Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Taking a Bite of the Gillett Coon Supper.

Gillett is a town of just 691 people along Arkansas’s Great River Road, a small community built around agriculture and southern tradition. But on one day each year, the town doubles in size in the first act of a year’s political drama.

This is not that story. As Alton Brown has so succinctly put it, “I’m here for the food.”

Every Arkansas politician of any renown has come through
Gillett at one time or another, including the most famous of
our native-born sons.
To talk about Gillett’s Coon Supper is not to reference one event, but two. The larger event happens each year as it has every year since 1933 (except during World War II) in the old high school gymnasium. The smaller event, though…

See, there was a gentleman who lived across the street from that high school. And starting back in the 1970s, he and his wife would open their home to a party before the annual get-together. That young man eventually decided to run for office, and the party became a political fundraiser. When Representative Marion Berry came home from Congress, the party became a different sort of fundraiser – one that sends two Gillett high school seniors to college each year.

The party remains a part of Arkansas tradition, though now it’s held on the Berry Farm rather than in the house in town.

Photographer Grav Weldon and I headed to Gillett on a brisk January Saturday to take in the two events. He gets a pass on never having gone before, but I don’t. Over the years there’s been every sort of reason I’ve missed out – from having to work at my television job to having a personal commitment to not being ready to head out again after having Hunter to being on the road. The biggest reason I’d not been before, however, stemmed directly from the timing – the event is usually held the second Saturday of January, and by the time I remember, I’ve failed to secure a ticket to the events. They always sell out.

We came into the Arkansas County town from Stuttgart via DeWitt with the singular direction from my friend Gabe Holstrom, to “follow the Berry signs.” The first signs we saw, though, were the Arkansas-shaped pickets for Pryor, in this case Mark Pryor, the U.S. senator who rightly used his daddy’s campaign logo as his own, a modern version of medieval heraldry passed father to son. Past that, we saw the “Berry for Congress” sign, big and blue by a gravel road, which we turned in to right after a massive black SUV before us.

Down the gravel road, still somewhat slick from the two-days-ago rain, way out into the verdant and soggy plain of an Arkansas field planted this past year with corn, a right turn past a rice paddy, a left turn onto a road headed out to a set of outbuildings.

Here there were cars parked side by side near what appeared to be a hangar – far too big to be a storage shed. Outside, three men tended a smoker, while two young boys threw rocks in a puddle.

My daughter, Hunter, had come along for the ride, and she played shy with the kids while I made introductions and found my direction. The men were lording over long skewers of bacon-wrapped meat in the chilly air.

I realized the vest that was enough to keep me warm in Little Rock with its trees and hollows and tall buildings wouldn’t stand up to the constant wind that stuttered unimpeded across the Mississippi River alluvial plain, and headed inside.

It was 3:30 on the dot. Concerned that we would be late to the party, we’d arrived on time, and within there were just a scattering of people tidying up the last minute details. These included making sure sponsor banners were in place, a bar was fully stocked and a long table loaded with food.

Of course, it was the food I meant to cover. Gathering information for an upcoming book and for this very blog, I knew the food would be what my readers would find curiosity in. I had already been warned about the coon coming tonight, and had been told to find good sustenance at the Berry Farm party before heading into town.
Grav and I darted about, checking out the edibles before the onslaught of attendees came through the door.

And my, weren’t there a lot of vittles – gourmet, yet more of a relaxed Delta gala than a high-dollar luncheon. Each item appeared to have been brought in by someone local – presented on someone’s kitchen service. There were cubes of cheese, thin slices of salami and smoked ham and a duck prosciutto that was absolutely divine. Someone had brought homemade pancetta, naked-looking and soft.

There were vegetable trays and fruit trays, a spread of crackers and a cheese ball and that strange blog of cream cheese covered in sauce you see at any gathering these days. There was a large cooler of peeled and deveined shrimp with sauce and a pile of soft rolls. There was a roaster full of venison stew packed with onions, carrots and potatoes.

And then there were the meats – not the deli meats but the hearty, bone-sticking meat you’d expect to sustain yourself in this sort of weather. From the smoker came big pork butts, which the ladies in the back would break open and shred and platter. There were big links of sausage. And there were Duck Bites.

The Arkansas Delta, after all, is known for its duck. Nearby Stuttgart is the Duck and Rice Capitol of the World, and the season is still underway. But this was no ordinary duck. I realized I had seen it already -- the skewered bacon-wrapped parcels on the smoker contained parmesan-breaded jalapeno-stuffed slices of wild duck that were only pulled off the grills when they started to char.

Gabe had told me these would go quick – and they did, even though it seemed like there might have been 50 pounds pulled from the smoke, they went quickly into the mouths and onto the plates of these individuals who came to the line, sometimes with a dollop of remoulade. And when they were gone, they were replaced with fall-apart good smoked turkey and chicken.

At 4:08 on the dot, the crowd swelled in. The first were individuals who had pulled up in their own vehicles and who’d been chewing the fat when they saw the big Little Rock Tours bus make its way through the field. They came in a rush ahead of the next rush, that of 60 men and women who had come down with another driver to take in both the events.

The empty farm hangar went from hollow echoes to a solid block of sound in seconds. They all came through the door, man and woman, a collection of suits and padded vests and ties and young men bearing campaign stickers for every flavor of Arkansas politician. After all, this is among all things a political event.

Amongst the politicians and business leaders, there were folks like me, camera and pad in hand, jostling about. The journalists, the TV crews and the newspaper folks and the radio guys, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by subjects. Interviews commenced left and right as fellows clapped each other on the back and young ladies giggled and cameras beeped – oh, to say snapped would be an antiquity – as the crowd filed in and filled out.

Congressmen, state representatives, farmers, businessmen, mayors… they were all there. I spotted fellow Arkansas writer Rex Nelson by the buffet, ran into Arkansas Museum of Discovery Executive Director (and fellow food writer) Kelley Bass by my table, even chatted with one of my former fellow producers from Today’s THV, Monika Rued. This was a place to wave and say hi and share a glance as it got louder – yes, I see you there, you see me, we’ve been here. The room was so loud a coherent conversation between any but the most able lip-readers were left smiling and nodding.

And then a break, as if the crowd had simultaneously reached the moment to take a breath or a swig of a beverage. At the door, there was a rustle and former congressman Marion Berry came in the room. And a swarm of people formed the most disorganized circular line in an effort to get a chance to thank him for his hospitality.

The governor was there. The networks – ABC and MSNBC – were there. A progressive Country act was playing in the corner, providing a soundtrack for the whole mess. And I quickly learned that the best way to have a conversation was right outside the doors, where the serious talk seemed to be happening.

Some 220 people turned out for the pre-supper party -- and the resulting crowd brought around $20,000 into the scholarship fund.  This particular gathering could be considered nothing but a success.

But, as I said, I came for the food. And soon enough it was time to head for the other event.

We arrived at the former Gillett High School a few minutes before six. There weren’t a lot of people in town at that point, and we were able to park in the lot. I hustled over to the gym door quickly with Hunter, jogging a bit to get there as I saw the glint of metal. I had expected to see cooking on the premises, but I realized at that moment that the cooking was already done.

What I was seeing was a line of men, young and old and wearing white aprons, darting back and forth from a truck into the building with aluminum trays of food. They were swift and organized, passing through the double doors into the gymnasium’s hall in shifts. I snapped a few shots and tried to keep out of the way.

Inside, two ladies sat at a table offering caps, ties and T-shirts by the main door to the interior. Across from them, a uniformed man stood at the ticket counter. This was for people to claim their ticket – the dinner had been sold out long before.

Within, the finely orchestrated work had begun. The tables were already set with commemorative glasses, Styrofoam plates and numbered programs, 800 in all, along two-sided tables. On either side of the gym, there were tables in the concrete bleachers – I suppose, what should be bleachers but which were really just a couple of sets of benches along each side. A musician was warming up on the stage – and there were places set right up to it as well. Every inch of space seemed to be taken.

The men worked in teams – the shifts of aluminum tray-carrying guys were directed to tables, where they sat deep tins of coon, ribs and brisket. Other men were working in sets – one man holding a tray of sweet potatoes while another dolloped out a serving on each plate. The same went for the cakes, the rolls and the rice. They were working as fast as they could – the doors would properly open at 6:30, and they had to finish before then.

I spotted amongst them a familiar face – Jason Grantham, who I met a decade ago or better. Ah, yes, the THV Wedding of a Livetime, a promotion we had run the first time back in the spring of 2001, I believe. Jason and Melissa, his bride, now have three girls – who he stopped to show me on his cell phone. I pointed Hunter out where she was standing in a corner by the bleachers, holding my notepad.

The pace was picking up, with all the tins at the tables and the dolloping still going on. I noticed something about each setting. They were all identical – plate with sides, glass with cup inside, tins… what was different were what sat under the rolls. Each of the rolls sat atop a slice of cake, individually wrapped in plastic. But the cake slices were different. There were so many – golden vanilla cake, Chocolate bundt, chocolate iced (not frosted) vanilla, peanut butter, chocolate-chocolate, strawberry, spice, carrot, cream cheese-topped butter cake. So many varieties.

It turns out the cakes are all made by ladies in town. They each make a cake or three, slice it and wrap the slices before handing them over to the Farmers and Businessmen Club, which oversees putting the Coon Supper together. In fact, everything at the Gillett Coon Supper is donated or sponsored.

And then, there’s the coon. Do people really eat raccoon at the Coon Supper? Why, yes they do.
I had stepped out of the main gym for a moment. I had caught glimpse of something crazy – a young man dunking a large cheesecloth sack into a garbage can filled with water on a big turkey fryer burner. He was making coffee for a crowd in the quickest way possible. He and the ticket keeper joked about it… but I suspected from the can’s coloration that this was not the first time it had been used to boil coffee.

The ticket keeper gave me some background. Used to be, only raccoon was served – 2000 pounds of it for up to 1200 people. But over the years it had changed. No longer was the eating of the coon something that political candidates needed to try… like a freshman hazed into a fraternity. No, today babyback pork ribs and beef brisket are also offered – thanks to Jennings Osborne. The beloved Arkansas philanthropist sponsored the dinner for many years, bringing in his epic grills and smokers and serving up barbecued meats alongside the coon.

Osborne passed away a few years ago, and the Farmers and Businessman Group managed to find other sponsors. And the coon? It’s harvested by people in the community who set traps for the furry mammals. For a couple of months before the event, there will be a stand alongside Highway 1 where you can turn them in. They’re purchased for $1.68 a pound – and a normal sized raccoon will garner three to four pounds of meat. Some years are better than others. This particular year, 700 pounds of raccoon had been trapped, purchased and smoked.

By this point, a line had started to form outside, and the other journalists were arriving to find their spots. Many of them were seeking out the politicians – to share later the who’s who attending the event – such as Senator Mark Pryor, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, former congressmen Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross (who are both eyeballing Mike Beebe's gubernatorial chair) and Representative Tom Cotton.  But Arkansas politicians weren't the only lawmakers on the guest book.  U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois was in attendance.  So was Senator Angus King of Maine and Senator Joe Donelly of Indiana -- all three of which came as guests of Senator Pryor.

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'll lay it out: the Gillett Coon Supper might as well be a mandatory campaign obligation for any lawmaker planning to make it in Arkansas.  Governor Beebe says this one was his 32nd -- and it's like as not part of the reason he keeps getting elected to office.

Grav and Hunter and I tucked ourselves out of the way in a corner while things got started.  Each person had a ticket -- either one given them in advance or picked up at the ticket keeper's counter -- and the mayor himself welcomed people into the gym and pointed them towards their seat.  Each row of tables sat 50 to a side, and helpful volunteers ushered folks into place.

I did get out amongst the crowd myself as the event filled in.  I met a lovely couple who read this blog, and asked if I might shoot a plate of coon.  They even offered a taste to Grav... who describes the flavor as such:
"It starts out nice and smokey, but there's too much smoke, and then it's just something I'm not sure I should have in my mouth."

Yes, I do chuckle at that.  Raccoon is, in my opinion, a dish best served stewed or soaked well in broth with dumplings.  It's a wild meat, of course, gray and a bit stringy.  You have to be hungry to eat it like this -- which, of course, these politicians are, very much so.

I happened to catch sight of the governor as he came in, laughing.  He was telling a reporter from one of the newspapers that this was like to be his last Coon Supper, since his days in office are nearly over.  Mr. Beebe gets this crowd, though, and he did his own measure of chuckling as he shook hands and posed for photographs.

His tenure here may be long, but it's not unprecedented.  I met one gentleman who's been coming for 56 years, and a lady who had attended or cooked at the supper for more than 60.  I also met beauty queens that squeamishly nibbled at their perfunctory piece of coon meat, grimacing for the cameras; young boys who relished the adventure of eating as many animals as possible in a sitting and young men attending with their camoflauge-and-booted girlfriends.  There was far more talking than eating, for sure -- but there was indeed eating taking place while hands were met and flesh was pressed.  Eating and listening and a whole lot of talking.

Old fashioned country music was but a note in the background as the volume swelled through the evening.  There's no alcohol served at the Gillett Coon Supper (unlike the Berry Farm party) -- for a multitude of reasons, which I'm sure have a lot to do not just with community preferences but also the lack of places to put up those that might need to sleep it off (the Rice Paddy Motel on Highway 1 only has 14 rooms) -- but there's really no need to lubricate tongues in a crowd like this.

We ended up leaving ahead of the crowd.  Hunter, bless her heart, had been patient through the evening, but when she told me she was ready to go home I was about ready to as well. And that gave us another view of what this event means to the community.  For six blocks around the school (located on the southwest corner of town) there were cars lined up on both sides of the road, with barely a car's width in-between to squeeze through.  Past the parking, the town was quiet and empty, block after block of silent homes lit by streetlamps and the ancient Christmas decorations still lining the roads.

Gillett is a town of just 691 people.  Its school today only offers classes for kindergarten through the fifth grade.  Older kids go to DeWitt schools 12 miles away.  There's just one restaurant in town -- the friendly diner at the Rice Paddy Motel, which offers a sustaining buffet often and has catfish on Fridays.
It's flat as a pancake and its downtown is a collection of lonely buildings without tenants, save the local bank.  But the sign on Arkansas Highway One says it all: Welcome to Gillett, Home of Friendly People and the Coon Supper.  And for one day each year, it's the center of Arkansas.

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