Raccoon and Chicken: A Southern Journey
It is not often that I am in a car for more than 10 minutes by myself. Last Sunday, I had a five-hour drive on the fairly isolated Highway 65, heading north through Louisiana to Little Rock, Arkansas. I was on my way to spend two nights with my friend P. Allen Smith.
When he visits me, he shares his many talents. We take early morning walks, and he mentors me about "editing" my landscape and helps me see a vision of a master plan for my garden at Twin Oaks. After every visit, he leaves his touch behind. When I visited him in the fall and we filmed a few cooking segments for his show, I did not have time to reciprocate and told him I would return and help organize his kitchen and do a little cooking. Allen's commitment to heritage poultry had piqued my interest, and we planned to cook a few varieties he has been raising on his farm.
It was not a difficult drive, and I have to say I enjoyed the down time. I was instantly amused and amazed within the first eight miles of my trip, in Ferriday, Louisiana, by a sign I could not miss: "Fresh Coons." I began to think of all the food I have tried in the past 50 years and realized I don't know if I have it in me to try raccoon. But I have heard for years from some of the older cooks in Natchez that when roasted with yams it is hard to top.
On my drive, I began to wonder if there were many differences between the "country cooking" of the South and what is referred to as "soul food," the many food items that have become synonymous with Southern cooking. There is a lot of stereotyping as well, especially with "soul food," the fact being that most items are consumed equally by the black and white citizens of the South, fried chicken being a popular one. I even found out from the owner of the market that sells fresh coon that his clientele is mixed, and I was shocked at the price: it is about four to five dollars a pound.
Nearing Lake Providence, Louisiana, I saw another sign that caught my eye: "Jehovah Java." This did not surprise me, as I had started to count Pentecostal and Baptist churches along the highway. I also observed all the churchgoers gathered in the parking lots between 12:30 and 1:00 as they were leaving church. I could not help but wonder what was waiting on their Sunday tables. For most of them, I was almost certain it would be fried chicken, and I briefly wondered, Why?
I had brought a seafood and sausage gumbo, so on my first night with Allen we had a simple dinner and brought each other up to date on the past few months. Allen not only does everything perfectly—everything he does is on a grand scale, and he has so many projects going on with his shows, books, Moss Farm, and speaking engagements that he makes me look like a "slacker." The next day we both had plenty to do, but I asked him to give me a couple of varieties of heritage chickens to cook, and we would meet up for dinner around eight.
He provided me with one Barred Rock chicken and two Jersey Giants. The Barred Rock, also known as the Plymouth Rock, was developed in New England and dates back to 1869. Not only was it a good roaster—it was also a good laying hen. I decided to use this one for frying. The Jersey Giants were developed in Burlington County, New Jersey, between 1870 and 1890 by the Black brothers. This is the largest purebred chicken breed, and the hens can weigh up to 10 pounds each. The Blacks intended for them to compete with turkeys as a large table bird. The ones I cooked, however, were around five pounds each.
I decided to make coq au vin. This was my first experience working with heritage birds. I knew just from cutting the chickens up, it was a different animal that we grew up on. It took a lot of muscle on my part. I ended up cutting the breast crosswise because the breastbone was too difficult to split down the middle.
The only reason I compare the taste to a game bird is that the meat was darker and had a more distinct flavor than our grocery store chicken that all but melts in your mouth. It had texture and depth. I came home with several birds and cannot wait to try different dishes with them and develop recipes that will work well in a home kitchen. I fried the Barred Rock chicken just as I would a fryer from the grocery store, and it came out just fine. The coq au vin was good but I cooked it longer and slower than a chicken from the grocery.
As we sat around the dinner table, I told Allen I was writing about the interesting road signs and fried chicken this week. I shared some of my thoughts about the Southern "Sunday table." He asked me and the other guests at the table why we thought chicken became such a Sunday favorite in the South. We tossed different observations around and it came back to Allen, who said, "Everything is about practicality—chickens were not seasonal." They were available every Sunday.
Now that we live in a world where you can have any food any time of year, right or wrong, we forget there was a time before the refrigerator where the slaughtering of pork and beef could be done only in one season. As a true Southerner who loves Country and Soul, food, music, and people, I am delighted that chicken is available for most every Sunday table and is less expensive than raccoon.