In most places, a politician has to kiss babies in order to succeed. Arkansas politicians have to eat raccoon. The small east Arkansas town of Gillett doubles its population on the second weekend of every year as candidates and political junkies gather for its annual Coon Supper.
More than 60 years old, the event has become a required stop for anyone seeking or holding political office in Arkansas. Originally started as a fundraiser for high school athletics, it's now the ultimate meet-and-greet for the state's politicians. "If anybody wants to be in the political scene in Arkansas, it's a must to attend the Coon Supper," said Phil English, the master of ceremonies.
Friday's supper was especially busy since it's an election year. Both announced candidates for Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Mike Beebe attended to shake hands, talk politics and, for those with the stomach for it, eat barbecued raccoon.
"Raccoon tastes like raccoon," English said. "I've never heard of any elected official or politician who didn't like 'coon." Over the years, legends have developed about back-room deals made in Gillett, and political gossip is as plentiful as the several hundred pounds (kilograms) of raccoon served in the high school gymnasium.
Democratic Congressman Marion Berry, whose district includes Gillett, hosts a party at his farm before the annual dinner. He credits the gathering with his own political fortune and said he's witnessed far too many deals in his own living room before the supper. "If it weren't for the Coon Supper, I probably wouldn't be in public life today," Berry said.
The gathering even earned a mention in former U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers' speech defending Bill Clinton during impeachment proceedings in 1999. Bumpers recalled a 1988 flight he and then-Governor Clinton took to DeWitt, on their way to the Coon Supper that year. The plane crashed on an icy runway, but neither were injured.
Bumpers called the supper "a political event that one misses at his own risk." Tickets for the supper usually sell out weeks in advance, with candidates and parties buying blocks for supporters and colleagues.
Unofficially, the supper is a political shindig but organizers are careful to keep politics out of the evening's program. Only elected officials are allowed to speak at the gathering, so aspiring politicians don't have a chance to make any stump speeches, but go to be seen.
Linda Cover, who helps prepares sweet potatoes served with the raccoon, said the feast is considered an unofficial holiday for the Delta town. "Around here, the holidays start with Thanksgiving and they're not really over until after the Coon Supper," said Cover, reports the AP. N.U.