This is the third in a series of posts about folklife related to the Virginia Opossum, the only marsupial native to the United States. Find the series here!
In 1910, Maggie Pogue Johnson, an African American woman from Virginia, published a dialect poem about classic African American cuisine, or what we would today call “soul food.” The poem, titled “What’s Mo’ Temptin’ to de Palate?” begins with this stanza:
What’s mo’ temptin’ to de palate,
When you’s wuked so hard all day,
En cum in home at ebentime
Widout a wud to say,–
En see a stewin’ in de stove
A possum crisp en brown,
Wid great big sweet potaters,
A layin’ all aroun’
In 1982, the town of Wausau, Florida, put up a monument:
In grateful recognition of the role the North American possum, a magnificient [sic] survivor of the marsupial family pre-dating the ages of the mastadon [sic] and the dinosaur has played in furnishing both food and fur for the early settlers and their successors. Their presence here has provided a source of nutritious and flavorful food in normal times and has been important aid to human survival in times of distress and critical need.
The poem and the monument highlight a perhaps surprising fact about our old friend the opossum: it has been a significant source of meat for many Americans for a long time. In this post, we’ll take a look at American traditions around hunting, cooking, and eating our only native marsupial.
Native Americans seem to have enjoyed eating opossum before Europeans or Africans arrived, and they introduced the animal to early colonists. William Strachey encountered the opossum in the Viriginia colony between 1607 and 1612, and his description made it clear that the animal was good to eat. In his Historie of Travaile into Virginia, he wrote:
An opussum is a beast as big as a pretty beagle, of grey cullour; yt hath a head like a swyne; eares, feet, and tayle like a ratt; she carries her young ones under her belly, in a piece of her owne skyn, like as in a bagg, which she can open and shutt, to lett them out or take them in, as she pleaseth, and doth therein lodge, carry, and suckle her young, and eates in tast like a pig.
Strachey also provided a more pithy description in his glossary: “a beast in bignes like a pig and in tast alike.”
More than 200 years later, the naturalist and artist John James Audubon echoed these early colonists, calling the opossum an “excellent substitute for roast pig.”
The deepest American traditions around hunting and eating opossum are generally found in the South. There’s a good reason for this: when European settlers and enslaved Africans first arrived in this part of the world, the opossum’s range only extended as far north as Maryland. It’s an interesting coincidence that the northern extremity of the opossum’s original range fell approximately on the Mason/Dixon line, which traditionally separates South from North. As the dense forests of the mid-Atlantic and New England regions thinned through European-Americans’ activities, including logging, settlement, road-building, and farming, opossums made their way northwards. This meant that Southerners had two to three more centuries to develop traditions of hunting, cooking, and eating opossum than Yankees did, depending on how far north they settled. For example, Audubon encountered opossums in Pennsylvania in 1851, but suggested they were only beginning to be seen in New York.
Although you can find descriptions of opossums being hunted with guns, especially when the hunters were also interested in birds or squirrels, most possum hunters tried to take the animals alive. Opossums are nocturnal, so were generally hunted at night. A group of hunters would typically pursue the possum with dogs. This is the situation described below in the song by Henry Truvillion: the possum, characterized as an “evil thing” because it “rambles in the dark,” is unaware of the approaching hunter; he “didn’t know what the trouble was till he heard old Rover bark.” Hear it in the player below.
Typically, when chased by dogs, an opossum flees by climbing a tree. One of the hunters would then climb after the opossum and shake the limb until it fell out of the tree and was captured.
Hunting the Opossum is a very favourite amusement among domestics and field labourers on our Southern plantations…. The paraphernalia belonging to this hunt are neither showy nor expensive. There are no horses caparisoned with elegant trappings — no costly guns imported to order — no pack of hounds answering to the echoing horn ; two or three curs, half hound or terriers, each having his appropriate name, and each regarded by his owner as the best dog on the plantation, are whistled up. They obey the call with alacrity, and their looks and intelligent actions give evidence that they too are well aware of the pleasure that awaits them. One of these humble rustic sportsmen shoulders an axe and another a torch, and the whole arrangement for the hunt is completed. The glaring torch-light is soon seen dispersing the shadows of the forest, and like a jack o’lantern, gleaming along the skirts of the distant meadows and copses.
The Opossum […] is soon started, and hastens up the first small gum, oak, or persimmon tree, within its reach; it has clambered up to the highest limb, and sits crouching up with eyes closed to avoid the light. “Off jacket, Jim, and shake him down; show that you know more about ‘possum than your good-for-nutten fox-dog.” As the fellow ascends, the animal continues mounting higher to get beyond his reach; still he continues in pursuit, until the affrighted Opossum has reached the farthest twig on the extreme branches of the tree.
Audubon’s account of a possum hunt continues with the men ascending and shaking the tree in pursuit of their game:
The negro now commences shaking the tall pliant tree top; while with its hind hands rendered convenient and flexible by its opposing thumb, and with its prehensile tail, the Opossum holds on with great tenacity. But it cannot long resist the rapidly accumulating jerks and shocks: suddenly the feet slip from the smooth tiny limb, and it hangs suspended for a few moments only by its tail, in the meantime trying to regain its hold with its hind hands; but another sudden jerk breaks the twig, and down comes the poor animal, doubled up like a ball, into the opened jaws of eager and relentless canine foes; the poor creature drops, and yields to fate without a struggle.
“Yielding to fate,” in this case, entails what is often called “playing possum,” but what is actually an involuntary reaction of the opossum to stress: the animal rolls over on its back and loses consciousness, very much like fainting. This allows the hunters to throw the comatose opossum in a sack or otherwise confine it, and keep hunting, so that in Audubon’s words, “half a dozen or more Opossums are sometimes captured before midnight.”
The image of “treeing” a possum with dogs has become iconic in folksong and folk music as well, with such tunes and songs as “Possum up a Gum Stump” and “Possum up a ‘Simmon Tree” suggesting moments in the hunt. Below hear “Possum up a Gum Stump” played by Ralph, Carter, and J.D. Whited of Alabama. (Note that one of the musicians says “Possum up a ‘Simmon Tree” toward the end of the tune. There is a complex set of related tunes called “Possum up a Gum Stump/ Gum Tree/ ‘Simmon Tree.”)
How to Cook a Possum
The method of catching opossums alive had two main advantages. For one, the live opossum can be saved for a Sunday or other special occasion, or until the proper side dishes can be gathered. More importantly, as Wiley Prewitt Jr. mentions in his article on Coons and Possums in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and Jimmy Carter (who ate a lot of opossum as a child) mentions in his memoir An Hour Before Daylight, opossums are scavengers, and therefore many people believe opossums are both more hygienic and tastier if you feed them on clean food for several days before killing and eating them.
Another place to find this handy information is your old copy of Irma Rombauer’s standard American cookbook Joy of Cooking. At least until 1985, it included a section on cooking opossum, and suggested: “If possible, trap ‘possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing.” Unfortunately, Rombauer’s advice on cooking opossum is simply to “roast as for pork, or use recipes for rabbit.” This neglects the most common vernacular recipe for opossum, “possum n taters,” which is the one described in Mary Pogue Johnson’s poem. For a more prosaic description of possum n taters, we can turn to Adrian Miller’s book Soul Food, which has a whole section on the dish. Miller observes:
When it came to cooking possum, the standard method was to bake it with sweet potatoes. Some commentators have described the dish as a substitution of the English roast with white potatoes. The possum was typically seasoned with red pepper, and it was said to taste like pork. The sweet potatoes were enriched by cooking in the possum’s gravy.
Miller’s recipe is confirmed by the best description I’ve seen of a possum being cooked, which comes from the WPA “America Eats” manuscript of the 1930s, in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division’s United States Work Projects Administration records collection. In an essay called “Possum Party,” Luther Clark of the WPA’s Alabama Office remembered an incident from his own youth when the local kids hunted an opossum for a gathering at their friend Mary Gordon’s house. After the opossum was caught and nicknamed Old Man Sam, it was taken to Mary’s house for the cook to prepare. As Clark relates:
We reached Mary’s home about halfpast six, because we wanted to see that ‘possum properly cooked. The cook was just taking the big boiler off the stove when we went into the kitchen. Old Man Sam was fat as a butterball, and the water in which he had been boiled, with salt and red pepper tossed in for seasoning, was already a rich gray gravy. The long roaster was waiting, and into it the cook carefully set the ‘possum. In a pan nearby were some large, golden-red Porto Rico sweet potatoes. Already peeled. These the cook placed carefully around the meat, only leaving space in a couple of places to dip the basting ladle down. After all this placing was done, she poured the boiling-gravy over the meat and potatoes, put the lid on the roaster, and slipped it into the oven.
She really had that stove roaring hot, too. The oven thermometer showed 450 degrees. We stood around for about five minutes, and she pulled out the roaster, dipped up the gravy from the bottom of the roaster, and poured it over the meat, very methodically covering every part of it.
“You chilluns go shoo, now,” she ordered us after that. “You done see how dis is done, and you is cluttering up mah way, ‘caze I’se got plenty wu’k to do.”
Knowing how much depended on the cook, we promptly shooed.
Clark’s account makes clear by its use of dialect that the true expert on preparing possum n taters, the unnamed cook, is African American. This is just one piece of evidence that hunting and eating opossums, already as we’ve seen more Southern than Northern, was also more common in African American communities than among white folks. As we’ll see in a future post, when the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce organized a possum n taters dinner for President-Elect Taft, they employed African American cooks to ensure the authenticity of the dish. In Audubon’s 1851 account of opossum hunting, the most common and most expert possum hunters are black men—though he says that sometimes even “gentlemen” hunted possums. Similarly in Luther Clark’s account, while white youths participated in the hunt, the expert hunters they employed to lead the party were African Americans, Willis Jenks and his son “Dodge Jim.”
Evidence from folktales and anecdotes largely agrees as well. Obviously, such evidence is anecdotal, but since beginning to research the topic I have found far more stories involving African Americans cooking and eating possum than white folks. For example, in Benjamin A. Botkin’s Treasury of American Folklore, there’s one story of an opossum hunt and one of an opossum meal, both of which involve African American men. In his Treasury of Southern Folklore, there’s another story of an opossum meal, again involving an African American family.
Even the best known song about hunting and eating an opossum, “Carve Dat Possum,” was written by an African American composer, Sam Lucas (see the sheet music here). “Carve Dat Possum” entered the oral tradition, and has been collected from both black and white communities. In the player below, hear Doney Hammontree’s performance. Although he was white, Hammontree made it clear in his comments after the song that he knew it was of African American origin.
Another version of “Carve Dat Possum,” known as “Call That Possum,” was in the repertoire of the Shipp Family of Byhalia, Mississippi, and recorded by Herbert Halpert in 1939. This version was a children’s singing game. Hear it in the player below.
When to Cook a Possum
One interesting fact that emerges from the literature on hunting and eating possum is that, while possum could be eaten at any time, there was a particularly good season for the dish. Audubon specifies the season for hunting opossums and the reason it was particularly good:
On a bright autumnal day, when the abundant rice crop has yielded to the sickle, and the maize has just been gathered in, when one or two slight white frosts have tinged the fields and woods with a yellowish hue, ripened the persimmon, and caused the acorns, chesnuts and chinquipins (Castanea pumilla) to rattle down from the trees and strewed them over the ground, we hear arrangements entered into for the hunt. The Opossums have been living on the delicacies of the season, and are now in fine order, and some are found excessively fat; a double enjoyment is anticipated, the fun of catching and the pleasure of eating this excellent substitute for roast pig.
Wiley Prewitt Jr. further notes in his article on “Coons and Possums” in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture:
Now that modern medicine associates fat with so many health problems and we get much of ours from drive-through windows, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of fat in the diets of early Southerners. Edible animal fat was valuable, and in the autumn a quarter of the body weight of healthy coons and possums might be fat.
Because possum was a food associated with the autumn, it came to be associated with the Thanksgiving holiday in many African American communities. A search for “Thanksgiving Possum” in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database will return more than a hundred articles referencing the tradition. One I find particularly touching concerns an African American convict who prayed for a Thanksgiving possum:
The Negro Convict Thanks the Man for Answering His Prayer
Columbus, O., Nov. 10. Moses Allen, the colored mail robber at the penitentiary, whose prayer for a ‘possum feast on Thanksgiving Day was answered by James E. Foley, of Xenia, O., has addressed the following letter of thanks to the latter:
Columbus, O., Nov. 18, 1892
MY DEAR BROTHER
Your kind letter and big fat ‘possum was received by our good warden from you, in answer to my prayer to the good Lord to send me a ‘possum for Thanksgiving. When the ‘possum came I was sent to see what the good Lord had sent me.
I will not attempt to tell you how I felt when I saw that big, fat ‘possum. The Lord seemed to say to me: “Now, Moses Allen, you should never pray doubtingly, for the good Lord does answer prayers.” ***
I do not know how to thank you for the ‘possum, but I will pray for you and all your friends that the Lord may grant you a long life to do good, and eternal bliss beyond the grave with the Lord in glory, is my prayer. Yours in the Lord, Moses Allen, No. 22,500, O. P.
Beyond the Pasture Bars, a 1914 book by the writer and naturalist Dallas Lore Sharp, suggested that while white folks ate goose or turkey at Thanksgiving, African Americans often preferred possum. (This was even true, it seems, in New Jersey, where both opossums and many African Americans had migrated after the Civil War.)
Meanwhile, Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s short story “Mt. Pisgah Christmas ‘Possum” reveals that the Southern African American tradition of eating possum-n-taters as a festive meal extended to Christmas as well.
Possums on the Plantation: The WPA Slave Narratives
The above evidence from literary and folklore sources suggests that, although both black and white southerners enjoyed possum, both communities knew that the real experts in hunting, cooking, and eating opossums were usually African American. Some of the reasons for this cultural specialization get clearer when we examine the narratives collected by the WPA in manuscript form from people who had been born in slavery. In these oral histories of life in slavery times, possum is frequently mentioned as a delicacy. Moreover, all the vernacular knowledge and resourcefulness that went into hunting, feeding, fattening, and cooking possum can be found in the narratives.
Although there are occasional references to stingy plantation owners who either did not allow hunting, or took the game their slaves hunted for themselves, the vast majority of the narratives that mention hunting make it clear that slaves were allowed to hunt to supplement their own diet. This makes sense, since the feeding of slaves was a significant expense for the plantation, and allowing them to provide their own food helped to reduce that expense. As Essex Henry of North Carolina astutely observed:
Dey let us go possum huntin’ too case dat wus gittin’ something ter eat widout Mr. Jake payin’ fer hit.
The method of hunting opossums with dogs and taking them alive rather than shooting them is a good strategy for many reasons, as I outlined already. But it’s also true that slaves on plantations frequently had access to dogs, but (with some exceptions) usually did not have access to guns. This would naturally encourage the method of hunting opossums by treeing and capturing them. Robert Shepherd of Georgia remembered:
Us had big ‘possum hunts, and us sho’ cotched a heap of ’em. De gals cooked ‘em wid ‘taters and dey jus’ made your mouth water. I sho’ wish I had one now. Rabbits was good too. Marster didn’t ‘low no huntin’ wid guns, so us jus’ took dogs when us went huntin’.
John Smith of North Carolina had similar memories:
We caught rabbits in hollers an’ coons an’ possums in trees, but we had a hard time ketchin’ squirrels. We n—–s had no guns, so we had a hard time ketchin’ squirrels.
Some plantation hands kept their own dogs. William McWhorter of Georgia remembered:
My pa used to ‘possum hunt lots and he was ‘lowed to keep a good ‘possum hound to trail ’em wid.
On the other hand, often plantation owners who did not allow their slaves to own dogs instead allowed slaves to use their dogs for hunting. Easter Huff of Georgia, for example, said:
Dere was a good ‘possum hound on de plantation what was a-fine rabbit dog too, and Marster let us use him to ketch us lots of possums and rabbits.
Similarly, Jefferson Franklin Henry of Georgia remembered:
Sho, us had ‘possums, plenty of ‘em, ’cause they let us use the dogs to trail ’em down with.
Isaam Morgan of Alabama was particularly eloquent about how the hunt worked, agreeing closely with Audubon’s account above:
Some of de bes’ food us ever ad was ‘possum an’ taters. Us’d go out at night wid a big sack, an’ a pack of houn’s an’ twarn’t long befo’ we done treed a ‘possum. Atter we one treed him, de dogs would stan’ aroun’ de tree an’ bark. Iffen de tree was small, us could shake him out. Iffen it was big, one of de n—–s hadda climb up it an’ git ole Mr. ‘possum hisself.
An interesting issue for plantation life came up due to the opossum being a nocturnal animal, which had to be hunted at night. Slaves were generally not allowed to be out of their quarters at night. In some cases, the slave narratives suggest that owners just looked the other way and let their slaves break the rules in order to hunt. James Bolton of Georgia remembered that he and the other black men had the owner’s permission to hunt rabbits with the plantation’s dogs. As for opossums, though it was technically illegal to hunt at night, the authorities overlooked it:
Slaves warn’t spozen to go huntin’ at night and everybody know you can’t ketch no ‘possums ‘ceppin’ at night! Jus’ the same, we had plenty ‘possums and nobody ax how we cotch ’em!
In other cases, though, simply looking the other way was not enough. In many areas, slave patrols or “paterollers” enforced the curfew by mercilessly beating any black person found without a written pass, so any black person outdoors needed such a pass unless accompanied by a white official. Some former slaves remembered that the plantation owner or overseer would hold organized hunts, which allowed the slaves to be supervised while hunting. Wes Woods of Kentucky remembered:
My young bosses, when I lived in the Kennedy family, would take the dogs and let me go coon hunting at night with them, and what big times we had. The ‘possums were skinned and cooked in a big kettle hung over the fire, then taken out and put in a big oven to bake.
In some cases, these “official” hunts, organized by plantation owners, ended in a feast. John Hill of Georgia said:
Marse Jim used to have big ‘possum hunts for his N—–s, an’ he would sen’ me word, an’ I most always went, ’cause dem wuz good times den, when dey cooked de coons an’ ‘possums, an’ eat an’ drunk mos’ of de night.
If the owners didn’t want to organize hunting parties, they often would simply issue passes to those who wished to hunt at night, so the hunters could show patrols that their travel was authorized. Dennis Sims of Maryland recalled:
Sometimes, by special permission from our master or overseer, we would go hunting and catch a coon or possum and a pot pie would be a real treat.
Similarly, Callie Williams of Alabama remembered:
If dey wanted to go ‘possum huntin’ or fishin’, dey could get passes from de overseer. Two things dey really loved to eat was ‘possum and fish.
In some cases, the former slaves suggest that men got passes and went possum hunting more for entertainment than for the possum itself. In others, the account of getting a pass for hunting is recounted right after a discussion of other nighttime activities such as singing and dancing, suggesting that hunting could be a useful excuse to be abroad when other recreational activities were happening. Henry Barnes of Alabama noted:
Us sho’ did hab plenty singin’ o’ hymns an’ shoutin’ at night in de cabins. Iffen de men want to break a night res’ he go possum huntin’ or rabbit huntin’. Jes’ so he git pass from Ole Marster an’ bes at de fiel’ nex’ mornin’ on time wid de yuther han’s.
In other cases, field hands had passes for other purposes, but took the opportunity to hunt possums while they were out. Will Sheets of Georgia remembered that his father had a pass to be out all night on a regular basis because his wife was on a neighboring plantation, and made good use of the situation by also hunting many possums:
Oh! dem ‘possums’. How I wisht I had one right now. My pa used to ketch 40 or 50 of ’em a winter. After dey married, Ma had to stay on wid Marse Jeff and Pa was ‘bliged to keep on livin’ wid Marster Marsh Sheets. His marster give him a pass so dat he could come and stay wid Ma at night atter his wuk was done, and he fotched in de ‘possums. Dey was baked in de white folkses kitchen wid sweet ‘tatoes ‘roun’ ’em and was barbecued sometimes.
After catching possums, slaves sometimes kept them for several days before eating them, just as The Joy of Cooking would later recommend. Josh Horn of Alabama remembered that his wife prepared possum every Sunday, and that he went hunting several times a week to make sure his family had several possums. His wife Alice did not allow him to hunt Saturday night because she was religious and didn’t want to take the chance that he’d be hunting after midnight on what would then technically be Sunday. They therefore held onto the possum for at least one day, and often longer. Horn didn’t mention whether Alice thought the wait improved the meat, though!
Susan Castle of Clark County Georgia was more explicit about keeping the possum to improve the flavor:
Oh! Yes Ma’am, us had plenty ‘possums. Pappy used to cotch so many sometimes he jest put ’em in a box and let us eat ’em when us got ready. Possums tasted better atter dey was put up in a box and fattened a while.
Lizzie Farmer of Oklahoma mentioned another step that involved waiting several days:
We would skin him and dress him and put him on top de house and let him freeze for two days or nights.
Will Sheets’s account above specifies that “possum n taters” wasn’t the only method of cooking opossum, and that barbecuing was another option. But possum n taters is definitely the most common possum dish mentioned in the narratives, and is often specified to be the best way to prepare possum. Often the interviewees specified that the dressed possum was boiled first and then baked. After freezing the possum for two days and nights, Lizzie Farmer’s account continued:
Then we’d boil him with red pepper, and take him out and put him in a pan and slice sweet ‘taters and put round him and roast him. My dat was good eating.
Dosia Harris of Georgia remembered a slight variation in the possum n taters recipe in which the taters were roasted in the ashes and then peeled before being added to the possum gravy:
Dey cotched de ‘possums, singed and scraped de hair off of ’em, finished dressin’ ’em and drapped ’em in de pot to bile ’til dey was tender. Den dey put ’em in bakin’ pans and kivvered ’em over wid strips of fat meat and baked ’em jus’ as nice and brown, and if dey had good sweet ‘tatoes, dey roasted fem in de ashes, peeled ’em, and put ’em on de big old platters wid de ‘possums.
Prince Bee of Oklahoma remembered possum n taters as a favorite treat:
That Mary gal seen to it that we children got the best food on the place, the fattest possum and the hottest fish. When the possum was all browned, and the sweet ‘taters swimming in the good mellow gravy, then she call us for to eat. um-um-h! That was tasty eating!
Jefferson Franklin Henry of Georgia was adamant that possum n taters was the definitive recipe to cook an opossum:
‘Possums was biled ’til they was tender, then baked with sweet ‘taters, and thar ain’t no better way been found to fix ’em to this good day, not even if they’s barbecued.
Finally, while on some plantations the rations slaves received from the plantation owners included sweet potatoes, on many others slaves had garden plots where they could cultivate their own food to supplement the rations. It was through these patches that they access to sweet potatoes and hot peppers, the other ingredients usually mentioned as components of possum n taters. Nancy Settles of Georgia recalled:
Everybody had er garden patch an’ had plenty greens and taters and all dat kinder thing.
Fleming Clark of Ohio recalled that gardening one’s own patch, like possum hunting, was an activity for nighttime after the plantation’s work was done:
De slaves have a little patch for a garden and dey work it mostly at night when it wuz moonlight.
Like the possum, the taters encouraged slaves to “ramble in the dark” for their next day’s meal.
From Plantation Staple to Soul Food
Although more prevalent among blacks than whites, possum n taters was never really confined to the black community. Like other forms of soul food, possum n taters was a specialty of the black community that was also enjoyed by whites, a situation which seems to go right back to the plantation system. In her WPA interview, for example, Chana Littleton of North Carolina said:
We had a lot of game and ‘possums. When we had game marster left de Big House, and come down an’ et wid us.
The archaeological record also supports the idea that both whites and African Americans ate possum, but that African Americans ate it more often. In her article “Food and Social Relations at Nina Plantation,” Elizabeth Scott examined the remains of various species of food animals that turned up in archaeological digs at the “Main House” where planters lived vs. the “Outbuildings” where slaves lived on a Louisiana plantation. She found:
Some of these species, such as opossum, occurred in small amounts at the Main House but in larger amounts in the Outbuilding area.
Both personal gardening of taters and hunting for possums were means through which slaves supplemented their diets, usually outside the direct control of plantation owners. In his article “Food Supply and Plantation Social Order: An Archaeological Perspective” (which was published in this book), Larry McKee includes both growing their own vegetables and hunting for possums in what he calls a “procurement model” through which slaves were able to employ strategy, skill, and work to acquire food. The procurement model also included direct theft of food from plantation owners:
The strategy sketched out in the procurement model involved a set of actions for both feeding the body and easing the emotional burden of life as a slave. By mastering the strategy, slaves not only had a more satisfying diet but also achieved a kind of psychological independence.
McKee further explains:
All slaveholders either explicitly or implicitly allowed slaves to supplement their food supply through actions outside the master’s control. In allowing slaves to add to their meager rations, planters may have been trying to save some money and effort, but they also were relinquishing a certain degree of control. Slaves worked to find and exploit the resulting inconsistencies within the supposedly tight confines of plantation order. Personal production, scavenging, hunting, foraging, and theft were vital matters…. Essentially, planters sought to establish an efficient, economical, and controlled social order by treating slaves like livestock. This attitude and approach reveal the institution’s fundamental flaw. Slaves were human beings, not insensate beasts of burden, and their humanity and force of will made them able to respond to and sometimes overcome their oppression.
In the end, masters were unable to control something as “simple” as the diet of their slaves. […] By defeating (or simply ignoring) these efforts to direct the intimate details of their personal and family lives, slaves helped undermine the basic rationalizations of the system that held them captive.
McKee’s inclusion of both stealing food and hunting for possums in the same category of unofficial “procurement” resonates with one of the most common African American folktales involving the possum as food. Richard Dorson published three versions of this story in American Negro Folktales, and Benjamin Botkin published another in Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (p. 4). Another was collected from Son House by Harry Oster, and a sound recording is in the AFC archive with the number AFS 15585. Zora Neale Hurston published two versions, one as the 1926 short story “Possum or Pig” and the other within her 1943 essay “High John de Conquer.” A third version collected by Hurston was published posthumously in the book Every Tongue Got to Confess.
Of all these, my favorite is the one from “High John,” so here it is:
Old John was working in Old Massa’s house that time, serving around the eating table. Old Massa loved roasted young pigs, and had them often for dinner. Old John loved them too, but Massa never allowed the slaves to eat any at all. Even put aside the left-over and ate it next time. John de Conquer got tired of that. He took to stopping by the pig pen when he had a strong taste for pig-meat, and getting himself one, and taking it on down to his cabin and cooking it.
Massa began to miss his pigs, and made up his mind to squat for who was taking them and give whoever it was a good hiding. So John kept on taking pigs, and one night Massa walked him down. He stood out there in the dark and saw John kill the pig and went on back to the “big house” and waited till he figured John had it dressed and cooking. Then he went on down to the quarters and knocked on John’s door.
“Who dat?,” John called out big and bold, because he never dreamed that it was Massa rapping.
“It’s me, John,” Massa told him.” I want to come in.”
“What you want, Massa? I’m coming right out.”
“You needn’t to do that, John. I want to come in.”
“Naw, naw, Massa. You don’t want to come into no old slave cabin. Youse too fine a man for that. It would hurt my feelings to see you in a place like this here one.”
“I tell you I want to come in, John!”
So John had to open the door and let Massa in. John had seasoned that pig down, and it was stinking pretty! John knowed Old Massa couldn’t help but smell it. Massa talked on about the crops and hound dogs and one thing and another, and the pot with the pig in it was hanging over the fire in the chimney and kicking UP. The smell got better and better.
Way after while, when that pig had done simbled down to a low gravy, Massa said, “John, what’s that you cooking in that pot?”
“Nothing but a little old weasly possum, Massa. Sickliest little old possum I ever did see. But I thought I’d cook him anyhow.”
“Get a plate and give me some of it, John. I’m hungry.”
“Aw, naw, Massa, you ain’t hongry.”
“Now, lohn, I don’t mean to argue with you another minute. You give me some of that in the pot, or I mean to have the hide off of your back tomorrow morning. Give it to me!”
So John got up and went and got a plate and a fork and went to the pot. He lifted the lid and looked at Massa and told him, “Well, Massa, I put this thing in here a possum, but if it comes out a pig, it ain’t no fault of mine.”
Old Massa didn’t want to laugh, but he did before he caught himself. He took the plate of brownded-down pig and ate it up. He never said nothing, but he gave John and all the other house servants roast pig at the big house after that.
Hurston’s story makes McKee’s point even clearer. The fact that John is allowed to hunt and eat possum, even though possum is not part of his rations, allows him at first to conceal that he has stolen a pig. By later claiming that what goes in the pot as a possum may come out as a pig, John shows the symbolic equivalence between the two types of “procurement,” hunting and stealing. This forces Massa to admit that he is not in control of John’s diet, and that John is not only a worthy opponent but a human being worthy of respect—worthy of not only possum, but pig.
The evidence of the slave narratives makes it clear that the prevalence of opossum in African American cuisine, and specifically possum n taters, had at least some of its roots in the life experience of African Americans enduring slavery. In that period, opossum was one of the few meats that slaves could procure for themselves through their own skill and hard work, and taters, grown on their own plots, were likewise a product of their own industrious labor. Both fell outside the rationing system imposed on slaves by plantation owners, and in this way decreased the owners’ control over the bodies of their workers. The experience of hunting and gardening at night fell outside the curfew system imposed by individual owners and by larger authorities such as slave patrols. More than this, hunting functioned as recreation; in this way it decreased the owners’ control over their workers’ minds. As McKee points out, possum n taters made for a more satisfying diet and a form of psychological independence–a rare commodity indeed in slavery times. No wonder possum n taters became a favorite meal for special occasions, and a treasured memory in later years.
At the same time, it’s also no wonder that the popularity of possum as a food source has waned. From William Strachey’s descriptions, the earliest references in English to eating opossum, it was suggested that the meat was valued because it tasted somewhat like pig. Audubon went so far as to call it a “substitute” for pig. It stands to reason the opossum would be valued most highly by those with least access to roast pig: at first, colonists whose supply of pork was limited; later, enslaved African Americans on plantations, to whom pig was mostly prohibited; and finally, those too poor to afford pig, whether of African or European heritage. Once slavery was abolished and pork was plentiful and permissible, possum was valued less: why have “an excellent substitute for roast pig” when you can have the real thing?
For that reason, opossum is mainly valued today for symbolic reasons. It turns up in “Soul Food” guides, “White Trash” cookbooks, game cookbooks, and even “Road Kill” cookbooks. It symbolizes heritage, ethnic and regional identity, the pluckiness of our forebears, and the self-sufficiency of the hunter. It’s no longer an everyday staple of the Southern diet, or even a treat for special occasions. Instead, eating it confers serious credentials as, say, a true West Virginian like this blogger, or a devotee of “bizarre foods.”
For most Americans today, in other words, the idea of eating “a possum crisp and brown” is more amusing to the mind than tempting to the palate.
Notes on sources and language:
In transcribing material written in African American dialect, by both black and white authors, my policy has been to render the spelling exactly as the authors did. This pertains to poetry, song lyrics, and materials from the various WPA manuscripts. However, I have decided to render the so-called “n-word” as “n—–” to avoid offending or hurting readers. In all cases where I have so edited the n-word, the original document is online at the Library of Congress.
Because the word opossum is pronounced “possum” in most dialects of English, and spelled “possum” by many writers, I use both spellings.
In the case of the WPA Slave Narratives, to keep down the number of links to individual volumes and page images, I have simply linked to the entire manuscript collection. Since the volumes are organized by state and then alphabetically by interviewee within each state, it’s easy to find a given narrative as long as you have the state and the person’s name. For every quotation above, I have given the necessary information.