CHICAGO — John Wilson stepped into the massive refrigerator at his home and removed a long plastic bag. Although clouded with ice, there was no hiding its grayish pink contents -- the paws, the limbs, the head.
"This is one of the jumbos," Wilson explained, holding the bag up for inspection. "We leave the paws on so people know they're getting a raccoon, not somebody's house cat."
The raccoon hunting and trapping seasons ended a few weeks ago in Illinois. Although it may surprise many who dine on deep-dish pizza and Polish sausage, the bandit-masked critter is turning up in kitchens across the state.
A largely word-of-mouth raccoon meat market stretches from southern Illinois to Chicago's suburbs, spilling into Wisconsin and Missouri, according to hunters, trappers and self-proclaimed "coon eaters."
With special permits from the state Department of Natural Resources, hunters and trappers sell their catches, often for around $5 a skinned carcass, which can weigh in at a healthy 15 pounds.
Customers turn their purchases into barbecue, stews and other dishes, updating a tradition that began with Native Americans and was later adopted by pioneers.
Over 10 weeks, Wilson, 59, figures he has sold around 2,500 raccoon carcasses to more than 50 customers. Irv Schirmer, another trapper, has sold 300, catering to appetites in Chicago, Rockford, Joliet and Zion.
They say many of their customers grew up in the South, where raccoon hunting and cooking has a storied past. But that isn't the only demographic hungry for the meat. Hunters and trappers in southern Illinois love to eat the critters. And some foodies from the Chicago area dabble in raccoon dishes.
Minced raccoon even emerged from the kitchen of Moto, a cutting-edge Chicago restaurant, where chef Homaro Cantu prepared it to look like road kill, with a yellow stripe across the plate.
"You have to overcome certain inhibitions," said Catherine Lambrecht, 48, who brought the meat to Moto after purchasing it in Wisconsin. "But when it's prepared right, raccoon is really good."
And they're really plentiful in Illinois, which has one of the most abundant raccoon populations in the country, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
The agency estimates as many as 2.5 million roam the state.
The bushy-tailed creatures with black masks around their eyes make their homes in patches of woods near farmland and in residential neighborhoods. Without hunting and trapping, their population would explode, the state agency says.
More bird and turtle nests would fall prey to raccoons, while the potential for spreading disease would grow, said Bob Bluett, a raccoon biologist with the department.
But a spokeswoman from the Humane Society of the United States questioned the ecological argument, and other activists oppose all hunting.
Nearly 15,000 Illinois residents have hunted raccoon since the season started in November, often using dogs to locate their prey on private farms and government-owned land. About 3,700 have trapped them, killing those that survive the trap.
"I shoot them in the head with a .22 rifle," said Wilson, a towering trapper with a gray beard, as he ran a 2-foot-long knife along a freshly skinned raccoon pelt.
State law allows raccoon hunters and trappers to eat what they catch and share it with friends and family. Those who sell for human consumption need a Wild Game Food Dealers Permit from the Department of Natural Resources.
Wilson, one of 43 people to receive a permit in 2007, sells the carcasses out of his home. He skins and guts the raccoons on a metal contraption that hangs from his garage ceiling, then stores them in the large outdoor freezer.
"We get a rush just before Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and the Super Bowl," Wilson said.
Rogie Williams, 82, is one of his most loyal customers. He lives in Kankakee but grew up in Arkansas, where eating raccoon was common. His taste for it survived the move north.
"I've eaten it for more than 60 years," said Williams. "Why stop now?"