The first time I ate a raccoon was about 11 years ago. Some were raiding the chicken coop where we lived, so my roommate and I were charged with dispatching. We trapped one in a Hav-a-Hart, killed it, and being equal parts curious and broke, we cooked it.
We braised the first raccoon with a bunch of chili peppers, aromatics, and stock. I was honestly conflicted about the whole ordeal. On the one hand, it smelled damn good as it was cooking. On the other hand, I had a mental block on raccoon as a food.
I was brought up to view raccoons as a pest, nuisance, or varmint—never as table fare. I see city raccoons rummaging through trash cans eating pizza, French fries, and who knows what else. Despite what my nose was telling me, I wanted to not like the raccoon. It would be an easy out. If it wasn't good, it would affirm my preconceived notions, and I would be exonerated from having any nagging moral issues with dispatching it and not eating it.
It turned out that it was pretty good. I actually remember being disappointed that it was so good. This was a mental hurdle—if this is good, what else have I been missing out on? Do I have to eat a bunch of raccoons now? Do I want to be the guy living in a basement apartment, killing and eating raccoons?
Since my roommate and I had already become the guys living in a basement trapping and eating raccoons, we decided to embrace that fact ended up killing and eating a few more raccoons before they got wise to the traps.
Food bias is just like any other bias: it exists and we all have some. Certain ones are easier to overcome than others, but if you think you’re bias-free, you are wrong. Raccoons represent a food bias that intertwines with many other cultural and class-based biases. They’ve been a food item much longer than they have not, but even when they were common table fare, they were a food associated with subsistence, poverty, and lack of opportunity. Well-to-do people ate beef or pork, not varmints.
As Americans shifted their lifestyles and cultural preferences away from traditional foodways and into a more commodified, uniform diet, the bias against eating varmint (and most other wild game) shifted. All of a sudden, eating game at all was weird. Varmint was almost unthinkable. Today, I’d wager that a lot of folks don’t even know a person who’s eaten raccoon, much less liked it. This bias against a particular food grows in strength over generations—the less you know about something, the stranger it seems. And if you’ve never met someone who has eaten a raccoon, it becomes a lot easier to confirm that bias.
I had that bias and still do to some degree. As much as I enjoy smoked and braised raccoon, a part of me wants to not like it. Part of me feels weird for liking it, and part of me doesn’t want to write this and tell you that I’ve eaten it. It’s hard to shake the mental conjuring of the type of person who eats raccoons, and that's coming from someone who has done it a bunch of times. I feel self-conscious about a lot of the things I do, not because of any moral or ethical reasons, but because of how I felt about some of those things before I experienced them. If I felt that strongly about something I knew nothing about, do others feel the same way?
It's a weird place to be, a representative of a self-created stereotype. I’m staring at my own bias, and it looks like me.
What's the best way to confront this bias? Intellectually, I know where it comes from—generations of sentiment against poor folks who were exploited to the point that their only living came from the land and the “waste” creatures that the wealthy didn’t have an interest in. I don’t want to perpetuate that ugly mindset: disdain for the working class and wanton waste of trapped or hunted animals should simply be things of the past. All that being said, a whole head-on raccoon coming out of a crockpot still doesn't sound appealing to me.
But shredded, braised meat on crispy tortillas with fresh cilantro does. For me, overcoming this food bias is about dressing it up, and making sure that the meals I make with the meat are appealing in a general sense and fit my palate. Maybe this isn’t a traditional preparation, but I’m not exactly the traditional demographic for “frequent consumers of raccoon,” either.
I’ve eaten enough raccoons to have an opinion on them. They're damn good. And if you need a qualifier, I was a chef for nine years and have worked in restaurants for more than 20. I’ve eaten just about anything you can buy and a pile of things you can’t. I’ve tasted more wine than most people will ever see. I love caviar, Wagyu, Iberico, bluefin, Chateauneuf-du-Papes, and cheap ramen. Raccoons taste good; younger ones are the best.
This past winter I trapped a few raccoons, and after skinning them, I saved the hindquarters. I lightly smoked and then braised some legs using my barbacoa recipe. It’s a method that will make anything worth eating tasty. The tender raccoon meat tastes somewhere between goose and venison. No off-flavors, nothing weird, and in all honesty, it would be hard to tell what it was if I hadn't known. I cooked two sets of hindquarters, one from a larger boar and one from a much smaller raccoon. There’s a distinct difference between the two. While both were tasty, the younger of the two, as you would expect, was much more tender and mild. It had a lighter color to it as well, a dark pink tone versus the deep red of the boar.
I plan on cooking the rest of the raccoon meat using methods that will impart fewer flavors to get a better idea of how this meat tastes on its own. Slowly, I'm changing my own bias.
Please note: Raccoons can be a vector for trichinosis as well as some other pathogens. You need to handle the meat with care and cook it to an appropriate temperature. Since the majority of the meat on a raccoon is in the hindquarters, which are dense, most slow--and-low cooking methods will get the meat to a safe temperature, but do be sure that the meat reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit at some point.