MARLINTON, W. VA – If you were sitting down for an evening of fine dining and, on the menu, found “Side Ditch Doe with Scabbed Fritter,” “Droppings in the Snow,” and “Bad News Bears Bumper Tacos,” you might head for the door. I didn’t have that option.
For starters, I was attending an outside event. Second, I was one of three judges working the 27th annual West Virginia Roadkill Cook-Off. My qualifications? I was 100 % compliant with the stipulation: “All judges have been tested for cast-iron stomachs and have sworn under oath to have no vegetarian tendencies.” The other two judges — Tim Urbanic of the famed Cafe Cimino Country Inn in Sutton, W. Va., and chef Kevin Fraser, originally of South Africa — had considerably better qualifications.
I’m glad I didn’t head for the door. I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to taste some surprisingly flavorful foods and chat with some surprisingly talented cooks.
In a case of “be careful what you wish for, you might get it,” I’d offhandedly volunteered, via e-mail, to be a stand-in if one of the original three judges couldn’t make it. Two days later I got the call.
I’d swaggered into Marlinton, W. Va., (pop. 994) early Sept. 28 — a city slicker, with tongue in cheek, prepared to taste some hastily thrown-together stews. But I watched 10,000 people converge on the site. I witnessed the lines to each station grow 20-, 30-, 40-people deep and listened to the accolades. I began having second thoughts. As the smells cut through the air, I had thirds.
The cook-off guidelines state entries must feature an animal commonly found dead on the side of the road, including, but not limited to, bear, opossum, groundhog, deer, rabbit, crow, squirrel, snake and turkey. (To put consumers’ minds, and stomachs, at ease, chefs must sign a document stating the meat is healthy for human consumption.)
Of the eight road kills, five had recently been harvested by the teams. (The bear had been “shot in Sam’s backyard” earlier in the week.) The other three meats were store-bought. As judges, we spent 10 minutes at each outdoor station, sampling food and conversing with the chefs. During these chats it became clear that hunting and eating wild game for these folks wasn’t a game, a sport, or a once-a-year chance to enter a cook-off. It was a way of life. It’s woods-to-table. And, done right, it’s a damn tasty way of life.
The wild boar, served with cabbage in a poblano pepper, had such zing and zest I ate my fill. I still had a half-day of judging to go. One venison and fritter offering, served with a side of moonshine, was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. The rabbit gumbo — true comfort food served over a bed of rice — was from an old family recipe.
I’d heard from one source that the event was primarily a tourist trap, designed to draw dollars and yuppies to the economically struggling area. I didn’t get that impression.
The event is part of the larger Autumn Harvest Festival, and had the feel of a true community affair in which the residents took pride. Bluegrass music, square dancing, a corn hole tournament, and the appearance of Miss Roadkill — complete with opossum-patterned gown — added plenty of spice.
Many of the entries were theme-based. The New Jersey Gangster Gourmet Gang dressed the part with sunglasses, fedoras and pistols tucked under their belts. They dished up venison “shot in Newark.” The camouflaged Buck Busters told the tall tale of how their truck bumper had harvested their deer that morning while returning from a failed hunting trip. Other stations were “Beverly Hillbillies”- and Oktoberfest-themed.
Though bear and wild boar may be out of the ordinary, they’re not as wild as some proteins offered in the past. Iguana, crawdads and squirrel have been served. A dish called Hillbilly Mardi Gras Alligator and Turtle Gumbo was one of last year’s winners.
In the end, the $1,200 first prize was awarded to the Who Dat New Gang’s wild boar. But the real winners were those adventurous enough to try some truly historic and uniquely American cuisine.
Spike Carlsen is a writer. He lives in Stillwater. His book next fall from Harper Collins examines things we see every day — but know nothing about.