked about the sale of the meat at Soulard Farmer's Market, Virginia Phillips, environmental health supervisor for the city, was unaware of the practice. "This is not something we run into day-to-day," she explains. "I'd have to call Missouri Department of Conservation."

David Hamilton, a resource scientist for the conservation department, says trapped game is the only wildlife meat other than fish that the state allows for sale. Little, if any, of the meat is ever inspected.

"It's kind of an open market, 'buyer beware' sort of thing," Hamilton concedes. "We don't have much jurisdiction other than licensing the person to trap."

Even so, Hamilton says he cannot think of any public-health epidemic that has resulted from people eating wild game harvested by Missouri trappers. Raccoon and possum rabies are extremely rare in Missouri. Beavers and muskrats, while both members of the rodent family, are largely free of the diseases associated with their cousins, rats and mice.

"The trappers aren't going to sell something if they think it's bad," says Hamilton. "They have an economic interest in this. They don't want to negatively affect the market."

For chef Larry Forgione, varmint meat will always be associated with good eating.

It was in the late 1970s that he teamed with Justin Rashid, a wild-food forager in northern Michigan, who was friends with many of the Native American tribes of that region. The tribes provided Rashid and Forgione with their unused meat.

With a boundless supply of game, Forgione would experiment with different ways to prepare the animals. Often he tested his recipes on his friend and mentor, James Beard.

When asked if he will do the same for a taste-testing committee from the Riverfront Times, Forgione agrees on one condition: Make sure our readers (and, more important, the health department) realize that An American Place does not include such vittles on its regular menu. By law, no restaurant is allowed to sell meat that has not been inspected by state or federal authorities, and Harr's butchered critters don't come with the USDA's seal of approval.

Eager for beaver, we arrive at An American Place promptly at 6 p.m. the Monday before Christmas. As our taste-testing brigade assembles in the restaurant's lobby, Forgione emerges from the kitchen, a coy smile on his round face. In his hand is a five-course menu, beginning and ending with beaver.

Our meal starts with a sampling of beaver tail on toast. It is not well received. "Oh, gross, I got some on my finger!" screams one of our testers when a piece of fatty white flesh falls from the toast.

Beaver tail, Forgione will later tell us, is akin to whale's blubber. A highly fatty and greasy meat, it's full of energy but has a taste and texture like congealed Crisco. Among Native American tribes, the meat was thought to aid virility, but for our taste-testers, its lasting impression is the sensation left in the back of the throat as the meat "shimmies" its way toward the stomach.

The Asian-style marsh hare wonton is definitely a step up. The wontons are in a sesame-spiked soy sauce and seasoned with shiitake mushrooms, ginger and cilantro -- you'd hardly know you were eating muskrat. Ground into tiny patties, the meat inside the wonton is dark and rich, its gamey flavor an excellent complement to the salty sweetness of the soy sauce.

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