If we’re honest, the Gillett Coon Supper is barely about the unique food served to the hundreds in attendance. Instead, the dinner, celebrated 73 times since its inception in the 1940s, is all about the attendees. Every year, on the second Saturday in January, Arkansas’ political elite, political wannabes and morbidly curious (that would be me) descend and double the population of Gillett to rub elbows, see, be seen and tactfully politick for themselves or their candidate. And yes, to sample the flavor of an animal more often seen dead on the roadside than alive.
My family and I arrived on time to the now-shuttered Gillett High School with some friends to find the gymnasium already half-full and boisterous. More than half a dozen rows of tables stretched the length of the old basketball court. Orange and black banners suspended from the wooden ceiling championed the former school’s athletic conquests. A three-man ensemble called a “prison band” (whether they were actually from the prison I never found out) competently played fun rockabilly versions of well-known American classics.
The event is a must-go for Arkansas politicians. Would-be senators Connor Eldridge and Curtis Coleman brought their families, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was seen smiling and laughing, and even Sen. John Boozman made sure he didn’t miss the night. And while more campaign flyers and smiling handshakes than I could possibly count were thrust upon me, even those soliciting votes were obviously enjoying themselves. The quietly desperate air that normally accompanies pre-election campaigning was nowhere to be found.
But even though politics intrigues me at times, I am a food writer, and my entire reason for attending rested in aluminum bread pans wrapped tightly in foil on every table. I had never tasted raccoon before Saturday night and was honestly expecting the worst. Raccoons are typically nasty little scavengers that eat a widely varied diet, and I couldn’t see how that would translate into a scrumptious meal. But I found myself pleasantly surprised. The meat, obviously either brined or marinated, was cooked very slowly until tender. The process tempered the gamey nature of the muscle, leaving behind a meat with the texture of smoked pork and the flavor of a decent venison. Ribs and brisket were also served, but honestly, the coon was better than both. And while it appeared scraggly and mystified me as to which parts of the critter I was eating, the whole experience was enjoyable.
And that’s the important part here. The annual Gillett Coon Supper is an experience, one that belongs on the bucket list of every Arkansas foodie and politico. It’s an entirely Arkansan festival, celebrating decades of history and culture that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. The money raised goes to provide college scholarships for area high schoolers, but the memories are for everyone. Don’t let the prospect of a strange main course dissuade you. This supper should be experienced by everyone at least once. Put it on your to-do list for next year.