When William Howard Taft swung through Atlanta in early 1909, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce held a black-tie dinner in his honor at the brand new Auditorium and Armory.
In a few months, Taft would become the 27th President of the United States. The evening was an opportunity not only for state and local leaders to toast the president-elect but to dedicate the building on the corner of Courtland Avenue and Gilmer Street.
He requested a “‘possum n’ tater” dinner for the occasion.
You read that correctly.
Taft, who ballooned to 350 pounds by the end of his presidency, and more than 600 guests all in tuxedos, including chamber president Asa Candler and Mayor Richard Maddox, feasted on possum.
A Topeka, Kansas newspaper summed up the moment this way:
“… there came a waiter who fairly staggered under the weight of the choicest ‘possum of the very choice one hundred, dressed whole and properly garnished with rich golden Georgia yams…”
Yams are the sweet taters of the ‘possum n’ taters dinner.
I haven’t tried possum. Perhaps I am being a bit of a snob; it may well be delicious. Naturalist John James Audubon wrote the opossum was an “excellent substitute for roast pig.”
I only know the critters from inside garbage cans and under bird feeders. They have a face — and body and tail — only a mother could love.
Eating the things became a delicacy in the south mainly through the African-American community, which mastered cooking the marsupials over several decades.
Historians speculate several reasons for this.
For one thing, slave owners benefitted when enslaved people made their meals with their own food.
For another, possum hunting didn’t require a gun. Instead, an individual or several could chase a possum into a tree or startle it, at which time it would play dead.
The nocturnal nature of the creatures could have been a problem, but apparently, some plantation owners turned a blind eye to their slaves going out at night to hunt possum.
One of the odd things — of which there are several — is the cooks kept the possums alive and fattened them up until families ate them, usually on special occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Those cooks became very good at making a meal out of what we consider a varmint.
During and after slavery, many African-Americans worked in the homes of white Southern families. Possum and yams became a delicacy regardless of skin color as a result.
To that point, Taft’s request likely had racial overtones.
Given the convulsions around race at that time — more than 25 Blacks were killed in the 1906 Atlanta Race Massacre — perhaps it was an overture to both communities, even though the servers and the cooks were black, while the attendees were white.
It was a meal representative of both groups.
While Taft made a speech that night, he made a separate one to Black Atlantans.
I couldn’t find a reference of whether Taft enjoyed his meal, though I suspect he did. At Thanksgiving that year, the White House served a 26-pound Georgia possum.
He wasn’t the only President with a penchant for possum. Jimmy Carter ate them as a child.
“The Joy of Cooking” even had a recipe for them until 1985, with the instructions to “trap ‘possum and feed it on milk and cereals for 10 days before killing.”
As to the headline, several state lawmakers have introduced a bill to make the creature the official state marsupial.