Plating Possum

Neal Burnham with the Cannon Building possum/tiles/non-collection/2/2-9-possum-PA2014_07_0007.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Neal Burnham proudly displays the possum he caught in the Cannon Building stationery room.
When this possum snuck into the Old House Office Building in 1946, it had little idea that it would end up as a Capitol dinner.

The possum, or opossum, is a nocturnal marsupial, known for playing dead when faced with danger. Usually found in the woods of the southeastern and northwestern United States, possums have occasionally wandered into buildings in Washington, D.C. In March 1946, a particularly resourceful possum broke into the Old House Office Building (now known as the Cannon Building) and roamed the hallways for nearly a week. After trapping the animal in the boiler room, House staffers locked it in a crate. But the wily varmint gnawed its way out, scampering through offices and hallways. Undeterred, Neal Burnham, bookkeeper for the House stationery room and “an old Georgia possum hunter,” predicted that only a hound dog would be able to catch it. However, Burnham himself cornered the possum in the stationery room, an office supply store for House staff. He used raw meat to entice the marsupial out of its hiding place deep in a stack of paper. Burnham crowed that he planned to fatten up the beast and bring it to the House Restaurant “to be cooked Southern style.”

Clyde Ellis and possum/tiles/non-collection/2/2-9-possum-PA2014_12_0008a.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Arkansas Representative Clyde Ellis received an unusual present from the Benton County ’Possum Club, of which he was a founding member. He regifted the critter to the National Zoo.
While possum was not on the usual menu at the House Restaurant, it did appear at times in the dining room, where Members and staff occasionally supplied the ingredients and asked the chef to prepare a favorite meal. Turns out, possum was a House delicacy, of sorts. In the rural South of the early 20th century, possum was a traditional food, served baked with sweet potatoes. Southern Members hosted possum dinners, using cuisine to connect with the communities they represented.

Historically, Georgian Representatives John David Stewart and George Thomas Barnes were known as “the most inveterate ’possum eaters” in Congress. In 1889, they ordered two dozen possums and sweet potatoes delivered fresh from their home state for a possum bake, open to the Democratic minority. The Fort Worth Daily Gazette speculated that large shipments of live possums from Georgia to Washington, D.C., were “perhaps due to the average Southern congressman’s fondness for ‘baked ’possum and ’taters.’”

Another Member famed for possum dinners was Representative John Charles Linthicum. In 1924, he invited his fellow Maryland colleagues to join him for a dinner of possum, mushrooms, baked sweet potatoes, and sauce. Frederick Zihlman, John Philip Hill, and Millard Tydings joined in, but T. Alan Goldsborough and Sydney Mudd (perhaps not the biggest possum fans) were unable to attend. The next year, Linthicum had the House Restaurant chef repeat the meal and add Maryland oysters to boot. The feast was served in the private dining room of the Speaker of the House.

President-elect Taft's possum dinner/tiles/non-collection/2/2-9-possum-LC-Taft.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This lavish possum dinner for President-elect Taft led Representative Charles Lafayette Bartlett to suggest adding a provision “preserving the ’possum” to an appropriations bill.
The most notorious fan of possum dinners in Washington was not a Member of the House of Representatives, but rather, a President. William Howard Taft discovered his culinary love for the animal during a dinner given in 1909, while he was still president-elect. One hundred “steaming hot” barbecued possums were served with persimmon beer, sweet potatoes, boiled wild turkey, native green peas, spiced Georgia watermelon, and grapefruit fresh from the grove. Taft’s praise for the meal led to numerous presidential possum dinners. Even the 1909 Thanksgiving dinner at the White House featured a 26-pound creature, so large the New York Times called it a monster.

With possum eating from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other, Representative Charles Lafayette Bartlett suggested some provision should be made “for the purpose of preserving the ’possum” in a 1909 appropriations bill. Despite Bartlett’s quip, possums stayed out of legislation and remained on the table.

Sources: Mark Kurlansky, The Food of a Younger Land (New York: Riverhead Books, 2009): 140; Los Angeles Times, March 15, 1946; Baltimore Sun, February 15, 1924; Atlanta Constitution, February 12, 1909.

This is part of a monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.