Only a handful of generations ago, there were few things as valuable in the mountains and back hollers as a good possum dog. A canine that could tree America’s only marsupial often meant the difference between a family going hungry for the evening and one eating high on the, eh hum, possum.
Foreign to any animal known to Europe, the early settlers at Jamestown found the American Opossum to be one of the most intriguing features of the new world.
In 1608, famed explorer John Smith wrote about the nocturnal animal, stating, “An Opassom hath an head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh her young.”
In the days ahead, Virginia’s early settlers soon allowed their fascination for opossums to be turned into an appetite for the animal that is about the size of a domestic cat.
In the 1856 book, “Audubon,” a typical fall day in early America was described, a day that ended climatically with the harvesting an opossum:
“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 chinquepins 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”
In an era when food was scarce and few enjoyed the opportunity to partake of pork, possums served as a critical fill-in.
Even as recently as 1962, the Joy of Cooking published an article regarding how to properly prepare a possum, stating, “If possible, trap ‘possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killling. Clean, but do not skin. Treat as for pig by immersing the unskinned animal in water just below the boiling point. Test frequently by plucking the hair. When it slips out readily, remove the possum from the water and scrape. While scraping repeatedly, pour cool water over the surface of the animal. Remove small red glands in small of back and under each foreleg between the shoulder and rib. Parboil, page 134, 1 hour. Roast as for pork, serve with turnip greens.”
Other possum recipes included baking the animal into a pie or pastry… sounds yummy!
Though you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who will readily admit to eating opossums in 2017, the animal’s role upon the North American continent has not diminished by measure — infact, they are possibly more important to our nation today than ever before: Rarely transmitting diseases to humans and being surprisingly resistant to rabies – mainly because they have lower body temperatures than most placental mammals – opossums limit the spread of Lyme disease by eating ticks.
Yes, they’re ugly and you may find yourself playing possum if you ever find one on your dinner plate, but make no mistake about it, the North American Opossum is one of the most valuable critters your eyes will come in contact with all year!
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