Delafield Coon Feed is a tradition like no other
Legion members share preparation of annual dish
First off, it doesn't taste like chicken. Or, like pork, for that matter. "Coon tastes like coon," said 85-year-old Harvey Schuster. "That's it. There is nothing like it."
It was Saturday morning - two weeks before the 86th annual Tom McNulty Memorial Coon Feed - and Schuster was at the Delafield Legion Post to help prepare for the dinner that draws nearly 400 people, from all over, every January. And the task at hand for him - and the team of legion members seated around the hall's long tables - was to remove the fat from the 75 raccoons that will be the main dish.
And Schuster - who has been a legion member for the past 67 years and has helped in this "defatting" for much of that time - is good at it. He talked easily, while working away at the skinned coon splayed in front of him, knife in hand. "You can tell if it's going to be a hard winter," Schuster said, "just by the amount of fat that comes on them."
This year, he said, all the coons were provided solely by a few hunters in Jefferson County. A hunting process, Schuster can succinctly describe. "It's a couple flashlights, a couple dogs and a couple 22s," he said. "That's all."
The hunters, he continued, remove the pelts and sell them. The remaining carcasses are frozen, to be later picked up by legion members in the late fall, he said.
Schuster can even remember when he first tasted coon. It was 1947. "A guy came into the old town hall with an entire coon roasted on a board," he said. "And, he served it up." It was a scene, Schuster said, similar to how the annual coon feed began - a bunch of local hunters having a meal of wild game back in the mid-1920s. Eventually, Tom McNulty, a fellow legion member, singled out coon to organize a fundraiser dinner around to support local youth and veteran programs. Although McNulty died in 1991- the tradition remains today.
"I'll eat all wild game, but I like coon," Schuster said. "I'll take it over venison any day. And I'll eat it made anyway. I've even eaten it cold."
Hearing this made Chris Knapp, sitting just left of Schuster, shudder. He admitted that coon isn't necessarily his favorite. "It's alright," he said, over the buzzing of his electric knife. "I'll eat it."
Knapp, a Sons of the American Legion member, said he appreciates more the tradition. The coon feed, growing up, was always a big night, he said. "And now," he said, "us younger guys are just trying to learn as much as we can to keep the taste alive."
Knapp, who has helped in this preparation the past 10 years, can properly defat a coon in about 15 minutes. It's not a difficult job, he noted. Definitely easier to do when the coon is still chilled, he said. "The warmer it is," he said, "the slimier it gets." He also noted the importance of removing the glands beneath the legs. "Otherwise," he said, "you'll have a gamey taste."
Knap gathered up the freshly, shaved-down coon in his hands for a final inspection. "Of course," he said, "it looks better cooked."
Dick Reuel - the legion member designated "Coon Master pro tem" - said the meat actually appears "like pot roast" when coming out of the oven. "And, it has a very rich taste," he said, standing in the kitchen next to an industrial-sized jigsaw. "It's very tender. Very unique." And Reuel's job that morning? To cut the newly defatted coons into bite-size pieces. "Like chicken nuggets," he joked.
A few days before the dinner, Reuel said, the meat will be soaked in brine for a day, and then in fresh water for another. Early Saturday morning all of it goes into roasting pans full of onions, carrots, celery, apples - and "a secret spice recipe passed down for generations," he said.
The trays are then carted to St. John's Military Academy to be slow roasted in large-capacity kitchen ovens for 8 hours. "We pick them up at 4 o'clock," he said. "And, when we return people are always lined up, waiting."
Rick Schmittinger, the Post's Commander, said the coon is then served until gone. "There are never leftovers," he said. A testament, he noted, to how good it is. And, this year, they have even 17 more coons - all weighing between 15 to 40 pounds - than the previous year, he said.
Along with all the trimmings - including mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, and stuffing - turkey will be available for the less adventurous, he noted. Or, he said, just come by and purchase a 2013 Coon Feed T-shirt.
"Good idea to get here early," Schmittinger said. "We always run out of coon before we run out of people."
If you go
What: 86th Annual Tom McNulty Memorial Coon Feed
When: 5 p.m. Saturday Jan. 26. (Cash bar opens at 4 p.m.)
Where: Delafield Legion Post 196, 333 N. Lapham Peak Road
Cost: $12, adults, $6, children
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