Recently I stumbled across an ad I had clipped long ago for ostrich meat. This novel entry into American cuisine had a meteoric life cycle. The question is begged, "What's next?”
That night, thanks to some particularly vicious salsa, I had a vision of one possible future:
As American taste buds grow more adventurous, innovative producers, such as Frank Lee Bonquers, of Paisley Flats, Ind., are responding to the demand for new and unusual, even unwholesome, products to satisfy this craving. Bonquers is on the ground floor of the hot new trend to "The Other Blue Meat”—opossum.
"Stop right there,” Bonquers told me as I toured his state-of-the-art confinement farm. "We prefer to use the term ‘possum' instead of ‘opossum,' to help pronunciation. The latter word also makes our product sound sort of Irish, rather than all-American.”
This evidence of marketing savvy was echoed in his overall vision of the future of marsupial ranching. "Possums have all the glamour of armadillos but with an attractive cuddly quality that consumers cotton to,” he explained. Moreover, he noted that to date, even the most liberal animal rights groups have been indifferent on possum consumption, which could be a big marketing advantage.
They will eat anything. Bonquers showed me around his impressive, yet bizarre, operation. "We invented most of the facilities you are seeing,” he said proudly. Actually, this fact would have been painfully apparent to even the most casual observer.
Nonetheless, we inspected every facet of his pioneering possum production facility.
Riding on the popularity of the hit TV series "The Beverly Hillbillies,” although some 40 years late, Bonquers has devised an ingenious production plan to supply exotic markets with fresh (as if you can tell) possum meat.
"We think possum fills a much-needed gap on the menus of America,” he said inspirationally. "I got the idea from visiting France in 1990. Those guys will eat anything!”
His farm of some 240 acres is devoted to raising and—even more horrifically—breeding the finest possums in America, a per-haps oxymoronic goal. "I often scour the countryside at night for new strains I can incorporate into our lines,” he said. He showed me several specimens he had captured recently over by Fool's Holler, and beauties they were, too.
After a 26-minute gestation period, newborn possums are transported (very slowly) on the backs, sides and bellies of their mothers to the modern possum nursery in a converted corncrib.
"Possums need room to hang and climb, so we built a lot of unnecessary cross-members and trusses. Recently, we added this simulated highway for them to relax by and wander across.
"I want to refute once and for all the old fable that possums are born full-sized and dead beside a road,” he said fiercely. "Actually, birth in the wild can occur anywhere.”
I asked how he developed his ability to tell good eatin' from just plain roadkill. "The secret,” he admitted slyly, "is in the curve of the haunches.” And that would be exactly where? He offered to demonstrate with a nearby possum that was crawling up his leg as he spoke. My memory is a little blurry beyond this point.
In response to questions about particular problems the species presents, he stated, "Probably the worst is loading out the ‘fats' for shipment to the processing facility. If they are in a bad mood, or someone passes with their headlights on, it can consume an enormous amount of time. And checking the pens for the sick or dead takes forever. If I had a dollar for every time I started CPR on one of these little fakers…”
But will it sell? In answer to this question, Bonquers produced a much handled restaurant review of possum cuisine with these passages underlined: "The flavor is certain to call to attention, if not ‘battle stations,' the most jaded taste buds,” "…gravy that defies both description and consumption” and "…a culinary presentation that was arresting, with the hope of a rapid conviction.” There was also an extremely short guide on what type of wine goes best with "critter.”
He told me about the slaughtering process, which is best left undescribed. "You know, we use every part of the possum,” he said. I didn't ask the most obvious question. I also declined his invitation to lunch.
I awoke in a cold sweat, unnerved yet strangely hungry.
John Phipps farms in Illinois and is the host of "U.S. Farm Report.” Visit www.AgWeb.com for station listings. To view past columns, visit www.FarmJournal.com or www.johnwphipps.com.
- Mid-November 2009