Possum come a-knockin’: a story of cooking nostalgia (and horror)

One thing I haven’t written much about is cooking. It’s a shame, because I really enjoy it. And since I haven’t been working, I’ve actually managed to cook most days (it’s one of the few “Happiness Commandments” I’ve actually gotten around to writing about, much less been able to keep.)

This morning I was in the mood to cook. The boys don’t have school on Fridays, so we can have a relatively relaxed morning. I made some scrambled eggs and toast. But what I really wanted was pumpkin muffins. Today was the first really cool morning we’ve had in a while, and I had leftover canned pumpkin in the fridge that I needed to use up.

I pulled out my cooking bible, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. He had several muffin recipes, but not for pumpkin. I turned to two cookbooks I had received as wedding presents, one Betty Crocker and one Better Homes and Gardens. The latter had a pumpkin bread recipe, but it called for shortening. Does anyone bake with shortening anymore? I used it growing up, but don’t think I’ve ever purchased a can myself. I’m sure it would have been easy enough to figure out a substitution (butter, oil, applesauce?’), but I just wanted to find a recipe I could follow exactly. That’s how I am with baking.

I turned to my final traditional cookbook, my mom’s old copy of The Joy of Cooking, in which she had written her name and the date (May ’77) on the inside cover. I flipped to the index, looking for “pumpkin.” And then, right there at the bottom of the page, my eyes fell on this:

All these years I had no idea that I had in my possession a book with instructions on how to skin and prepare a squirrel. And what’s more, those instructions came with illustrations (if you have a weak stomach, you may want to skip this photo).

Oh. Oh my. There’s something particularly unsettling about that boot.

And it’s not just squirrel. The book contains directions for preparing all sorts of wild animals: muskrat, beaver, beaver tail, raccoon, bear. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a vegetarian (okay, pescatarian, but that is so annoying), or just a normal human being, but I found the directions for preparing opossum particularly gruesome:

If possible, trap possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing. Clean, but do not skin. Treat as for pig by immersing the un-skinned animal in water just below the boiling point. Test frequently by plucking at the hair. When it slips out readily, remove the possum from the water and scrape.

Holy shit.

Having just read Julie and Julia at the beach this summer, I shouldn’t be shocked by these recipes; that book was brimming with all sorts of horrifying offal. But I was. Is this a thing of the past? Is it still going on in parts of America? And could dishes featuring these critters – plentiful in your average suburban neighborhood – become the next hot food trend, like bacon or cupcakes?

Last weekend I was unpacking the boxes still sitting in my dining room. Tucked inside an old recipe box of my mom’s, I found this little gem:

According to a stamp on the inside, it was a complimentary gift from a now-defunct Rockford restaurant. (Why a restaurant would encourage its patrons to cook is unclear.)

It contains all sorts of recipes for jello molds and cold luncheon salads and things calling for beef bouillon. A special section contains family recipes contributed by bright, shining diamonds of the ’80s like Ed McMahon, Loni Anderson and Nancy Reagan.

Mmmm, jelly beans.

I have no need for either this cookbook or the outdated Joy of Cooking. After all, do I want to kill, prepare and eat a muskrat? No. Do I believe the sexpot from WKRP in Cincinnati has a great pasta salad recipe? Probably not.

But I can’t get rid of these books. They make me nostalgic, assuming one can be nostalgic for something they don’t actually remember. They make me long for a time that seems both simpler (there is no mention of “organic” or “local,” though I suppose if you catch a possum it is truly “free range” and GMO-free) and way more complicated (did you read the directions for preparing that possum? For starters, you have to keep it as a houseguest for ten days).

Conveniently, I had a playdate this morning with a mom who had just made pumpkin muffins, and she gave me a great recipe. I told her about how my baking plans got sidetracked by the squirrel chapter.

“Oh, was that in The Joy of Cooking?” she asked.  I was surprised she was familiar with it.

Then she said, “That has directions for cooking a possum, too, right?”

Can you believe it?

So look out, 2014 culinary trends. Some furry friends just might be creeping your way.