The 85th annual coon feed

January 26, 2012

Raccoon may be regarded as a culinary throwback, but in Chicago it's played an accidental role in the city's worldwide reputation for futuristic fine dining—thanks to a local community dinner held nearly every year since 1927.

First, please let me address the elephant in the room, or raccoon—or coon. We are referring to the animal, not the offensive racial slur. While I've been the target of racism myself, I only realized recently that this particular word's modern meaning appears primarily hurtful. Evidently so much so that in Wednesday's Sun-Times Food Detective column, written by my friend David Hammond, the word never appears—though its subject is Saturday's 85th annual Coon Feed in Delafield, Wisc.

So yes, we're talking about a raccoon dinner, which you may find offensive anyway. But you shouldn't. There it's served braised and tender, fragrant with aromatics and spices, with a full complement of sides—mashed potatoes, stuffing, warm sauerkraut, and coleslaw—all preceded with a classic roadhouse relish tray.

More importantly, it's a taste of history—and the future. The raccoon itself tastes like beef, and this preparation more precisely "like pot roast," says my friend Catherine Lambrecht, one of the founders of Greater Midwest Foodways. In 2005, Cathy read this fascinating article in the Tribune about the Delafield Coon Feed and its colorful history—with an Al Capone connection—then went up for the dinner that night.

Founder Tom McNulty was the town barber, as well as a hunter, veteran, and member of the Delafield American Legion Post 196, where the Feed is held. Proceeds from the dinners go to the Post's youth programs, while proceeds from the t-shirts go to the local chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America, "one of the nation's oldest and most respected conservation organizations," of which the late Mr. McNulty was president, and his wife Lillian is current president.

Cathy was credited—albeit anonymously—in the Time Magazine article about Moto, which opens with Chef/Owner Homaro Cantu inventing his infamous dish "Roadkill." Cathy unwittingly supplied the inspiration—the raccoon—for the original dish. That year at the Feed, they had extra raccoon—other years, they run out—so the extra was actually brought back for our curious food friend, one David Hammond. Yes, small world.

Omar (Cantu) later used duck instead of raccoon when he added it to the menu. Moto—setting for Future Food on Planet Green, and home to two Top Chef cheftestants—celebrates its eighth anniversary this year, celebrating for the very first time actually, offering their 16-course Grand Tasting Menu with wine pairings at the opening day price of $150 per person, February 7 to 9 only. It's nearly sold out—and well worth it—go if you can.

I've been going with Cathy to Coon Feed since 2006, after reading about her first visit on LTH, the Chicago food forum. I was cooking in Paris then. She's since been back to help cook in 2009, joined by another of our food friends, Michael Gebert, (aka Sky Full of Bacon) who made this lovely film.

I look forward to Coon Feed more than just about any other dinner anywhere every year. It's more than just the food, of course.

I'll miss the dinner this year, because I'll be in Japan on a culinary tour, visiting the earthquake recovery areas. I'll post from Japan all next week.

If you go, please tell Mrs. McNulty and Craig Hoagland, who's leading the next generation in charge of this dinner's culinary history and future, that I hope to be back at the table next year.

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