Sunday, June 6, 2010

Flashback to January -- Gillett Coon Supper

Arkansas wouldn't be Arkansas without its many and varied political traditions. The Gillett Coon Supper is a staple of the Democratic existence in this state. Every January, the local community comes together to host the event, which probably brings in more politicians, their flacks, and media than the town's entire population, which can't be more than 800 or so. The road that takes you to this Arkansas County town is rural, and cell service completely disappears at several points along the way.

The event is held in Gillett High School's cafeteria. It began as a fundraiser for the school's football team, and over the years, it became one of the most important annual Democratic political rallies. Any Democratic politician who cares about his political future in this state would not dare miss it.

The school no longer operates as a school because it had so few students, it was shut down a few years ago and its students consolidated into a nearby school district. Regardless, the festivities go on, and for weeks prior to the event, Gilletters (Gillettians?) prepare by defrosting the raccoon meat they'd hunted months prior (whenever coon hunting season is), smoking it, cooking side dishes and baking desserts. This is no white tablecloth affair; the coon is served in plastic buckets set out on school cafeteria tables. It is a grisly meat, served in little chunks, and it's difficult to compare its appearance to anything else I've tasted. One bite was about more than I could handle.

Below, Gabe Holmstrom from the Democratic Party of Arkansas (left) showcases the goods:

If you don't like coon -- and most people don't -- there is an alternative: ribs on steroids.

As I said, the entire Gillett community gets behind this moneymaker, and the kids' role is to adorn the cafeteria with raccoon-themed art:
Guests are greeted by neon coon:

If you're lucky, you get to precede the main event at soon-to-be-retired U.S. Congressman Marion Berry's farm. The road is actually named after the Congressman's family. This year, Governor Beebe's office made a strong showing:

Many Coon Supper veterans had advised me to eat at Berry's thing instead of waiting for the coon, but I wasn't too inspired when I found dishes like the following:
Duck bites.
In Gabe's words: "Marinated duck, rolled in breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese, wrapped in bacon, stuffed with a jalapeno, and then put on the grill."

Berry served tamales too, yet another dish I have come to associate with Arkansas, I suppose because of the tradition of eating steak and tamales at Doe's, a political hotspot in downtown Little Rock.

At the main event, each politician who wants it gets the floor:
Marion Berry:
Governor Beebe:

One of the first times I heard about the Coon Supper was at a speech at the Clinton Library, when Dale Bumpers and Bill Clinton reminisced about a snowy January in 1988. Not even a plane crash on the way to the event could deter them from making the obligatory appearance.

I'll leave you with Bumpers' own telling of the story from his autobiography, The Best Lawyer in a One-Layer Town (he mistakenly cites the years as 1987; it was 1988):

Arkansas had suffered an unusually big snowstorm in January 1987. It had snowed twelve inches on Friday, but the sun rose on a crystal-clear, but very cold, Saturday. The Gillett Coon Supper, an absolute must for all politicians, was scheduled for that evening. Gillett was a community of about nine hundred people, and the nearest airport was fifteen miles away in DeWitt. It was not uncommon for a thousand people to attend the supper. I had decided that driving the one hundred miles would be hazardous, and flying was out of the question, so I had mentally scrubbed the supper for that evening, though I had not yet notified the sponsors of the event.

About 2:00 p.m., Bill Clinton, then governor, phoned to tell me the county judge in Arkansas County had called to say he had used the county road graders to clear the runway and that it was in fine shape. Bill said, "Why don't we share a plane and go on down?"

I hesitated, but he was insistent, and I finally agreed. As I left our apartment to go to the airport, Betty said, "You and Bill Clinton both need a saliva test." She was right.

It was dark when we got to the airport. I was accompanied by a woman who had recently joined my staff as an agricultural aide, and Clinton had a state trooper with him. It is impossible to distinguish a mountain from a valley when flying over a snow-covered landscape, especially at night. The pilot, fearing some snow may have melted during the day and refrozen when the sun went down, wanted to land as close to the end of the three-thousand-foot runway as possible. What he didn't know was that the county road graders had pushed a lot of snow to the end of the runway, creating a six-foot-high snowbank. The snowbank had thawed somewhat during the day and, as the sun had set, refrozen into an iceberg.

Clinton was in the middle of a story when the nose wheel hit the iceberg. It made a terrifying noise, and the plane shuddered. While we were all startled -- no, terrified -- we suddenly went careening across the pasture next to the runway. We finally came to rest in the pasture with the nose wheel collapsed and the propellers bent double. I yelled, "Open the door, Bill! This thing is going to catch on fire."

Before he could respond, the trooper quickly reached across him and unlocked the door. We all piled out and started running through the snow to escape the plane. As we ran, Bill said, "Boy, I bet we never lose another vote in Gillett." Stark terror suddenly turned to humor.


  1. Duck bites actually sound really good. Yum.

  2. I have only experienced one Gillett Coon Supper, and it was certainly a memorable occasion.

    On the way to the supper and pre-party, the crew with whom I traveled realized that I had never visited Mack's Prairie Wings in Stuttgart, and they found this fact to be unacceptable. (For those who are unaware, as I was, Mack's is basically Stuttgart's version of Bass Pro Shop or the like.) We stopped and spent some time perusing Mack's, and I even had my picture made in front of the store. The coon supper and Mack's made for a very memorable Arkansas experience for this Texas girl.

    Though the food was disgusting, looking at your pictures makes me wish that I had gone this year, too. Next year, we're there.

  3. Jill - getting your picture "made" is another Southernism for me. Had never heard that before moving here, it was always get your picture "taken."

  4. Must share this Tom Friedman column from the NYT from 1993, discovered by friend/coworker/reader Amanda Richardson. It's a great piece on the relationships among trio Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor. And it drops a few other pretty big Arkansas political names too:

  5. In a book review in The New York Times, William Grimes relays author Andrew Beahrs' interpretation of the infamous Arkansas event: "He attends a Coon Supper in Arkansas -- raccoon tastes like the dark meat of a chicken with the texture of pot roast, we learn..."