The Makings of a Champion
by Rob Robison
When Ouchita Parish invited Mrs. LaVernia Maple to return to the spring festival, it was solemnly promised there would not be a repeat of the violence, nudity and near-riotous conditions that marred her last appearance. And so it was on a warm day of 2006 that Mrs. LaVernia Maple was welcomed back to the Oauchita Parish Spring Festival after a 5 year hiatus as the titled Reigning Champion Cook of Raccoon Stew. It was the 55th consecutive year that the affair was held and Mrs. Maple, a participant at the inaugural Spring Festival, proved to be the most dominant of the apron-wearing warriors.
The event began in 1951 in an attempt to unify the far-flung residents of the parish and among the carnival contests and livestock judging was a contest to determine who made the best Raccoon Stew in Northern Louisiana. Raccoon meat had been a staple for people in the area in years past but by ’51 it was considered a novelty dish. Mrs. Maple, then 31, was a contestant from the beginning although she didn’t win until 1956 after the reigning Champion Cook, Mrs. Wynelle Thibideaux, had passed away the previous winter.
From then on she dominated the contest. Entries in the cook-off dwindled yearly, whether because the women of Oauchita Parish grew frustrated at continually losing or they lost interest in preparing raccoon as an entrée was never determined. Finally, in 1972, her name was the only one on the sign-up sheet and she won by default. It was decided in 1973 Mrs. Maple would prepare her dish live at the festival as a demonstration for those who wanted to learn how to make the once popular concoction.
Mrs. Maple was content to be the reigning Champion Cook of Raccoon Stew even though she was initially reluctant to let others see how she made the mouthwatering dish, as it was a guarded family secret. She gradually warmed to the idea of sharing this old family recipe with younger women so that it might be passed on, unlike poor Mrs. Thibideaux, who never shared any recipe. Besides, she was a natural backwoods raconteur and loved performing before an audience. As she prepared the dish she would tell the story of how she learned to make it.
“Lordy,” she would begin, “I think the hardest part is talkin’ that critter into crawling into a pot of boiling water,” and the crowd was hooked.
She would then pull a raccoon from a burlap sack and hold it up for the crowd to see. It had been dispatched moments earlier out of the audience’s sight so the famously curious but timid creature put up no resistance to the public display. After the “oohs” and “ahs” died down she would continue.
“Back in 1932 I was 11 years old and already knew how to cook most everything we could shoot, catch or grow, thanks to Mama. It was just us two, Ma and me, at home all day, cookin’, washin’ and cleanin’. My Pa and 6 brothers worked th’ fields from ‘bout sunup to ‘bout sundown and would go huntin’ ‘fore and after.” As she spoke she would slice the fur on both shoulders and across the back of the neck with a much used yet razor sharp butcher knife then hold the raccoon’s two front feet with one hand and pull the skin off in a backward motion with the other.
“That was when them dust storms out of Oklahoma come as far east as our neck of the woods. It wouldn’t be so thick you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face but if you was caught out in one you’d get covered up with grit. Even them ol’ moonshiners what only come to town but twice a year would want to bathe after one of them storms blew through,” she chuckled. “It was ‘bout that time that deer started getting scarcer. We all figured that ‘tween the sand and more people huntin’ ‘em due to the Great Depression they was dying out or leaving’ one. ‘Fore long my Pa and brothers started bringing home less deer and more rabbit, and finally no deer, fewer rabbits and mostly squirrel. One evening all they brought home was one of these little bandits for my mama and me to clean and cook. From then on ‘coon was regular meat on our table”
She explained how her mother learned how to take the gamey taste from the varmint with wild onions and peppers that she grew next to the house. “But I could tell that it didn’t sit right with Mama that we were cookin’ raccoons,” she said as she sliced it from pelvis to breastbone and let the entrails fall into a grisly pile. She scraped the mess into a bucket beside the table that already held the fur. After the bones were added later she would take the bucket home and distribute it all amongst her dogs, proud of the fact that she wasted none of the animal.
Every year or so one little boy in the crowd would yell out something to the effect of “Didn’t they smell something awful?” She was always ready for that one.
“It depends on what your idea of smellin’ awful is, I reckon. When it’s the middle of summer and you’ve got nine people livin’ in a three room shotgun shack with no indoor plumbin’, and it’s too crowded to swing a cat and hotter than a two-dollar pistol, you don’t much mind the smell of a raccoon cookin’. But I never noticed anything unusually ripe about ‘em.” The question had brought some ripples of laughter at first but the people grouped around Mrs. Maple’s table would shift uncomfortably as they considered the answer.
“But I heard Mama say many a’time that if they ever brought home even one polecat she would drop what she was doin’ right where she stood and walk the 50 miles to the Mi’sippi River and catch a barge down to N’Orlans and become a cook in a brothel ‘cause she knew they had better food there. I’d say `Mama! What would th’ Lord say if he saw you in such a place?’ and she’d sigh and say `Oh, child. I ain’t never going nowhere.’ And she didn’t, neither. She’s resting up there now, ‘bout a half a mile from that very spot, in the Chamber’s Ville Cemetery.”
She had chopped the raccoon into smaller pieces and set him to boil in a pot while she showed the audience what vegetables and spices she liked to include in the stew. “I don’t use okry,” she’d say to pre-empt an oft asked question. “This ain’t gumbo.” She diced the onions, banana peppers, tomatoes, carrots and potatoes, put them in a pot and added spices without measuring and started the mixture to boil.
“A few years later Mr. Maynard Maple got sweet on me and pretty soon asked me to marry him. I considered myself to be marryin’ age at the time so I said yes without even asking my folks. I wrote 18 on the bottom of my shoe so if the preacher asked my age I could truly say that I was over 18, but he didn’t ask.” Using her mother’s recipes that she had by now memorized she soon impressed her new husband with her kitchen prowess and he was especially fond of the raccoon stew. “And that was good ‘cause the woods was still crawlin’ with ‘coons but hardly anything else.
“Well, some years went by and times started getting better and we were able to buy some chickens and a milk cow. We’d go to town a couple times a month and when we did we were even able to buy fresh beef. But ever so often he’d bring in a coon for me to fix. Lord, that man loved to eat, and I don’t recall him ever pushin’ away anything I set on the table,” she would say and laugh as she drained the steaming water from the raccoon, separated the meat from the bones, and added it to the second pot of vegetables. She would bring the stew down to simmer and tell the audience that whoever wanted to taste the finished dish should be back in about two hours.
As it cooked she would sit in a chair behind the table fanning herself and watching the crowd stroll by, answering a question or two until she felt the time was right. She would walk to the table and lift the lid and give the bubbling mixture a sniff, dip a ladle in and bring it to her lips, blow on it a couple of times and finally give it a taste. If it was ready she would lean her head back and holler, “’Sou, John! Come and get it!” loud enough to be heard halfway across the festival grounds. She gave out samples in large Dixie cups and those brave enough to try it were rewarded with a hearty dish they described as “like thick chicken soup.”
Year in and year out Mrs. Maple cooked the stew at the Spring Festivals but the time came when no one really cared to learn how to make it. The demonstration had turned into a civics lesson over the years about how bad the old times were and what people had done to survive. Mrs. Maple was blissfully ignorant to the reason people gathered around her each year. She was content to smile, chop and cook and explain to everybody what she was doing and why she did it, sharing her family’s experiences as she went.
It all went well until the year 2001, the year that some kids at a nearby community college heard about the Spring Festival and the raccoon stew demonstration scheduled to occur the following day and were righteously indignant about it. Their leader was Simon Douglas, the son of a prominent family that owned several local chicken processing plants. As he grew up Simon was sickened by how his family’s wealth was acquired and the locals whispered that he held his nose every time he went to the ATM.
“Believe it or not, at the upcoming fair, paid for by our tax dollars, they are featuring a Raccoon Stew cooking demonstration. What this means is that there is going to be a raccoon publicly slaughtered and stripped of its fur, eviscerated, dismembered and cooked for the entertainment of those watching,” he told the small gathering of the school’s PETA group. They were aghast at the vileness of those who were entertained by the ritual slaughter of animals. “We need to show these backwoods hicks that killing innocent animals for enjoyment is wrong, wrong, wrong!”
They decided to raid the event and rescue the poor animal and at a party later that evening they were able to grow their rebellious crowd to over 20 participants. Fueled by alcohol and youthful exuberance they hatched a plan to ride over early in the morning, mingle with the crowd and at the moment that the cowering, innocent victim was revealed they would rush the stage en masse and disrupt the proceedings while two compatriots, who were picked because they swore they could run fast, would spirit the lucky beast to a waiting car and then back to the wild.
Simon even knew where he could get a full body raccoon suit to aid in distracting the onlookers. His cousin happened to be the mascot for the (Gen.) N. B. Forrest High School Fightin’ ‘Coons and he was sure he could borrow it. The plan was coming together nicely and Simon smiled with glassy eyes as he envisioned the community’s outrage at their act of civil disobedience. ‘Every dog has his day,’ he mused then leaned his head back and howled at the rising moon.
Unfortunately the planning and celebrating lasted late into the night and in the bright morning sun only 3 die-hard members and two young men from the party stood ready to launch the attack. They faced Simon who was wearing the suit and holding the giant head on his hip.
“O.K., everybody, the key element is surprise,” he said using his most inspiring voice. He was paraphrasing from an animal rights web site he had gleaned for guerilla tactics before he left home that morning. “When we get there we have to move fast so they can’t mobilize an effective defense against us.”
At that they climbed into his SUV and sped off. He had forgotten to bring the map and the accompanying directions he had printed from Google and as a result they got lost twice before finally arriving. Being so late they were at a panic to reach their objective in time and scrambled from the car, becoming scattered as they searched for the altar where the sacrifice would take place. Ten minutes later they converged at a tent in the back in time to see Mrs. Maple holding up a skinned, gutted and headless raccoon carcass. They flew into a hangover fueled rage.
Stacey, one of the girls in the group, ripped off her shirt and ran to the side of the stage, her breasts bouncing wildly. She had volunteered for that duty which had caused the other girls in the group to eye her sideways. They would often talk behind her back wondering how a vegetarian like her could produce such large breasts, sarcastically speculating that she was sneaking dairy products on the side. As she jumped and waved her arms her breasts went up and down, side to side, clockwise and counter-clockwise. Two young men, the last minute devotees, accompanied her and were jumping up and down exuberantly on each side of her. During the party they had heard that the plan including her flashing the crowd and they swore that they wouldn’t miss it. As the young men jumped, cursing the carnivores, they couldn’t help but glance over to admire her rose tipped whirligigs.
As planned the focus of the crowd went to Stacey and stayed on her as she jumped and screamed “Stop the Killing!” The crowd around Mrs. Maple was of fair size and a few of the young men present began to look over and hoot at the spectacle. Mrs. Maple had been losing her hearing and sight for a few years by then so she was unaware what the crowd was cheering for. It rekindled in her those old memories of when the Champion Cook of Raccoon Stew was announced over loud speakers and the crowd of upwards of 200 people would cheer her. Mrs. Maple smiled and held the raccoon meat higher.
Suddenly there burst from the crowd a giant raccoon wearing a Confederate Army Hat, a scabbard with sword, and the Stars and Bars battle flag as a cape. Simon had wanted to remove the mascot doodads but his cousin had made him swear that he wouldn’t damage the suit so he had grudgingly left them on. The ‘Fightin’ ‘Coon’ wore a fierce snarl on its lips and appeared almost rabid. All mascots are designed to be angry looking, as if they will strike fear into the opposing teams, but his one was done up especially viciously, and Mrs. Maple recoiled at the sight. “Sweet Mary, Mother of Jesus,” she muttered.
She heard a muffled cry come from inside the beast and realized it was screaming, “Murderer! Murderer!” and pointing its paw at her. She was frozen in panic. Could this be a vision from Hell, or how a heart attack begins? Before she could further ponder the question the enraged rodent saw her holding his skinless brethren and leapt to wrench it from her. He grabbed it but in the process knocked Mrs. Maple from her feet. He whirled and raced out from under the tent as she fell painfully onto her hip accompanied by a loud cracking noise.
Vision is always difficult from inside mascot costumes and Simon had earlier removed his glasses so that the head would fit properly, but he was able to make out a piece of open field and he charged for it like the running backs he had hated back in High School. He was still screaming and holding the raccoon aloft in his right hand. Had it been replaced with a sword, he could have passed for a hirsute Confederate commander leading a charge.
Unfortunately for him the piece of field he was running on looked open because they were using it to judge Ouachita Parish’s Best Hound Dog. There were 10 hounds on each side of the open area when movement directed their attention to what must be the image that all dogs dream of when they kick and bark in their sleep; a giant raccoon holding up raw meat and smelling of blood. The scene changed instantly from bucolic country fair to pandemonium.
All of the dogs began baying wildly and most broke free from their masters. The stouter men were able to hold their dogs back, though one dislocated his shoulder in doing so. The hounds tackled Simon before he had made it halfway through the group and then pack mentality took over. The raccoon was ripped from his paw by three dogs and they immediately began fighting ferociously for it. The others were biting the suit wherever they could get a grip and thrashing their heads back and forth wildly until it ripped free. Simon was writhing on the ground screaming “Help me! Save me! Please, God, please save me!” over and over.
The dog owners recovered and joined the melee, tackling dogs, dragging them apart, with a few settling for kicking the young man screaming on the ground. Several dogs were now involved in skirmishes with each other and blood sprayed every time the combatants swung their heads. Children were screaming and running from the sight of the carnage. Some of the owners cried as their dogs whined, bled and limped off of the field to lick their wounds.
The police arrived to find a young man lying naked on the ground covered in dog bites and blood and several angry men being held back from inflicting more abuse upon his unconscious form. Fortunately for Simon hound dogs are trained to retrieve game and not to kill it, so most of his wounds were superficial. From the dogs, anyway; he had several contusions and a couple of broken ribs from the men’s boots.
Over by the tent an officer had arrived and awkwardly attempted to cover Stacey’s breasts when the left one fell out of the ten-gallon hat he was using to cover them. He absentmindedly grabbed it and tried to stuff it back inside, earning him a slap on the face. He quickly reached for his pepper spray and shot her full in the face from two feet away which sent her shrieking to the ground. To see their objet d’lust in such pain was more than the two young men with her could stand and, aspiring practitioners of non-violence though they were, they jumped aggressively toward the officer only to find themselves beside her on the ground in equal agony.
Mrs. Maple was found behind the demonstration table lying on her back, moaning and delirious. Fair-goers comforted her as ambulances and police cars arrived on the scene to take the wounded and arrested to their separate destinations, and the festival closed early that day.
Stacey was charged with indecent exposure but it was later determined that she was protecting her honor when she slapped the deputy so the charge of assaulting a police officer was dropped. Not so for the two young men but since they were dispatched with such little effort by the pepper spray-happy officer they were allowed to plead down to misdemeanor assault and pay a fine. Simon, however, was charged with creating a disturbance, disturbing the peace, impersonating a State Official (the Mascot), theft, and inciting a riot. His parents were able to afford a very good lawyer and the final result was a $1000.00 fine, court costs, and 90 days of community service to be performed on weekends. Simon took the carnival calamity as an omen and dropped the further pursuit of animal’s rights.
Some people were worried that Mrs. Maple would not recover, but only the ones who didn’t know her very well. They forgot that this woman skinned and cooked raccoons as a child because there wasn’t anything else to eat. She liked to tell her many visitors that, “You don’t get old by being weak and stupid.” She had hip replacement surgery and started rehab within two weeks. She had planted some of her garden before the Spring Festival Fiasco, as it came to be known, so she was in a hurry to get to work on weeding and watering. By the end of the summer she was outside hobbling about, harvesting what crops were left and making sure it was plowed under correctly for the fall.
Few people brought up the event but she told her friends that she was done with the Raccoon Cooking Demonstrations and, quite frankly, with the Festival. “Ah, people are different now, the times are different, and I don’t care much for any of it,” she’d sniff, dismissing them all with a wave of her hand. She stayed active with her garden, church, family and friends, and grew older.
2006 was the parish’s 200 year anniversary. The organizers of the Spring Festival wanted to make it something that would attract thousands of people, and even more money, so they beat the bushes trying to come up with special attractions. Old pictures from Festivals past were examined and, of course, Mrs. Maple and the Champion Raccoon Cook Contest were prominent in several. An idea was floated, a motion seconded and it was decided to invite Mrs. Maple to a reenactment of a raccoon cook-off. To further entice her they declared one day of the festival LaVernia Maple Day to recognize her achievements and contributions to the festival.
Mrs. Maple had mellowed with time and with the help of her church had forgiven those involved with that terrible day. She humbly accepted the honor bestowed upon her by the Festival organizers and agreed to be there on the assigned day. Professional cooks would perform the actual cleaning and cooking of the raccoon and she would be there only to talk to people and taste the stew and judge their effort. The subject of the Spring Festival fiasco was delicately raised and she was assured that extra security would be provided so that nothing embarrassing would occur.
On the day named for her Mrs. Maple stood by the judge’s table leaning on a cane and wearing a corsage. The Festival planners had called around searching for already dressed raccoon meat, but after getting hung up on several times and receiving emphatic ‘No!’s from the butchers who would talk to them, they decided to buy live ones from a family that raised them to sell as pets. The family lived a good distance away and would hopefully remain ignorant to the fate that awaited their former charges.
The Festival bought two and determined that the safest and most humane method of killing them was by suffocation shortly before the demonstration in order to have the meat fresh for cooking. At the appointed time an assistant to the Festival organizational chairman appeared with the dead animals in a burlap sack, the preferred method of carrying them back in the raccoon hunting days. Her eyes were red and she was sniffling a little. The task of dispatching the raccoons had fallen to her and her face showed the toll it had taken.
She presented the bag to the chef standing next to Mrs. Maple who had watched her as she approached and knew the reason for her tears. The assistant had started away but the elderly lady put her arm around the girl and said, “It’s alright, honey. They’re O.K. now.” The girl looked past the crisscrossed lines in the woman’s face into her eyes and saw almost a century of understanding and it gave her strength. As the chef removed the two animals from the sack some of the gathered crowed applauded. He laid them side by side on the table and Mrs. Maple looked at them with an admiring expression. Steadying herself with the girl’s assistance she leaned the cane on the table and reached out and stroked one of the dead raccoon’s soft, rich fur. She turned back to the girl, smiled and said, “You know, I’ve always thought that these were just the cutest things.”