The original Arkansas political season kickoff continues into its 80th year. The Gillett Coon Supper, an annual soirée at the old high school gym in the diminutive Arkansas Delta town, will bring together community members, politicians, food lovers and the culinarily curious for yet another celebration on Jan. 13.
The first recorded coon supper happened in 1933. It was less an official event and more a gathering of local farmers and hunters following the annual hunt. The meet-up stopped when World War II began.
A dinner based around the hunt was observed in 1944, as a fundraiser for the Gillett High School Wolves’ football program, to purchase a set of team jackets. In 1947, the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club was established, and the group continues to run the dinner.
“The event was started in the high school auditorium before they had a gym,” says Larry Bauer, who handles supper ticket sales. “They quickly outgrew it!” It is held the second Saturday of each January.
The dinner gained notoriety over time, becoming the de facto first stop for politicians in any campaign year. Arkansas’ governors, congressional delegation and state legislators make it a point to drop in to the event that’s always a sellout.
But why raccoon? And who came up with all those fixings? Raccoon comes from those old hunts, and sweet potatoes — cheap and possessing a good flavor profile with their inherent sweetness — were the usual side. Rice is common all through the Arkansas Delta as a side dish and a staple that fills bellies. While for many years ham was served alongside the raccoon, late Little Rock businessman Jennings Osborne was credited with bringing smoked brisket and pork ribs to the table. The meal, served with iced tea and hot coffee, is accompanied by a roll and a slice of cake — a different flavor at each place setting, all donated by town cooks.
Seth Place’s family has been involved for generations. His grandfather, James Carrol Place, was emcee for the event for more than 40 years. His dad, Scott, has long been involved, and today, Seth oversees preparing the raccoon. He starts accepting delivery of trapped and harvested raccoons in early December.
The raccoons “have to be completely clean, with the head and entrails removed. We usually buy 800 to 900 pounds of it and soak it in salt water to remove blood and gameyness. We cut it into pieces, boil it with vegetables (mirepoix, a blend of carrots, onions and celery), black pepper and salt, and make sure it’s done all the way through. Then we smoke it with either oak or hickory, depending on what we can get at the time. We smoke it for a couple of hours and get a good flavor to it, then we add barbecue sauce at the end. It’s fairly simple, but it’s definitely an acquired taste.”
Place uses a cabinet-style smoker made from old fuel tanks to get that flavor into the meat. “We build a fire in the bottom of them — no charcoal, just regular wood fire.” A different crew handles the smoking and preparation of brisket and ribs.
Over time, the community has grown smaller. Gillett’s student body shrank, and in 2003, the school consolidated with nearby DeWitt. When it closed in 2009, Gillett High School was the smallest such school in Arkansas. The DeWitt School District allowed the dinner to continue, and recently deeded the gymnasium over to the Gillett Farmers and Businessmen’s Club. While parts of the old school are set for demolition, a newer wing will be preserved as a Coon Supper Museum and Community Center.
The annual dinner will be held Jan. 13 at 6 p.m., with the program beginning at 6:30. For more information or tickets, contact Larry Bauer, at (870) 548-2859 or (870) 830-4002. Tickets are $25 each.