As I drove along the isolated, twisting mountain roads of the Monongahela National Forest, state code §20-2-4 was going through my mind. It's a West Virginia statute that makes it legal to take home and eat roadkill. I was headed to Marlinton, a small mountain community that had invited me to participate as a judge in their annual Harvest Festival.
I'm a big fan of these regional celebrations, and have attended many. From Apple Days in Julian, California to the Jack Frost Ice Fishing Festival in Spooner, Wisconsin, these events are a great opportunity for towns to celebrate community pride and showcase their unique regional flair.
While community pride is definitely on display in Marlinton, the regional flair is, well... a little earthy. In a few hours, I would be sampling over a dozen of West Virginia's finest roadkill recipes.
Poking fun at the state's hillbilly image, Marlinton began the Roadkill Cook-Off 13 years ago as a way to draw visitors to their scenic, historic town. "It brings a lot of people out," notes chef and president of the county commission, Joel Callison. "Roadkill happens here every day. We don't usually eat it, though."
My judging duties didn't begin until 3:00, but curiousity and apprehension drew me to the event site just prior to noon, when contestants can officially begin their food preparation. Hundreds of people were already there, listening to live bluegrass music and checking out the booths filled with local crafts.
On a large, grassy field, the contestants were erecting tents, setting up grills, and preparing their meats and seasonings. Signs at the various stations advertised "Buzzard Breath Maggotini," "Turtle A1-A Road Soup," and "The Buck Stopped Here Pepper Steak." Boy, was I glad I'd skipped breakfast to save room for all this.
I decided to find out what might inspire someone to enter a roadkill cooking contest. Busily cubing pieces of venison for their "Deer Drop Chilli" were brothers Eric, Jerry, and Kevin Sarrett. "It's my thirtieth birthday and I couldn't think of a better way to spend it," said Eric. "I grew up here and moved to Florida, so I'm back, getting in touch with my hillbilly roots, trying to reproduce mama's good old cooking."
Nearby, John Long of the Fat Boys Wilderness Club said, "We've been doing this nine years. The Fat Boys are brothers, cousins, old military comrades, and it's a chance for us to get together and spend a fun weekend."
At 1:00, long lines began to develop at each of the entrants' tables. Samples were being handed out for the People's Choice Award, which goes to the team with the largest popular vote from the visitors.
The crowd's spirit of culinary adventure ran the gamut. "I'll try anything once," boasted Michael Jarrett. "So far, the fried rattlesnake isn't bad." Nearby, a woman twisted up her face and simply said, "Eew." More common was the middle-of-the-road response. "I'm not sure if I'll try everything," said Louanne Toohey. "I'll have to check it out first."
After a time, the crowds began to filter away from the tasting session toward the Little Switzerland Cloggers' performance. The moment I had been anticipating and dreading was almost at hand.
At 3:00, armed with a box of antacid, I gathered with the other three judges to receive instructions. We would have seven minutes with each team, to judge taste, presentation, and overall showmanship. The top three teams were to receive trophies and cash prizes of $600, $300, and $150. For the contestants, the rules were fairly simple – pretty much anything goes, as long as the main ingredient is an animal commonly found dead along the roadside. Our one warning: Watch out for gravel.
Approaching the first table, I was struck by the sweet, somewhat pungent smell emanating from the large pot atop the makeshift campfire. An imposing, buckskin-clad figure emerged from a teepee and handed me a plate of "Buffalo Balls" (in name only, I hoped). With a drumroll playing in my head, and feeling slightly queasy, I took a bite. To my surprise, the tender buffalo meatballs, and especially the accompanying potato wedges and grilled apple slices, were incredibly good. Things were looking up.
As we made our way around the field, other memorable standouts included sauteed rabbit nuggets, a particularly well-presented Wapiti Relleno (poblano pepper stuffed with jack cheese and elk), and a venison and black bean stew served over rice. The chef of this last dish, Madeline Galford, bagged the deer herself - though with a rifle or a pickup, she wouldn't say.
Winning my personal nod for creativity was Joe Feury of the Skid Marks Bumper Grill, who served up an appetizer of fried rattlesnake, followed by turtle soup, and a deer shish-kebab. When I asked if it was difficult obtaining the ingredients, Fuery answered, "No, I had most of it around the house."
I must admit, as the judging progressed, I was somewhat disappointed that nobody had offered me raccoon ribs, squirrel tenderloin, or possum barbeque. Having let my imagination run wild in the days leading up to the event, I'm pretty certain that I had fortified my will (if not my stomach) enough to eat such dishes.
The deliberations were tough, but in the end, the Pocahontas County Commission and their "Buffalo Balls" ran right over the competition, taking first prize, the People's Choice Award, and the honor for best showmanship. Second place went to the Dinner Bucket Divas, rookies who had prepared "Wild Turkalo on a Log"(buffalo and wild turkey, with egg noodles and cheeses). Third place was awarded to Madeline Galford and Bill Jordan for their "Blood Rocks and Guts over Snails & Maggots" (ground venison with black beans and rice).
So, take the advice of a Roadkill Cook-off veteran: The next time you're driving down the highway and you feel a thud against the bumper, don't get upset. Get out of the car and start thinking up a great recipe!
For information about the September, 2004 Roadkill Cook-Off, contact the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-336-7009 or www.pocahontascountywv.com; or e-mail Nancy Smithson at firstname.lastname@example.org.