Down South: How to Cook a Raccoon

Photographs: Jed Portman

WARNING: This slideshow contains graphic images. Click with caution.

"Big George" Drayton comes by his nickname honestly. He is a stone pillar of a man. I remember him standing at the doors to Sea Island's Cloister hotelbuilt by my great-grandfather's brother in 1928back when I could hardly walk, smiling and calling out to guests by name. Drayton, 67, has worked at Sea Island for 45 years now. He grew up on a family farm near Hazlehurst, Georgia, a few counties inland.

While some of the culinary staples of Drayton's country childhoodfried chicken, biscuits, sweet potatoes and okrahave skyrocketed to headlining spots on big-city menus, baked raccoon, once a holiday treat for the Draytons and other rural families, has all but disappeared from the Southern dinner table.

"I grew up eating raccoon and sweet potatoes," Drayton says. "Once you put those sweet potatoes around him, and you parboil him, and you bake himlet me tell you, you have a good eat there. But none of the young people know how to do that."

Despite what you might think, raccoon tastes pretty good when cleaned and cooked properly. Like dark-meat chicken or turkey, though it is greasier and more tender than either.

Where can you find a raccoon to cook? If you live in the country, you might be able to buy one from a friend or neighbor. In South Georgia, I know, many more are shot and trapped than are cooked, and I imagine that most people would be more than happy to make money from a carcass that would otherwise go to waste.

If you can shoot, you can get one yourself. In some parts of the South, people hunt raccoons with dogs. 'Coon hunters in South Georgia, though, are more likely to go out with a powerful flashlight and a little .22 rifle. Have a friend shine a light into a live oak tree on a cold night, when the raccoons will be out feeding,* and you might catch the glimmer of a set of eyes. Get your gun up, quickly"Raccoons don't like to look at you," says my cousin, an avid 'coon hunter, "But they'll look at your light for a second"and shoot between them. Then follow Big George's instructions.

*Many of us associate raccoons with rabies, and for good reason; they have been known to carry the disease. Typically, though, rabid raccoons will not be feeding. And the cold weather this time of year kills many rabid animals anyway. Still, be on the lookout for any unusual behavior and, if you get a raccoon from someone else, make sure you know exactly where it comes from. As always, if it makes you uncomfortablefor safety reasons, not just because it's raccoondon't eat it.

More photos of 'coon in the slideshow >>