For most of us, roadkill is something to swerve around, not something to serve up. But that might be changing, for ecological, as well as economic considerations.
Last month, some 15,000 people descended on rural Marlinton, West Virginia, for the 29th annual Roadkill Cook-off—technically, the Roadkill/Autumn Harvest Festival, according to the Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce that sponsored the event.
“To many, this backwoods tradition of serving up dishes like porcupine stew probably sounds quaint at best,” a story in GOOD magazine noted. “But the cook-off is neither a fringe event nor a festival of backwoods Appalachian yokelry.”
Not sure if that’s a word, although ya’ll know what it means.
At the festival, visitors could sample such delicacies as Wild Boar Nachos, “Appal-Asian” treats made with squirrel and something called Possum Burgoo, which was described by its culinary creator as “veggies, possum meat and whatever else you care to throw in.”
Culinary considerations aside, there’s the moral issue of raising animals to be slaughtered for food. From that perspective, the GOOD reporter contended, “[Roadkill], many would argue, is the future of ethical food incarnate.”
That’s debatable, but West Virginians’ taste in critters aside, the last 10 years has seen something of a “movement” to embrace animals killed on the roadside as potential food sources to be utilized, rather than carcasses to be landfilled. Call it salvaging, as opposed to harvesting, if you will, but for thousands of Americans—and not just hillbillies—roadkill is increasingly viewed as a source of guilt-free, no-cost sustenance.
And it’s organic!
But what do you do with roadkill? Ah, that’s the least of anyone’s problems, because as the most famous roadkill chef, Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies TV show, would have observed, “there’s a passel” of roadkill cookbooks in print these days. There’s Jeff Eberbaugh’s “Roadkill Cooking—Gourmet Style” (as opposed to Roadkill to Table in 30 Minutes or Less, I guess).
Another is Sandor Katz’s 2003 food manifesto “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved,” an homage to ’60s poet/writer/musician Gil Scott Heron’s classic rant.
One of the best of the bunch is Buck Peterson’s “The Original Roadkill Cookbook,” of which one reviewer noted, “Few people in this world can take something utterly revolting and make it amusing; fewer still can take something disgusting and eat it. Buck Peterson does both.”
Millions being ‘served’
For the average Joe Consumer (and his close cousin Joe Sixpack), it’s a bit of a leap to expect them to whip up a batch of Raccoon Ratatouille, or dig into something at the Roadkill Festival called Bear Butt Appy Tizers (seriously). Eating meat off the street, however, makes ecological, if not culinary sense, given that there are annually some two million wildlife collisions nationwide—probably ten times that number if you counted birds, squirrels and Granny’s favorite “ingredient,” possum.
The toll of edible wildlife taken down on U.S. highways is truly staggering. Montana alone logged noted 6,069 deer, 171 elk, 63 antelope, 33 black bears, and six mountain lions killed on the state’s highways in 2011 (along with two grizzly bears), according to Bloomberg News. In Alaska, drivers kill some 300 moose a year, each one capable of providing as much as 700 pounds of meat. A dressed elk usually yields about 300 to 400 pounds of meat—even for inexperienced butchers—and most deer can provide about 60 to 70 pounds of venison, or more if the carcass is brought to a processing plant.
That’s far too much meat to end up being buried, or simply dragged off the road into the bushes.
According to author and roadkill connoisseur Paula Young Lee—who wrote the definitive text “Game: A Global History”—there are three reasons why salvaging meat from dead animals makes sense: It’s ethical, it’s edible (and at least as nutritious as store-bought meat) and it’s available.
“If we’re going to drive cars,” Lee wrote in a biting commentary on Salon.com, “then it’s only proper that we honor the departed by feeding the hungry.”
Now, to the key question: Have I ever eaten roadkill? Well, I’ve sampled gator, rattlesnake, pigeon and when I was in China some years ago at a “wet market” stall, a slice of something vaguely mammalian off a carcass I could only guess was a species of monkey.
But have I ever actually scraped an animal off the pavement that later ended up on my plate?
Can’t say as I have.
But I wouldn’t knock anyone else for doing exactly that. â¡
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator