1843 Delta Feast: Snapping turtle, bear & panther for startled visitor
As many of us reflect upon our New Year’s meal of black-eyed peas and greens, it might be interesting to consider a special dinner on a special occasion in the early decades of Mississippi statehood.
In 1843 a New York based newsprint magazine called the Spirit of the Times carried a short article entitled “A Dinner In the Yazoo Swamp” written by an anonymous scribe identified only as “Yazoo.”
The author had been invited by a friend who resided on “one of the tributaries of the Great Sunflower River to spend a few days at his house, and join in a hunt, then projected, in the Yazoo Swamp.” The outing proved exciting and successful, as well as “laborious beyond anything [Yazoo had] ever encountered.” The game killed included “a noble buck, weighing 280 pounds, and an enormous panther . . . ."
Following the hunt the party repaired to the spacious home of their host, “a well-bred gentleman” known along the Big Sunflower in those days “by the sobriquet of ‘Mr. Hedges,’ which probably was not his real name. Whatever his true identity, he was a man of “varied accomplishments, being a lawyer, doctor, musician, and planter . . . .”
Although his home was situated in a true wilderness, he lived there in high style: his household included “a large number of servants and, among them, an excellent cook,” whose talents the guests were soon to sample. [Note: if anyone has any idea who “Mr. Hedges” might have been, please let Mississippi Matters know].
Late in the afternoon “Mr. Hedges” announced the evening meal would be “a game supper.” Yazoo described it thus: “After a glass of brandy and water, dinner was announced. An immense tureen sat smoking at the head of the table, from which each guest was helped to a plate of snapping-turtle soup, seasoned most admirably, and which might vie with the real ‘Simon Pure’ at half the eating-houses in [New York]. The ‘snapping-turtle’” noted Yazoo, “is a most ungainly ‘critter’ to look at, but does make excellent soup, and some idea may or may not be formed of his character from the fact that when he once gets a ‘bill-hold’” he ‘never lets go until it thunders.’”
Next the diners enjoyed tumblers of persimmon beer – a backwoods carbonated beverage more like a sparkling cider than beer—“but really of delightful flavor.”
“The next dish introduced was a ‘cub,’ or young bear, about the size of a full grown bull-dog roasted entire” – a most delicious meat in Yazoo’s estimation – followed by “whiskey punch, of course.”
There was more: a “hindquarter of the panther, and a wild turkey, came in their order; and after a glass of brandy and water, a Florida cormorant and a brace of . . . mallard, concluded the courses.”
As gratifying to Yazoo as was the food, the company, particularly an old character universally known in the antebellum days by those of the lower Delta as “Ol’ Belcher,” was equally satisfying. Belcher was suspected of being the last of the outlaw Murrell’s gang – though few had the nerve to question him on that subject – and had been in the Delta swamps longer than anyone could remember. Yazoo described him as “six foot, two inches high, and weigh[ing] over 200 pounds, and although 55 years of age, . . . as active as a boy.” Belcher boasted “of having lived in the Yazoo Swamp 40 years, without ever having had a ‘head-ache, belly-ache, or toe-ache’ in his life!” The veteran swamper was also known as a prodigious drinker of whiskey and, on this occasion was, in Yazoo’s words, “about half-snapped” and “very communicative . . . .” Yazoo “took notes” as Belcher told “some tough stories about deer and panther . . . .” Unfortunately, Yazoo never published those tales.
He did, though, report Belcher’s account of the time that, on a two dollar bet, he attempted “to ride an alligator” across the Yazoo River. Belcher stuck to the big reptile’s back across the greater part of the river. Just as they got “into shallow water” on the other side, however, “the ‘contrary old serpent’ turned back with him and ‘dove so deep’ that it strangled him and he had to let go,” so Belcher lost the wager.
“Upon the whole,” concluded Yazoo, “I never spent a more convivial evening, and do not recollect to have ever sat down to a better served dinner.”
May your New Year be every bit as stimulating as that 1843 supper in the Yazoo Swamp.
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.
Copyright 2017 James T. McCafferty