Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and
Other Southern Comforts
Travels in the American South
If you're a vegetarian, a PETA supporter, or just have an especially soft heart for animals, this is not the book for you. (It's not even the book review for you. Stop reading.) That said, though I've been fond of animals and a caretaker of many since childhood --- dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, horses, mice, rats, sheep (one was a grand champion at the 1965 county fair), rabbits, lizards, toads, even butterflies, moths and a praying mantis named Rudyard --- I gobbled up Bilger's book just like the barbecued alligator meat on a stick I had in a small Mississippi Delta town years ago. Hell, his off-beat, picaresque journalism is so toothsome (though his subjects may not be to your taste) you might want to eat the book itself, page-by-page, which even vegetarians could do with a clear conscience.
Piquant, high calorie anecdote, dialogue and description are the essential ingredients of the eight servings in this eccentric literary étouffée --- portraits of Southern USA culture as it relates to animals, animals and food, animals as food, and other stuff, like an essay about big men throwing marbles. Bilger, a veteran writer for The New Yorker, calls it "a book about strange obsessions" in which he takes us down the throat of a catfish (with our entire arm, up to the shoulder), lets us knock back some of the moonshine of the title, discusses the pluses and minuses of dining on rodent brains, brings us on a run with coonhounds through coonhound culture, takes us to hang out with an overlord of fish and frog farming, immerses us in the grisly blood-sport of kickboxing cluckers, and a shitload more.
Let's go to the worst first: "Enter the Chicken," the only essay on cockfighting I've ever encountered that starts with a quote from St. Augustine:
Suddenly we noticed barnyard cocks beginning a bitter fight just in front of the door. We chose to watch.
Then Bilger takes over:
I was looking for a club called the Red Rooster, near a town called Maurice. A cockfighter named James Demoruelle had promised to meet me there, though I was three hours late by then and counting. Ours would be a perfectly legal meeting --- cockfighting has never been outlawed in Louisiana --- yet I felt as though I were going undercover. Cockfighters are strange attractors of vice, I'd been told, conduits for drugs and gambling and episodes of violence. They shun publicity like an avian virus, hide their meetings as assiduously as any drug cartel or pornography ring. A few weeks earlier I'd tracked down the editor of a cockfighting magazine at an unlisted number in rural Arkansas. When I called, she barked into the phone, "You sound like one of those animal lovers to me," and hung up.
Bilger is an ace at capturing the telling moment, delivered in the sometimes dissonant music of words: "When he wasn't fighting chickens, Demoruelle, worked in a drug rehab center, and he knew all about forbidden pleasure. 'Be careful,' he told me, only half-joking. 'If you get into this thing, you might really like it. I can get somebody off drugs and alcohol better than I can off of chickens.'"
Or, later: " . . . Demouruelle started to chuckle when the red dashed away from the gray. "Did you see that guy's butt start to pucker?" he said, jerking his head toward the red's embarrassed owner. Gamecocks, for Demouruelle, were more than symbols of courage, they were stand-ins for their owners ('detachable, self-operating penises,' in anthropologist Clifford Geertz's great phrase, 'ambulant genitals with a life of their own')."
Bilger lays the history on us, too:
For hundreds of years, in England, it had been a sport of schoolboys, country squires, and kings. Henry II appointed a 'Hereditary Marshal of the King's Birds' to take care of his gamecocks, and Henry VIII had a sumptuous cockpit built, encircled by coops belonging to the lords and princes of the realm. Even clergymen joined in the sport, holding cockfights at churches and, in one instance, awarding a prayer book to the winner.In the New World, cockfighting would find an even better audience. Hungry for diversion, accustomed to the brutality of frontier life, the colonists took to blood sports with indiscriminate avidity. From the Dutch they learned gander pulling and snatch the rooster: you stretched a rope between two trees, hung a bird from it upside down, greased its head with lard, and tried to yank it off as you galloped underneath. From the British they learned everything else: bearbaiting, bullbaiting, wolfbaiting and ratbaiting; dogfighting and cat clubbing. When the first British colonists crossed the Atlantic to Jamestown, they brought fighting cocks with them.
Bilger finally arrives at the Red Rooster ("Off to the side, perched on the embankment, a portable sign flickered and buzzed in the rain: 'R d R ost r'"). He spots Demoruelle across the room, but the place disappoints him. It's not the sultry, seedy den of transgression he's imagined. "Where are all the drunks and scofflaws, dope fiends and edgy hustlers? . . . I felt like some South Sea explorer, making my way past spooky totems and grim palisades only to find a few peaceable villagers inside, eating roots and swatting at flies." But soon the wings of hell spread wide, with feathers, blood and money flying, splattering and multiplying (or vanishing).
The birds have sharp artificial spurs attached to their legs to replace the natural ones that have been clipped. They are real weapons, one to three inch metal knives. The cocks about to fight haven't been fed for a couple days; they've been kept in the dark, isolated. "Depending on their owners," Bilger says, "they might be fueled by injections of testosterone, vitamin K to clot their wounds more quickly, and digitalis to speed up their already racing hearts."
Bilger describes the birds rocketing toward one another once they're released in the pit, their "talons spinning like teeth on a chainsaw." Like any fight, it can end fast, though sometimes the battles drag on for hours. It's not uncommon for one or both birds to die. Before long it's a bloody mess with the referee splashed from head to toe. And that's a quick, sterile summary. Bilger drags us deep into the land of TMI with detail after detail --- from finance to philosophy to celibacy, even an inventory of cock-training tricks: "Louisiana old-timers feed their birds sulfur and gunpowder. In Martinique they rub them with rum and herbs every morning. In Brittany they give them a sugar cube soaked in cognac before a fight. In Argentina, when a bird is wounded, the gauchos will rub his genitals until he ejaculates; if the sperm contains blood, the bird is retired." And so on and so on, making it a bloody relief to turn to "Noodling for Flatheads," a restful essay about a fellow named Lee McFarlin who unwinds by catching catfish on Oklahoma's Cimarron River, without a rod and reel --- he is adept at shoving his hand down the big-mouthed fishes' throats, grabbing a hold and yanking them out of the water.
McFarlin, the writer explains, is "A second generation hand grabber, or 'noodler'... he caught his first fish that way at the age of eight. Though the bite didn't break his skin, it infected him like a venom."
McFarlin finds his prey in the springtime:
"As soon as the chill comes off the water, he knew, catfish look for places to spawn. Hollow banks, submerged timbers, the rusted wrecks of teenage misadventure: anything calm and shadowy will do... Lee would reach into likely nooks and crevices, wiggling his fingers and waiting for a nip. When it came, he would hook his thumbs into the attacker's mouth or thrust his hand down it's throat, then wait for the thrashing to stop. If he was lucky, the thing on the end of his arm was a fish."
Needless to say, it's an exclusively macho-man sport, right? Wrong."In Mississippi, once home to the scariest noodling waters in America, the sport's best spokesman in recent years has been Kristi Addis, Miss Teen USA 1987. One of her favorite pastimes, Addis told judges at the pageant, is grabbing for flatheads on the Yalobusha River. When pressed, she admitted that the mechanics of grabbing were 'really hard to explain'."
"I'll tell you what it feels like," Lee says. "You know little puppy dogs, when you shake the fire out of them when they're teething? That there's exactly how it feels."
This Burkhard Bilger (of course he's not named Robert Jones or Edward Wilson) is something else. He is obsessed with obsession --- a collector and cataloger of the high-functioning obsessives among us whose ferocious mental-emotional spinning around one thing, beast, process, or topic pulls us into the whirling vortex of their singular fascinations, whatever they may be. Bilger is drawn to and possessed by that odd breed of irresistible person who starts at intense captivation then cranks up the fixation amplifier in their high speed brains to 11 --- or 1100 rpms. When Bilger, bless him, finds one of his specimens, he's then compelled to tell us everything --- and I do mean everything --- about them. And we want him to. He is the official portraitist of the preternaturally possessed, the long-lost relative come to visit who keeps us up all night with his minutiae-filled wanderlustful stories ("Let me refill that wine glass just one more little bitty time, Uncle Burkhard.") He is also the Factman from Factland, the Archduke of the Anecdote. We can't get enough.There's the guy who starts a wild hog-hunting business and "keeps them fat by dumping fifty-five gallon drums of peanut butter in the woods." Or, in case you're wondering, here's a list of prices for exotic meat: "In Boston, at Savenor's market, kangaroo meat sells for $14.99 a pound, camel for $34.99, lion for $21.99, and zebra for $39.99. All of it's raised on game farms in the United States." Bilger introduces us to the FFFA (the Future Frog Farmers of America), and mentions, by the way, that "the United States imports 3,800 tons of frog meat a year --- more than any other country --- and schools take another two million live frogs, at $20 apiece, for class dissections." He precisely reveals that one coonhound, "Alf," barks 135 times a minute when he trees a raccoon, whereas another, "Sandy," yaps at a mere 80 or 90 barks a minute at such times. He notes that a certain moonshine producing operation is located in a "forty-five-by-ninety-five-foot warehouse," containing "thirty-six 800-gallon pots, each nearly filled to the brim with fermenting mash." Bilger travels to Kentucky to investigate reports of people getting "Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or CJD, of which mad-cow disease is a variant" from eating squirrel brains and comes back with this observation from a longtime squirrel hunter: "I just thought you gotta die of somethin' . . . First it was cigarettes cause cancer, then pesticides, and then the water you drink. But I been eatin' squirrel brains since I was six years old, and I ain't dead yet." And if you're still hungry, Bilger will quote at length from American explorer John Lawson's 1700 diary:
...Indian guides led Lawson, through the Carolina wilderness, he happily feasted on raccoon, opossum, and bear fat. Beaver is 'sweet Food,' he declared, 'especially their Tail,' and skunk meat 'has no manner of ill Smell, when the Bladder is out.' Among the Indians, Lawson noted, a meal in great demand consisted of 'two young Fawns, taken out of the Doe's Bellies, and boil'd in the same slimy Bags Nature had plac'd them in, and one of the Country-Hares, stew'd with the Guts in her Belly, and her Skin with the Hair on.'
Or would you prefer a kale and arugula sandwich with a cup of chamomile tea?
Just one more, Uncle Burkhard, puhleez?
OK, just one. In the coonhound story, "Send in the Hounds," there's that part,
...where four dogs had chased a raccoon into a lake. While the raccoon was in its element, the dogs were clumsy in the water and had to content themselves with circling and barking. The coon bided its time. When it noticed that one of the females was tiring, it calmly crawled on the dog's head and drowned her.