Hunted, cleaned, brined and smoked. Nearly 800 lbs. of raccoon has been purchased, at just under $2 a pound, for the 76th annual Gillett Coon Supper, set for Jan. 12, 2019.
The Coon Supper, hosted by the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club since 1947, puts the banded critters at the center of the feast and began as a way to praise successful hunts, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.
“We make them leave one foot on the carcass, so we know it’s a raccoon and not somebody’s big kitty cat. We have quality control,” jokes Larry Bauer, treasurer of the club.
Today, even more notable than the main dish is perhaps the company who gather to eat it.
Once a hunting supper, the event now welcomes politicians, state and nationwide, to gather with the locals and double the population of Gillett for a day. Bauer says the governor, U.S. congressmen and senators are allowed to speak, but there are no campaign speeches given.
Bauer explains the politicians started showing up years ago when then-Congressman Marion Berry invited lawmakers to his home for a reception before the dinner.
According to Berry’s former staffer Gabe Holmstrom, who now works as the executive director of the Downtown Little Rock Partnership, this reception grew – moving from the congressman’s home to a pool shop downtown and now to Berry’s farm shop. Even after the congressman retired, his son, Holmstrom and other former staffers and friends took it over. For Holmstrom, it’s now a 100 percent volunteer event.
“We do it because it’s a lot of fun and there’s something to be said about getting all these folks out of the city, coming out to a farm shop and having a good time for a night,” Holmstrom says.
The people of Gillett keep their company’s bellies full throughout the day of events. Nearly 350 people show up for the reception and the Coon Supper has sold almost 600 tickets so far.
“It’s amazing to me, as long as I’ve been doing this, how many people come year after year after year,” Bauer says, calling the event a reunion of sorts for some guests.
To feed this kind of turn out, there’s only one place to go – the community, and from what Holmstrom and Bauer said, the community members show up in a big way. Along with the buckets of barbecued raccoon, the men of the community fix brisket and ribs and the women make baked sweet potatoes, rice and sheet cakes.
The supper and reception also help to give back to the community. Bauer explains the club is giving out $4,000 scholarships, with the money distributed over four years, to local students. After the 2019 event, the club will have given just over $78,000 in its years of hosting the event.
As for the reception, Holmstrom sas it raises money for the Marion and Carolyn Berry Scholarship, which goes to an Arkansas State University student who wants to intern in D.C. in the field of public service.
“It’s expensive to live in Washington D.C., even for a summer. So, this is a great way to give them a little money to offset some of those costs and encourage people that might not have the ability to do something like that to apply for those,” says Holmstrom.
Though the money goes to a good cause, some folks might still wonder – is the raccoon worth the trip?
“I’ve had people call and ask if we had take-out,” says Bauer.
The ‘coon-noisseurs” will tell you – anything can taste good with enough barbecue sauce.
“It has its own unique flavor. I kind of maintain that if you put enough barbecue sauce on anything, it’ll be alright,” Holmstrom says.
Or as former Pres. Bill Clinton put it in this Wall Street Journal blog, “We got to the supper and filled our plates with beans, slaw, and barbecued raccoon. My advice: you’ll have a great time if you put a lot of barbecue sauce on the coon.”
The Berry Pre-Coon Supper Reception starts at 3:30 p.m. and tickets are $30 each. Doors for the Coon Supper open at 6 p.m. at the Gillett School gymnasium. Tickets for the supper are $25.
There will be live music at each event.