Another Kind of Street Meat

Searching for abundant, organic, all-natural, free meat? Consider roadkill.

Illustration by Josh Covarrubias

Last month some 15,000 people gathered in rural Pocahontas County, West Virginia, for the 29th annual Autumn Harvest Festival and 24th West Virginia Roadkill Cook-off. To many, this backwoods tradition of serving up dishes like porcupine stew probably sounds quaint at best, vile at worst. But the cook-off is neither a fringe event, nor backwoods Appalachian yokelry—it is, many would argue, the future of ethical food incarnate. For the past decade, at least since “fermentation revivalist” Sandor Katz publicized the movement in his 2003 counterculture food manifesto The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, there’s been a growing movement in America and the U.K. to embrace roadkill cuisine as a source of guilt-free, organic, and no-cost sustenance. Spurred on by a bevvy of relevant cookbooks and new laws allowing citizen roadkill salvage, it’s getting both easier and more acceptable to eat meat off the street.

The trend makes perfect, logical sense given the scope of the roadkill situation in the United States. In 2008, there were an estimated 1 to 2 million wildlife collisions nationwide—and at least 100 million if you count birds, squirrels, and other small, less desirable critters. Montana alone noted 6,069 deer, 171 elk, 63 antelope, 33 black bears, and six mountain lions on the roadside in 2011 (and two grizzly bears in 2010), while up in Alaska they manage to clobber up to 300 moose a year. One adult male moose can yield up to 700 pounds of meat (although usually only 75 percent is salvageable). Even a deer can yield 60 pounds of venison, either free or for about $75 if taken to a butcher for preparation. Sitting right on our roads is a vast, wasted, free source of organic, hormone-free protein with the potential to save families thousands a year on groceries. As an added bonus, pulling carcasses off the pavement for consumption helps keep scavengers out of the roads, preventing further animal deaths and making it a doubly ethical meat that even some vegetarians find acceptable, acknowledging that the animals were already dead (not killed for human consumption) and ought to be well used.

Though many skeptics concede that eating roadkill is both ethical and plentiful, they’re still put off by health concerns—parasites and meat spoilage—and worry that people might use their cars as weapons to score free meat. But the health risks are similar to those of eating hunted game meat. People who learn how to assess damage, freshness, and disease in frequently encountered species should be fine, and if not, they can always consult an expert. There are even some simple guidelines and how-tos for dealing with common roadkill, but basically, it comes down to two questions: How flat is it, and how fresh is it? As for hungry drivers using their cars as meat-seeking missiles, though there were a few reported instances in Dallas in 2012, the country’s largest and oldest salvage program, which scoops up dead moose from the roadside in Alaska, has no record of any such malfeasance. In fact, they can actually use the data from reported salvages to help decrease future car-moose altercations.

Photo by Mike Mozart

Alaska’s program proves it’s possible to allow citizens to safely harvest their own roadkill meat. Before 1978, the Alaska state troopers would drive out to crash scenes and butcher any felled moose for distribution to local churches and shelters. Thereafter, to save state time and money, they began to allow charities and individuals to respond to the calls themselves, permitting people to claim the meat if they were willing to get out of bed for the typically late-night crashes. Claimants needed to respond to police calls in less than 30 minutes and pick up the meat within the first few hours. In 2011, the Alaskan program began issuing a $700,000 grant to deal with local roadkill, empowering local nonprofits to buy up flatbed trucks and winches and set up a network of on-call, trained civilian staffers to remove, butcher, and distribute quality moose meat.

Possibly spurred by Alaska’s success entrusting roadkill disposal to citizens many states have been legalizing similar collection schemes over the past few years: To date, harvesting roadkill is legal in some form in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, and West Virginia, to name a few. And this isn’t just an American phenomenon—roadkill cooking may actually be a bigger trend in the U.K., where some high-profile chefs have endorsed the practice, despite health warnings from the local Food Standards Agency. Naturalist and roadkill cuisine enthusiast Jonathan McGowan also regularly appears in the U.K. press, sporting recipes like fox curry or frog stir-fry. Programs similar to those in the United States appear to exist in parts of Australia and Canada as well, the former even boasting a roadkill café in the town of Darwin.

It seems we’re slowly approaching an age of newfound acceptance and respect for roadkill cuisine. It’s one of those rare, easy logical steps toward a more sustainable and ethical world. There’s no point in resisting; you might as well just buy in, and scrape yourself up something (relatively) fresh off the blacktop today. And if you’re on the fence about highway-flattened fare, check out these delicious recipes for badger, owl, and pigeon.