Brer Possum Makes a Visit



Disney’s Brer Possum

I don’t know how it happened, but late last year, an opussum got in our house. How it got in, we don’t know. The screen on the backdoor to our basement has a hole in it, and the backdoor had been open all day; maybe that’s how brer possum snuck in. Anyhow, I spotted him in the kitchen, and that caused a minor panic. My daughter and 10 month-old granddaughter were visiting, and I didn’t want some varmint foraging through our place. I called animal control, and they said they would show up… sooner or later.

I was able to corner the animal in the back of the kitchen, at which point it got real quiet. Had it gone into “playing possum” mode? I started to get antsy. I didn’t want to spend all night watching this poor animal and waiting for the animal control people to come. Now, I love animals as much as anybody. But I was seriously thinking about going “old school” on this critter. Like anyone with an interest in history, I looked in one of my dusty tomes for inspiration or help – in this case, Eugene Genovese’s masterwork Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made:

In more general terms, Lizzie Davis of South Carolina proclaimed, “Yes, child, de slavery people sho had de hand to cook.” Children, both male and female, learned to cook before they grew large enough for field work. Their mothers taught them when they could, and when they could not or would not, some old slave usually stepped in.

The slave recipe that has come down to us most prominently is for opossum-significantly, a food they (the slaves) obtained for themselves. “The flesh of the coon is palatable,” wrote Solomon Northup, “but verily there is nothing in all butcherdom so delicious as a roasted ‘possum.” Raccoon, ground hog, and other self-procured foods had their supporters. Anthony Dawson, an ex-slave from South Carolina declared, “I love ‘possum and sweet ‘taters, but de coon meat more delicate, and de hair don’t stink up de meat.” But opossum remained the favorite of the great majority.

From one end of the South to the other, the slaves prepared opossum in roughly the same way: parboiled and then roasted with lard or fatback. They used locust or persimmon beer to wash the meat down, and roasted it with sweet potatoes. For variety, the slaves might dry and smoke possum as they would hams. If the animal was young, they had the option of frying it, but frying was, for the most part, reserved for young rabbits, which were considered especially tender. Prepared one way or the other, opossum inspired the slaves to sing:

I

Well, ‘possum meat’s so nice and sweet,
Carve ‘im in de heart;
You’ll always find hit good ter eat.
Carve ‘im in de heart.

Refrain: Carve dat ‘possum,
Carve dat ‘possum, chillun.
Carve dat ‘possum,
Oh, carve ‘im in de heart.

II

De way to cook de ‘possum nice,
Carve ‘im in de heart.
First parbile ‘im, stir ‘im twice,
Carve ‘im in de heart.

III

Den lay sweet taters in de pan
Carve ‘im in de heart.
Nuthin’ beats dat in de lan,
Carve ‘im in de heart.

I couldn’t get those lyrics out of my head: “Carve ‘im in de heart… Carve ‘im in de heart…” And I knew that as the man of the house, it was my duty to protect my family. I was starting to convince myself, “it’s him or me.” But for some reason, I was salivating.

Just then, there was a knock on the door. Much to my surprise, a guy from animal control had come, and I hadn’t waited more than 50 minutes. It took him all of 30 seconds to grab brer possum and place the animal in a small cage. He left before my other family members even knew he arrived.

A little bit later, I asked my wife if she was cooking anything for dinner. “I’m going to roast some chicken,” she said. Darn, I thought. Chicken. The same-old same-old.

“I’m going out,” I told her. “I need some supplies for the printers.” But actually, I thought I’d take a drive through the park.

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