Chapter 4: A Squirrel In Every Pot“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'.”
-excerpted from Virginia Dreams (1910) by Maggie Pogue Johnson 
I ate my first possum at the Polk County Possum Club’s Annual Banquet in Mena, a small town about two hours by car from the famed Party resorts of Hot Springs, Arkansas. I met that possum a scarce few hours before I ate it. The man who had ‘treed’ the possum explained lovingly how he had fed the possum a diet of flaked corn and milk for 5 days to purge the ‘wild taste’. The Annual Banquet was held in the prime season for possum, I was told, so you didn’t need to purge the possums for quite as long as you would in a season where they may have been less discerning in their scavenging.
The possum I was served was cooked simply on a bed of sweet potatoes and onions and seasoned only with salt and pepper, red and black. The fat of the possum melted off the roast of the meat to form a rich gravy with the sweet potatoes and onions. It was a rare delight- the closest comparison one can give is pork, but possum is far removed from the commodity pork destined for hypermarket gammon and is closer in richness of flavor to the fattest of heritage breeds. If I had not had to stare into the beast’s eyes and look at its toothy grin, I would have guessed it was pork, fed only on acorns in some idyllic mountain forest in Spain. I would not have guessed it was a simultaneously vicious, stupid and adorable looking marsupial force-fed breakfast cereal in a galvanized cage for the better part of a week.
‘Possum and taters’ was not the only dish on the menu of the Polk County Possum Club’s Annual Banquet, nor were the possums the only attraction. Roast pork with gravy was offered to those attendees who were less adventurous (and who probably could have chosen a different Annual Banquet and been just as well off) and there were the standard ‘fixings’ of a community dining event of the American South- green beans, stewed greens, dinner rolls, sweet potato pie and more. There was live music (what would commonly be called “old-timey” music but was, in this case, provided by a high school band ), the display of possums in their cages before the meal by the competing hunters and all the pageantry and splendour of rural competitions, with grandmothers airing out their quilts, farmers standing stoically over a multitude of squashes and impassioned arguments about how to make a proper pie crust. After the main course was served, there was an initiation of new members into the Polk County Possum Club. I was sworn in by the local Party chair (himself a member in good standing) and was taught the secret symbols of the ‘possum man’- the right way to bare one’s teeth in the ‘possum grin’ and the contortion of the right hand which one must do to display the ‘possum sign’ to another ‘possum man’ in the know. I was regretfully informed that I was not the first foreigner to join- that honor went to a Haitian visitor in the 1970s, but I was the first subject of Her Britannic Majesty to be so honored by induction into the Polk County Possum Club. I maintain the distinction on my C.V.
What followed was a raucous burlesque of an earlier American tradition- the election of new officers of the Polk County Possum Club. There were accusations of fraud and various forms of tomfoolery, ‘ringer’ candidates (my name was put up for nomination but I was quickly passed over when it was realized I had nothing profound to say) and impassioned speeches about how possum-eating must not perish from the earth. The end result was that the slate of incumbents were all confirmed in their roles. The incumbent President, a 38 year old combine mechanic from Wickes, thanked the members for his reelection and gave closing remarks as the live band strained out the tune of ‘Carve Dat Possum’ and ‘Possum Up A Simmon Tree’.
America has a long tradition of eating wild game, of which the Annual Banquet I attended is only at the tail end. Some of this was a natural outgrowth of their material conditions- European settlers simply did not have access to the domesticated livestock of Europe in their new environs and they searched for proxies among the wild creatures of the strange new world they found themselves in. The first English language depiction of the possum made comparison to the pig in both the animal’s appearance and taste. Early Americans eating possum were trying to create a food intelligible to their European roots, something like the roast pork of Merry Olde England. Some was contact with the peoples they would by and large murder and displace- the word for possum is a borrowing from the Algonquin language- wapathemwa, or ‘white beast’ (although the possum I ate was rather more grey). The indigenous peoples of North America were wholly without domesticated livestock at the time of first contact. They were a people who found their protein and fat in the wilds or not at all. The prevailing school of anthropological thought in the Cooperative Commonwealth stresses these continuities, asserting that Americans on the frontier lived, ate, dressed, fought and thought more like the natives whose homes and fields they occupied than their European forebears. Only later during the 19th century did they adopt a veneer of performative ‘whiteness’ which would harden over the course of the century and beyond and shove the cultural relics of native contact into the dust heap of history. Another factor was the light hand of government and the lack of nobility across the Atlantic- early Americans had rights to the bounty of the forest in a manner unseen in England or across Europe. British and European peasants of the era would have eaten more game- if it wouldn’t have cost them their hand or their head.
All of this is somewhat of an oversimplification because all of the foods contained within the umbrella of ‘game’ have their own histories spread across the American continent. Venison was highly prized throughout American history, much as it was throughout Europe, and still is today, with farmed venison slowly coming into its own as a major food product of the reforesting of New England. American bison meanwhile, was largely despised by white Americans until its extirpation from the earth and while genetically pure American bison appear to be extinct, a breeding program has been in place since the 1930s to return the American bison to the Plains and to the dinner table. Possum was for much of the 19th century viewed as a dish for enslaved Blacks and poor whites, partly due to the fact that one does not need a gun to hunt possum but only a hound and partly due to the rhythms of chattel slavery- enslaved Blacks were allowed a certain freedom of the night, which is when one must hunt possums. The Polk County Possum Club, meanwhile, was exclusively white at its founding in 1913 and while it has no such strictures now, the area is still overwhelmingly white, the long hangover of a history of anti-Black pogroms during the Revolution and after. Raccoon, an animal similar to the possum in habits and diet, carries no such stigma where it is and was eaten throughout the South. Muskrat had a special popularity wherever Catholicism predominated due to positively medieval interpretations of what a fish is  and squirrel was more or less universally eaten if not particularly prized. Rattlesnake as far as I can tell is eaten mainly as a joke on foreigners. The main trend is clear, however- Americans ate more and more varied game going into the modern era than did their counterparts in Europe and Britain.
Like everywhere else in the world, wild foods retreated as America moved into modernity. This was in part due to the increased availability of commercial foodstuffs due to refrigeration and canning but also by changing tastes brought on by those advances and by increasing urbanization, declining costs, and rising incomes. Armour, Smith and Hormel had done their part to drive down the cost of meat, and the workers who didn't suffer under the conditions made famous in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle saw no need to make a big deal about how it got that cheap.
The Revolution saw the pendulum swing back in its own way towards the presence of game on the dinner table. The material cost of revolution is itself a controversial topic in American history and politics. For all the theorizing on the internal workings and coming crisis of capitalism, Marxist theory had given little thought to the disruption of material conditions in the event of revolution and the thinking men and women of the IWW and SLP gave little thought to addressing the question in the years that followed, as they set about experimenting with how to actually organize the economy of the Cooperative Commonwealth . Radical economist Scott Nearing’s dismissal from the Rand School of Social Science in the 1930s, echoing in its own way his dismissal from the Wharton School of Business in the capitalist era, was predicated at least as much on his teaching a seminar on calculating the material costs of revolution as on his own refusal to submit to the Socialist Labor Party’s oversight of what was once the academic arm of the Socialist Party of America . The acknowledgement that there was a material cost of revolution was itself anathema into the 1950s, although now the debate is confined mostly to magnitude and consequences. Regardless of any debate on the exact cause, we know that food prices increased throughout the 1920s, even as some argue it was merely an acceleration of patterns seen before the Revolution. What’s more, urbanization actually declined in the 1920s. American urbanization in the early 20th century was largely focused on smaller regional hubs across the continent rather than this or that metropole and it was from these regional hubs that people returned to their family farms, in a process of ‘deproletarianization’ that would colour the Party’s perception of rural America for decades to come.
The result of these two factors- a rise in food prices and a stagnant or declining urbanization rate- was an increase in game consumption, a thesis which is born out by period accounts and by documentary evidence. Brunswick Stew, a relative of the Party favorite mulligan stew and the American West mélange known in polite company as son-of-a-gun stew, was at one time prepared with squirrel. It was commonly prepared as part of a community event and so we have records of the recipes in newspaper accounts and in community cookbooks. Squirrel had largely been displaced in recipes by beef and pork. However, during the 1920s, squirrel began to appear in these community recipes again, in some places completely replacing the beef and pork and in others, serving as a utilitarian stretcher to those more prized meats. Wisconsin’s booyah and Kentucky’s burgoo saw similar trends, although they had their differences. Wisconsin’s booyah had never been known to include squirrel, while Kentucky burgoo had contained squirrel since its birth. Both booyah and burgoo are now defined by the inclusion of squirrel, although Brunswick Stew more often excludes it than not. “Mulligan Stew with Squirrel” even appears on the menu of the IWW-SLP elite frequented French Lick Springs Hotel in 1926. There were other trends as well- Oklahoma was home to a localized trend of ‘eating crow’ organized by farmers and health officials which would become far more prominent and famous during the Special Period.
What occurred in game consumption between the 1920s and the Special Period was less clear. Urbanization increased during the 1930s and 1940s, especially to the industrial cities of the Midwest. Incomes rose and, at the least, kept pace with the still-increasing price of food. There was some formal rationing in the war years, although this was primarily limited to imported foodstuffs, such as coffee and sugar. Administrators in the South encouraged the growing of sorghum for syrup, administrators in New England and the Upper Midwest encouraged more systematic tapping of maple and in the Great Plains and Mountain West, further planting of sugar beets. Due to America’s decision to sit out the war (at first with a doctrine of “equal and armed neutrality” and later as a clear economic and commercial participant on the side of the Allied Powers), Americans were likely some of the best fed people of the Second World War. The preference towards food exports in the Emergency Programs of the 1940s did begin to show signs of strain on the system, particularly in cereals, that were not reflected in the official price charts, although it is debated as to how severe such shortages were and whether these shortages were in any way related to the later dislocations of the Special Period. A large outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Texas in 1948 lead to a cull of cattle there and a temporary embargo on the Mexican border, which further increased beef prices and shortages. Sporadic outbreaks would continue alongside a vaccination campaign into the 1950s. Overall, however, game consumption likely remained the same or declined during the period.
The Special Period, meanwhile, thrust game on to the American table almost as a matter of policy. Faced with rising meat and grain prices and shortages, local administrators relaxed rules on hunting game beginning in early 1953, before there had been any official acknowledgement of the crisis. Industrial Union No. 440 (General Metal Product Worker’s Section) launched a ‘varmint rifle’ under the pre-Revolution brand name ‘King’ with a slogan of ‘For every man a King’ . This cheap airgun was heavier than a ‘plinking’ rifle but able to sustain repeat firing better than a rifle designed for large game. The King ‘54 Varminter was not by any means the only ‘varmint rifle’ available to Americans (the Savage Model 12, produced in Utica, New York before the Special Period may have actually been more popular) but the King ‘54 Varminter became enshrined in the Special Period era euphemism of ‘eating like a King.’ Crow eating went from being an oddity of Oklahoma to a national campaign in late 1953, with the eating of crow positioned as a way to boost crop yields and to provide much needed protein. Socialist Labor Party officials shared recipes for ‘crow pie’ which was little more than crow meat, salt, pepper and lard baked into a crust. ‘Public restaurants’, set up to remove the food waste of private preparation and feed large numbers of people quickly and cheaply, also put game on the menu. The Whitney Detroit, a public restaurant operating from the skeleton of a pre-Revolution lumber baron’s mansion, paid trappers for muskrats and was at one time reported to go through nearly 2,000 muskrats in a single day in 1954. The muskrat was braised in a creamed corn soup and was served with the distinctive coffee-can shaped brown bread of the early Special Period relief bakeries.
Even the Polk County Possum Club was impacted by the Special Period. The Polk County Possum Club was founded in 1913 as part of a jocular feud between lawyer J.I. Alley and Mena Mayor John H. Hamilton. The Club was merely a possum hunt between rural compatriots but in 1915, Dr. Ben H. Hawkins brought it to the formal dining area of the Mena Hotel and the Polk County Possum Club Annual Banquet was born. It continued as an annual community event uninterrupted- and largely ignored by the local Socialist Labor Party- until finally being suspended in 1947, with the minutes citing merely ‘lack of interest’. It was given new life in the late autumn of 1954 by Sam Walton, Socialist Labor Party Chair for the Ouachita Administrative Region, who alongside many of his counterparts across the country was asked to experiment in building food resiliency and boosting morale. Many of them turned to community food festivals- Pie Town in the Socorro Administrative Region of New Mexico is one of the more famous such examples. The 1954 minutes of the Polk County Possum Club make scant reference to the ‘old’ Polk County Possum Club, merely assuming the title, and the opening remarks reference ‘the war against hunger’ of the most recent Emergency Program. The Annual Banquet which I attended was formally separate from the Socialist Labor Party, although it was still attended by the Chair to swear in new members from the community.
The place of game on the American menu now is minimal. Crow pies are still served in rural roadhouses, the same places where one can sometimes find scrambled brains with eggs or fried frog legs. The crow pie I have had is best described as pleasantly gamey and so dry as to need all the grease it can possibly get. The crust, as with most American pies, is always impeccable. Game meats to the American are an occasional and an intentional indulgence, a celebration of the rural and the ‘old time’, like the Polk County Possum Club into which I was initiated. Americans who still themselves hunt may enjoy game as a regular part of their diet, but it has largely disappeared from the public and quotidian meal. Instructions for dressing and preparing game- always a target for removal by Francophiles and sophisticates- were removed from the 1977 revision of The Science of Easier Living, although they remain in The Principles of Cookery For The Cooperative And The Home. The memory of eating muskrat and possum and raccoon in the hard times of the Special Period are to some people, a symbol of desire and longing for times gone by. To others, the memory of ‘eating crow’ would inspire instead the imagining of a world of sanitization and standardization, a world which could move beyond meat altogether.
 This dialect poem can appear jarring to a British reader, but Black American Vernacular English is routinely taught to American schoolchildren and has been since the 1970s. Radical language education initiatives teaching non-standard Englishes like that of Maggie Pogue Johnson were one of the many ‘wildflowers’ which ‘bloomed’ from the Nearing Movement of the 1960s. I find the poem has a certain sensuality and economy of style that anyone may enjoy.
 The standard method of catching possums is to run them up a tree with hounds and wait for them to fall paralyzed to the ground.
 Equivalent in age to pupils in lower secondary or college in the United Kingdom.
 For an eminently readable overview of the topic I would recommend Forged By Fauna: Memory and Genocide on the White Frontier by John O'Brien (University of Alabama Press).
 There is a boating club in Michigan which is rumored to put on the largest muskrat dinner in the world but I have not yet had the opportunity to go.
 A common joke goes that the first generation of SLP officials were intellectuals and agitators forced to be administrators, that they were followed by a generation of administrators who wished they were intellectuals and they are now being followed by a generation of intellectuals who wish to be agitators.
 Nearing was not a Marxist, describing himself instead as “just a tough U.S.A. radical”. His eventual rehabilitation from his self-imposed exile in Vermont by explicitly Marxist radicals is itself an irony of American history the éminence grise himself acknowledged. Other post-scarcity thinkers rehabilitated by the Nearing Movement were largely dead, so we don’t know how bemused they may have been.
 The official reason for the release of the King ‘54 Varminter was to provide a cheap and reliable means of pest defense to the American farmer.