As first seen in Goldenseal magazine, Fall 2007
The first thing that happens when you agree to be a judge at the West Virginia Roadkill Cook-Off, the phone rings off the hook with curious and appalled loved ones. “What are you going to have to eat? Really?! You won’t do it, will you?” The pleading is incessant.
It’s not hard to understand. Contestants in the cook-off regularly prepare animal dishes that are scorned by conventional taste buds, Biblical prohibitions, and local customs. The whole experience makes you ponder our ancient ancestors, scarcity, hunger, and commercial food production. And, in this case, courage. My mom, who now shuns red meat, claims she would become a cannibal if she were on a plane that went down, like the one in the Andes. I don’t think I’d ever be that hungry. It was with these thoughts buzzing in my head that I made my way to Marlinton.
This was actually my second time serving as judge to the contest. I knew that the effort and pride the chefs had put into their creations meant I had a solid responsibility on my shoulders. I arrived early to take in the Pocahontas County Autumn Harvest Festival in the surrounding park. The weather was a picture-perfect, early-fall day, and people of all ages were roaming around.
The main street leading to the park was blocked off for the occasion. The road was lined with vendors of all sorts. Local artisans presented woodcarvings, herbs, heirloom recipe books, genealogical guides, baked goods, and wine. I bought some terrific desserts to have for later — experience taught me to save up all my appetite for judging.
Long before there’s any testing, each contestant must present their meat to USDA inspectors for freshness and quality. All the entrees have as their main ingredient an animal that would or could be found dead on the road. So, what do we find dead on the road? Turns out, all kinds of stuff, including deer, groundhog, moose, wild turkey, turtle, dove, and, well, you get the idea.
Long before there’s any testing, each contestant must present their meat to USDA inspectors for freshness and quality.
The contestants set up an open tent or other exhibition booth and decorate it according to their theme. Displays run the gamut from “fine dining” to “mountain hillbilly” to “outdoorsy.” Contestants use dried leaves, mounted animals, stuffed toy animals, pictures of hunting expeditions, tree stumps, and all kinds of accessories to decorate their areas. Most of the participants dress in costumes, too. Camouflage and Daniel Boone-style coonskin caps seem to be the most popular. And, just like in a restaurant, the ones who take greatest care in presentation and comfort for the diner seem to have the tastiest vittles.
During the contest, we judges have a few minutes at each booth. The chef or team introduce themselves and welcome us to their “restaurant.” Some of the stations are really lovely, with napkin holders, wine glasses, silver tankards, or hand-carved utensils. When I was judging the presentation aspect, I didn’t care if it was upscale or rustic, as long as a great deal of thought went into it.
Of course, all the chefs were very nervous — they’ve put their hearts into this project (figuratively speaking, of course) — but we judges tried to put them at ease. I asked questions about their inspiration, how they obtained their unusual meats, how long they’ve been a game chef, etc. It’s a real eye-opener into other lifestyles. As a city girl, I really don’t know anything about home canning, hunting, or living off the land. I can keep a mint plant going for a few months, and that’s about it. Many of the contestants live a close-to-the-land life year-round. I was fascinated to meet the fathers who go out into the woods on a regular basis, providing their families with freezers full of venison steaks, wild turkeys, and bear. They’re also growing all kinds of vegetables and fruits, preparing pies and homemade wines. The mothers are no slouches, either. Many ladies were competing on a very equal basis with the men.
At each station, we were poured a little wine or cider and offered some side dishes to go along with the main meal. These side dishes were certainly no throw-away items. Oftentimes, the chef would prepare a number of game dishes or wild food items but couldn’t decide which one should be the competing entry. A couple of times, the other judges and I would give each other a little sideways glance — we thought the side would have been a winning main entry!
So, we tucked into everything from black bear to white-tailed deer. Many had comical names, adding to the presentation aspect: Ferrari Fricassee of Turtle, Moose Balls and Poop, and the local Democratic committee served Bushwhacked Elephant Stew. I’ve eaten my fair share of game in my time, but this was the first time I ever had moose, squirrel, groundhog, or raccoon. Honestly, in some cases it might have been the last time I have them.
All uniqueness aside, I had to judge the meats as they were prepared, in their own realm. Not everything “tastes like chicken,” nor should it. So, I looked for care in preparation. Was the meat gristly? Was it tender or overcooked? Did the recipe show some creativity, or was it like a pioneer-era swamp in a cast-iron pot? Plus, you know what the chefs say about ingredients and recipes: the recipe is only as good as the least ingredient. Many of the contestants took care in including fresh vegetables and herbs, local wines, interesting mustards, and sauces. Others were more the “bachelor blue-plate special” variety — several cans tossed into the same pan.
There was another challenge to our judging: we were tasting 10 very large meals at the same time. It wouldn’t be fair to get filled up, shortchanging a contestant at the end of the line. It was hard, because we would be staring into the big, hope-filled eyes of the chefs. Their faces practically implored us to love their creations and devour every bite.
Then — decision time. We all felt strongly about the first-place winner: the Coal Hollow Brothers with their pork and venison tenderloin. It was so well prepared, it would fit on any white-tablecloth restaurant’s menu. The tenderloin was marinated with black pepper and served with a Dijon horseradish sauce. The heat and bite of the sauce was the perfect compliment to the meat. Our compliments went to the chefs!