In short, the answer to your question is no. Raccoons were not eaten among high society, either in the 1920’s or at any point during the 1900’s. It is also unlikely that raccoons were fancy food in American culture during the 19th century.
This is why President Calvin Coolidge felt uncomfortable eating Rebecca the Raccoon for Thanksgiving dinner in 1926. He was playfully ridiculed by at least one newspaper for having cosmopolitan tastes and pardoning the Thanksgiving mammal. The raccoon was originally sent to The White House by Vinnie Joyce from Nitta Yuma, Mississippi, a still unincorporated community along the Mississippi River. Rebecca Raccoon was then adopted by second lady Grace Coolidge and kept lovingly for several years.
She was a wild animal (the raccoon, not the first lady), supposedly bit the President, and did not enjoy large meetings, the Easter Egg Roll in 1927 for example. After the Cooledges’ left in 1929, Rebecca was sent to the Rock Creek Zoo in DC where she died shortly after. When Herbert Hoover took office in early 1929, Billy Possum claimed squatter’s rights on Rebecca’s prior home. He was shortly apprehended by Officer B. B. Snodgrass before being granted permission to live in Rebecca’s prior home for the rest of his life with few changes.
But it is worth noting that Rebecca Raccoon was sent to the White House with the intention of accompanying the Thanksgiving turkey (Or even replacing the turkey). Raccoons were eaten extensively during the 1800’s to the point that Mark Twain wrote about “possum” and “coon” as being one of the true American meals he missed on his tour of Europe.
They were, and still are, classified small game within hunting laws, and are sometimes given special considerations as to handling or hunting. There were mentions of them being cooked in a traditional African style by many black communities and raccoons were widely eaten throughout both Native American societies prior to European settlement by being hunted rather than farmed. Further, there are only a few examples of raccoons being farmed, namely in the 1920’s.
However, this was mainly for fur specifically for raccoon fur coats, rather than for meat, and there have been no industrial attempts to farm raccoons in the US since then. Quite simply, the history of raccoons as a food source is the history of hunting in the US, and specifically of small game hunting within the United States.
It’s important to pause here and give a quick note of what made people lose a taste for small game and specifically raccoon. There were 3 main factors: mass urbanization, the Green Revolution, and a subsequent change in hunting patterns among Americans.
Let’s begin in 1920 as that is when the question asks about raccoon in American cuisine. The 1920 census places approximately one half of individuals in rural areas. There were also relatively few laws governing conservation of natural resources, with the National parks Service only being founded in 1916.
Before then there was an understanding that America was a land of bountiful wealth, and that included its natural resources and animals. Raccoons were often specifically targeted to the point that a hunting tradition developed known as “cooning” and dog breeds known as “coonhounds” were bread specifically to hunt raccoons and other small game such as opossums. During this point in time many Americans engaged in subsistence hunting, where a family would hunt wild animals as a food source.
Subsistence hunting was just one of the options within the system to feed the family and often came secondary to farming, gardening, gathering, or purchasing the primary bulk of the family’s meals. Within sustenance hunting anything that walks, crawls, swims, flies, hops or slithers is considered fair game, and can be killed, captured or trapped because it goes well in stew (or gumbo). This brought raccoon to the family table.
It was one of many creatures that a rural family could prepare, cook, and eat in the same day, and existed across virtually all of North America. Furthermore it was legally a varmint in many areas, and local laws encouraged wide scale extinction of the raccoon for its effect on crops and livestock, similar to the organized attempts to remove the grey wolf.
Over the decades as the population urbanized there was less regular access to wild game. Many of the traditional avenues to hunt were cut off and it was more difficult to access hunting areas on a daily basis within urban centers. there also existed a different cultural consciousness in where food comes from.
Most urbanites did not, and still do not, produce the majority of their own food. While urban gardening has seen massive surges, such as during World War Two with victory gardens, these systems were intended to supplement purchased, often heavily processed, food rather than take over as a primary method of food production.
There have also been subsequently less hunters in urban areas per-capita then in rural areas where ready access and a cultural consciousness of self-reliance were much more present. Further, with the advent of the Green Revolution, the concept of food consumption changed radically.
The Green Revolution was the period between the 1950’s and 1970’s where agricultural production boomed worldwide, causing a subsequent population boom. The revolution involved the wide scale introduction of agricultural machinery such as tractors, harvesters, and advanced irrigation systems. This enabled a very small number of farmers to perform massive amounts of labor that would have previously taken dozens or even hundreds of people to complete in the same amount of time.
For reference, in 1870 about 50% of people worked in agriculture. By 1980, that number dropped to 4%, and it currently sits at less than 1%. The mechanical labor was also coupled with a dedicated effort to standardize crops, both in the kinds of crops grown and the varieties of those crops to increase yields. Farms became highly specialized as a result, growing only a few or even a single crop, or raising only a single breed of animal such as cows or chickens.
This accessibility to industrial scale of production led to cheaper meat prices and consistent meat quality. The average person bought their meat from a store at this point, and those stores bought large quantities of meat from farms that were engaged in the mass production of relatively few kinds of animals, limiting options for consumers.
Government subsidies were highly involved in this change from hunting to farmed animals as well, driving crop prices to a never before seen low, but also incentivizing farmers to utilize as much of their land as possible. The extensive farming removed fallow areas in which small game lived, thus making it harder to hunt small game even in rural areas.
What is interesting is that initially the loss of accessible hunting areas did not cause a decline in hunting licenses issued, or even a decline in small game hunting. In the 1970’s and 80’s hunting small game was still popular enough that magazines would have small game on the cover. However, what is important to note is how hunting patterns changed over the years.
As I mentioned previously, most raccoons and assorted small game came to the kitchen table through subsistence hunting. After the Green Revolution, very few people needed to supplement their diet through hunting. This shifted the nature of hunting from something that was done out of necessity to something done for leisure. Small game hunters focused on a specific quarry to hunt, typically squirrels, rabbits, or fowl.
However, beginning in the 80’s and leading into the 90’s big game replaced small game as the most popular form of hunting. This is still the case today, as in 2016 there were 9.2 million big game hunters, and only 3.5 million small game hunters. This is because of both the aforementioned loss of small game hunting areas, but also of the increased prevalence in trophy hunting. The concept of trophy hunting is inherently hunting large, rare, or dangerous animals and small game simply does not fit within those categories.
Raccoon is still eaten alongside other small game, but it seems that over the past several decades there has been almost a strange fascination with raccoon as a food source. There are a number of raccoon food festivals in the United States, and there have also been articles written about individuals who specifically hunt and eat raccoons or other assorted small game. That being said, the possibility that small game hunting returns is one of uncertainty.
Hunting as a whole is on the decline, and big game offers a considerably better investment for an urban hunter as trips are expensive, and big game can produce considerably more meat and overall value then smaller animals. However, there are attempts to prioritize hunting for animal control.
Last week Utah voted to make hunting) and fishing the primary form of animal control in the state, arguing that it causes little environmental damage when responsibly done, leads to massive government revenues for conservation efforts, and hunters see first-hand the changes that occur within low-traveled areas, allowing observation of how the environment is changing that would otherwise be impossible.