Discovering Danville's famous raccoon dinner, a Kenyon student muses on socio-culinary boundaries and the people behind the slow cookers.
Story by Hannah Kingsley-Ma '13 | Illustration by Zohar Lazar
The first thing you notice about a plate of stewed raccoon is its color.
The meat itself is distressingly pink: it gives the suggestion of something raw, flesh not quite cooked. Eating raccoon is a lesson in raccoon anatomy. I stealthily picked out a diverse range of bones in hopes that my neighboring diners wouldn’t notice my Styrofoam coffee cup concealing perfectly intact vertebrae, a pinky-sized femur. The meat is moist and tender—it falls from the bone like lamb from a shank. Slow roasted for three-plus hours, these raccoons are prepared for the annual Danville Lions Club Raccoon Dinner, a tradition that has persisted for sixty-nine years.
The village of Danville is a mere twenty-minute drive from campus. The village’s website describes its 1,100 residents as possessing “homegrown pride and downhome values.” In many ways, the raccoon dinner epitomizes this slogan. Every February, hundreds of Danville residents, along with a good many visitors, dine on Procyon lotor as a way of raising money for college scholarships, Boy Scout programming, and other community initiatives. It’s hard not to describe the event as an example of “small-town geniality,” partly because this is the way Danville residents see it themselves. “You don’t want to talk bad about anybody,” one fellow diner cautioned me, “because they’re probably related.” I wanted to avoid falling into the sentimental trappings of writing about rural America. But conventional wisdom was inescapable. Everyone I talked to spoke of community, not as a nostalgic ideal but as an enduring way of life. And everyone, including a somewhat reluctant me, partook in the eating of two hundred raccoons.
Those responsible for organizing the dinner all have designated roles: head hunter, head trapper, head cooker, and raccoon liaison (who coordinates the process, from hunting to stewing). Leonard Mickley is the primary hunter, responsible for collecting the raccoons. Both his grandfather and his father held the post before he. In the months preceding the dinner, Mickley and his dogs hunt in the nocturnal hours, when the raccoons are out. Asked if they were combative, Mickley told me matter-of-factly: “They’re ill-tempered. They’re just like little bears.” I wanted to know if they bit. “They would if they had a chance,” he said with a wry smile.
Sitting next to me at dinner were the Murphy brothers, first-timers who had driven up from Sunbury, Ohio. Ralph Murphy first began hunting with his father. “I used to hunt raccoons probably fifty, sixty years ago,” he told me. “My dad hunted and trapped, and that’s how he made his living.”
I asked if they enjoyed the taste of raccoon meat. Ralph’s brother shook his head. “It doesn’t taste like anything,” he said disparagingly of the Danville stew. “They took the taste of wilderness right out of it. I think it’s because they soak it in salt water.” Ironically, wilderness was exactly the unforeseen flavor I wished to avoid. To taste wilderness is to taste inalienable difference—to cross that boundary between the domesticated familiar and the frighteningly unknown. Prior to tasting the raccoon, I remained hopeful that I would find it resembled some other, more recognizable species. This proved not to be the case. As one diner tactfully put it: “It has an outdoor taste to it. It is a unique taste.”
Meanwhile, my presence as a conspicuous outsider was attracting attention. A reporter from the Mount Vernon News was dispatched to my table, asking me questions as the News’s veteran photographer, Virgil Shipley, snapped pictures. “Look natural!” Rhonda the reporter commanded, snapping her fingers. “Virgil hates posed photos!” This task proved to be impossible. Surrounded by Boy Scouts monitoring tables with pitchers of Sprite and grandmas in hairnets ladling scoops of mashed potatoes, I could not feel more out of place. I felt guiltily anthropological about my inquisitiveness, and I wondered if the compulsion to come here was, in its own way, objectifying, even if it stemmed from an earnest desire to try to learn about the life beyond our college’s hilltop gates. I don’t mean to suggest that everything about Danville is hunky-dory or impervious to the grievances implicit in modern living. But I have come to believe that years of tradition mixed with a stalwart insistence on the continued existence of community creates a warmth specific to shared experience.
The tradition of eating raccoon transcends this small Ohio town, I have learned. Raccoon even reportedly made an appearance at the White House Thanksgiving meal during the Coolidge presidency—or almost did. First lady Grace Coolidge grew attached to the intended entrée and spared its life. She named the raccoon Rebecca and had a play-pen built for her in a White House tree.
The Danville dinner began in the 1940s, when six members of the Lions Club got together in a basement to partake of “raccoon, beer, and cards,” I was told. The event was all-male until 1973. (Local lore has it that a woman from Columbus stood in line in protest, demanding to be let in.)
The governing matriarch of the kitchen is Barb. Barb has been in charge of cooking the raccoon meat for over twenty-five years. Her father-in-law was one of the six founders, and the recipe was passed down to her through the family. Mickley and his men hunt about a hundred raccoons, and the head trapper nabs another hundred. The men bring the carcasses to a meat locker just outside of town. The description of headless, tailless raccoons given to me by the town’s pharmacist brought to mind the steely rhetoric of television mobsters. Buckets of raccoon meat are then transported to a handful of Danville homes, where daughters, mothers, and granddaughters dutifully brown the meat on their kitchen stoves. Then each party brings the seared meat back to the community center, where it roasts in a line of slow-cookers under the watchful eye of Barb.
I thought back to the jaded denizens of my hometown, San Francisco, most of whom share a pornographic obsession with artisanal cuisine, and envisioned trying to convince them to indulge in a steaming portion of raccoon. “Try it, you’ll like it!” I imagined myself shouting. “It’s local; it’s like so local.”
At the end of the evening, Barb brought me over to one of the simmering cauldrons of meat, thigh bones, and indistinguishable nubs bobbing to its unctuous surface, and offered me a platter of leftovers. I simultaneously tried to think of the most oblique way to refuse her offer and the most sincere way to tell her how much I had enjoyed my time spent in her company.
That night I returned to Kenyon to boast of how much fun I had while everyone else wasted away doing sociology homework or watching Internet television. When I came in, my roommate wrinkled his nose, saying: “What’s that smell?” I realized that every article of clothing I was wearing was infused with the gamey scent of raccoon stew.
I crawled into bed and lay on my stomach for a couple of hours, thinking of the conversations I had had with people I would most likely never see again. Before we had parted, Ralph Murphy told me about his recent trip to a hunting reserve in Africa.
“I shot a kudu,” he said, describing its leaping gait and the twist of its antlers. For the first time in my life, I thought about what it might taste like.
An English major who graduated in 2013, Hannah Kingsley-Ma wrote a longer version of this essay as part of an independent study with Katharine Weber, the Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing. Her goal, in this and other pieces of creative nonfiction, was to explore places and people in areas surrounding Kenyon while grappling with the challenges of writing as an outsider. “We are tethered to the imagined geographies we create for ourselves,” she explains, “and no understanding of place can be extricated from the personal experience of living there, however unfairly subjective that perspective might be.” Both as a student and since graduation, Kingsley-Ma has blogged for the online literary magazine the Rumpus.