CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Saturday afternoon at the Dunbar armory and the worst part about the annual Critter Dinner was the wait. Fragrant smoke wafted through the unseasonably warm air, promising all kinds of tasty delights just a few yards ahead.
Everybody was hungry, but the line crept along slowly: through the parking lot, past the demilitarized tank parked in the grass and the Boy Scouts collecting armloads of donated canned goods. The meal was free, but it also served as a donation drive for local food pantries.
Just getting to the front door took an hour, but grumbling was kept at a minimum. The chance to feast on everything from frog legs to elk is the kind of meal that may only come once a year. Every so often, someone would emerge from the armory smiling or chewing on a toothpick, pass through the line and a few people would ask, "What's good?"
The elk seemed to be pretty popular. Not everybody was crazy about the rabbit.
Inside, a bluegrass band tore through tune after tune, while kindly older women served out slices or pieces of this or that. On the side, they spooned out brown beans, cornbread and mounds of mashed potatoes.
Girl Scouts worked a table toward the end, where they offered cookies -- not Girl Scout cookies, mind you, just cookies.
Behind the scenes, people have been hustling for days to get the Critter Dinner going --actually longer. Even before the first bag of breaded alligator nuggets is ripped open or a single whole rabbit is put in the smoker, a lot of planning has gone into the annual event.
Mike Durham has been cooking for the Critter Dinner for nine years and says he has experience cooking for crowds.
"During the summer, I sell food at local fairs and festivals," he said. "Everything from funnel cakes and sausages to Philly cheese steak sandwiches."
He also has the kind of gear made to feed a small army: smokers, industrial-sized grills and deep fryers.
Durham said, "We use the deep fryers for the frog legs, fish, the alligator bites and the mountain oysters."
Everything they get comes through reputable food distributors like SYSCO, where he says he gets the dinner's frog legs, to exoticmeatmarket.com, which sells kangaroo, elk and camel.
"It used to be people could bring us deer or squirrels," he said and laughed. "The Health Department shut us down."