Rob Christensen

When possum was on the menu at the governor’s mansion

Rob Christensen

Brasstown, known as the Possum Capital of the South, may have seen its last Possum Drop – the event in which a live possum in a Plexiglas cage is lowered to celebrate the coming of the New Year. The possum is freed after the event.
Brasstown, known as the Possum Capital of the South, may have seen its last Possum Drop – the event in which a live possum in a Plexiglas cage is lowered to celebrate the coming of the New Year. The possum is freed after the event. NYT

In perhaps another sign of fading Southern culture, the North Carolina community of Brasstown held its last Possum Drop on New Year’s Eve.

Like chitlins, lamb fries, and corn pone, possums were poor people’s food, which while an acquired taste, was nonetheless cherished by many as a rural Southern tradition.

If you want to be hip, like, say, foodie Anthony Bourdain, you could call it Southern street food.

For nearly a quarter of a century, Clay’s Corner Convenience Store glorified the lowly opossum – better known as possum – by making it the centerpiece of its New Year’s Eve celebration. Each year a live possum in a Plexiglas cage was lowered from the store amid cheering and fireworks – just as the acorn is dropped in Raleigh, a peach is dropped in Atlanta and a guitar is lowered in Memphis.

Brasstown, located in mountainous Clay County, is so remote that it is actually closer driving distance to the state capitals of South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky than it is to Raleigh.

“Welcome to Beautiful Downtown Brasstown North Carolina – Opossum Capital of the World,” said the event’s website. “Population 240. Been the same for 100 years or more. Some lady gets pregnant – some guy leaves town. Used to be the ‘Moonshine Capital of the South,’ but not anymore, it has gone to pot.”

The organizers of the event always stressed that they did not harm the animal, although PETA didn’t see it that way and the animal rights group filed lawsuits against the practice. That prompted the legislature to pass a law in 2013 allowing the possum drop to continue.

Clay’s Corner recently closed, and organizers say they won’t continue the ritual, according to the Cherokee Scout.

While dropping possums is relatively new, eating possums is not.

If you wanted Gov. Kerr Scott (1949-53) to name you a “Country Squire” – the North Carolina version of a Kentucky Colonel, complete with a frameable certificate – you had to attest to liking to eat possum.

The Country Squire proclamation read: “I Governor, W. Kerr Scott, note that: He is one of the branch head boys, born and bred in the Tarheel State, who has quit draggin’ his feet and is catchin’ up on his haulin’; and whereas he has demonstrated that he is a tried and true member of the rougher element and plows out to the end of the row; and whereas, he is versed in both the meaning and the mystery of our significant and proclaimed dates; and whereas he is forward-goin’ and has a natural hankerin’ for chittlin’s, possum and ’taters, lamb fries, potlikker, corn pone, barbecue, and sas’fras tea; I do therefore proclaim him a Country Squire entitled to all the rights and privileges of this estate.”

When he was state agriculture commissioner, Scott used to hold wild game dinners for his staff.

After his election as governor, Scott would often meet with his friend Ralph Stephens and have lunch at Green’s Grill in Garner to eat chitlins, which is the small intestines of a hog. That evolved into a larger group that became the Wake County Chitlins Club, a group that still meets annually over which former Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten usually presides.

Like his father, Gov. Robert W. Scott (1969-73), an Alamance County dairy farmer, Scott was proud of his rural roots.

To celebrate those roots, Robert Scott held a possum dinner at the Executive Mansion with friends in January 1970 that included barbecued (possum) spareribs, black-eyed peas, collard greens, bean soup with pig tails, corn bread and persimmon pudding. All that was washed down with wine, champagne and homemade peach brandy.

The possums had been caught by a mansion employee and kept in a refrigerator.

But Scott was forced to free one possum he planned to serve at the dinner named Slow Poke, which had won the “Prettiest Possum” at the Spivey’s Corner Hollerin Contest. After publicity about Slow Poke’s impending fate, there was such a hue and cry that Scott felt obligated to release Slow Poke into Raven Rock State Park.

The possum dinner was a black-tie stag affair held annually by Scott.

Scott also held at least one fancy “chitlins” dinner in the mansion, complete with finger bowls.

Before the dinner, Bob Scott persuaded two of his daughters to try some chitlins. His daughters sent notes to Scott with different takes.

Daughter Meg wrote, “I ate some chitlins! They’re pretty good!” But her sister Susan wrote: “The before taste is okay, but the after taste is like a paper mill.”

When North Carolina was more rural, such celebrations of its country heritage were more common.

North Carolina’s politicians often gathered on the Scott farm in Haw River for the annual dove hunt, or at state Sen. Monk Harrington’s deer hunt in Bertie County, or gathered for the Ramp Festival in Waynesville.

Such ruralisms still exist, but they are becoming more rare as the country becomes more strip-malled and homogenized.

Rob Christensen can be reached at robc@newsobserver.com or at 919-829-4532.

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