Game for Anything

Ed Ayers sits down with food historian Fred Opie to talk about about how many types of small game came to be rejected by middle class African-Americans. Plus, the hosts debate the cultural significance of eating game meat.

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BRIAN: Hey there, podcast listeners, if you’re in the Washington DC area, come see BackStory live, Tuesday, July 19th at George Washington University. We’re going to be covering the history of the complicated relationship between US presidents and the press. We’re going to have lots of great guests on stage, and you really don’t want to miss this one. To find out the details and reserve free tickets, head to our website, or a Facebook page. We hope to see you there. And remember, operators are standing by.

ED: Hey, Brian, Peter, I had an interesting conversation with food historian Fred Opie. He’s a professor at Babson College and author of Hog and Hominy; Soul Food from Africa to America. In the 1970s, Opie said he discovered that his aunt cooked and ate raccoons, rabbits, and other small game that could be hunted or trapped. This was probably the soul food movement that emerged in the 1960s. But Opie said that hunting and eating small game was actually quite contentious.

PETER: Right.

ED: I want to play you a brief clip of our conversation.

FRED OPIE: Certainly, there are groups of people who I would call food rebels among African-American community who saw small game as a negative. And I’ll give you two for example. Dick Gregory, the comedian, saw the whole soul food movement, and consumption, and preparation of that type of food as unhealthy, as genocide to the black community. Then you have the leader of the nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, who started an organization in the 1930s. His mantra throughout was, you need to turn away from anything that is associated with the slave diet, the slave mentality, and the slave regime. For many enslaved Africans, they did receive rations from their masters, but they were forced to continue to hunt small game to supplement their diet or starve. So, for many people, the consumption of small game became associated with slavery. And, therefore, to eat like that, is to eat like a slave in many people’s mind. So, I think that’s an important dimension of how we look at small game like opossum, raccoons, rabbit, et cetera.

ED: So, Fred, as you kind of discovered this part of your heritage, did you think of it as this is ethnic, this is regional, this is class?

FRED OPIE: Well, think when you’re within your own family or ethnic community, you do seem to think this is us and this is symbolic or representative of who we are, and you’re proud of it. But as you travel, as you learn, as you read, as you talk to people outside your community, it certainly has been my case in the process of doing a book tour, that people would ask me questions or come up to me afterwards and say, you know, I’m from Pennsylvania, we did that too. And that’s the thing that was most interesting to me. What I thought was African American was not, it was a rural people, rural societies, people who come from societies where they regularly hunted as a way of life.

ED: So, guys, if I’d been at Fred Opie’s book talks, I might of asked him a question about this. So let me share a story with you all, and you help me figure out what it means. All right?

PETER: Go for it.

ED: So, when I was growing up, my grandparents lived way up in the mountains of North Carolina. A house built back in the 1860s, and they didn’t have a telephone until I was 15 years old, and so forth. And, sometimes young cousins would bring girlfriends or boyfriends to visit, but we had this uncle who was an insurance agent over in Johnson City, Tennessee, and he found it deeply amusing to torment both his nephews and nieces, and our guests, by pretending with a very straight face that we were getting ready to eat possum or squirrel. Yeah. But, we never did.

BRIAN: You knew– you knew you were going to eat raccoon all along.

ED: Exactly. You know. So, you know, it was kind of eye rolling– OK, come on, Uncle Ray, we do not need to do this. But, looking back on it, I realized that he was recognizing that somebody coming into that house with a rusted roof and all this stuff on the outside might very well be suspecting that they would be eating raccoon, or opossum, or something. So, I don’t really know how this fits in or on the grid that Fred Opie just sketched for us. Could you help me figure it out?

BRIAN: I can’t help you at all, Ed. I just don’t do small game. But, Peter–

PETER: He’s a big game eater.

BRIAN: Exactly. And I don’t mean Cecil the Lion either. But, Peter represents a century where I know there was a lot of small game, and I’m assuming they ate it. I’m just curious to know whether there were social distinctions between the people who did and people who didn’t.

PETER: Well, Brian, throughout most of American history, it’s very important what you eat, but most of the time it’s determined by where you are and what’s available. And you’re part of a food system. That sense of identifying with the land in an agrarian in republic, everybody’s a farmer just about. What you can produce, and what’s easily available in neighboring forests, well, that’s what you will eat. Now, the real question is, who departs from that standard? And a few very rich people will do that, because they can’t afford to import breeding cattle from England, and have the very best roast beef– and, overcook it, of course, so they can be a real Englishman. But, I think things have reversed. Now we live in a world of choice, rather than a world that’s determined by what’s at hand.

And, as for opportunistic small game in frontier areas where there’s a lot there for the taking– well, I think any group of people would do that. There’s no ethnic, racial class distinction.

ED: So, I was trying to think about why my uncle thought that was such a funny thing to do. I think we were all kind of anxious that people would think that we’d not really moved beyond all that.

PETER: Yeah. Exactly.

ED: But, by the 1960s and 70s when this was, you know, of course we could just go to the store and buy whatever we wanted. We wouldn’t have to do that, even if we weren’t rich. And so, by this time, we were eating chicken that was gotten at the supermarket– right? Just like they would have back home, fixed country style. So, there’s that. But, I think the way you put that, Peter, is great. Is that, we tend to forget that what we eat is sort of laden with meaning, as well as today, with fat. And it’s not always obvious what it means.