When we’ve come together to the US for the first time, Warsaw’s ethnic cuisine was still mostly restricted to kiosks with pseudo-Vietnamese fast-food. It was also the time when sushi was just coming into fashion. Coming here, we were hungry for new tastes and enchanted by available options, we threw ourselves at all sorts of novelties, like various national places, tex-mex, American barbecue and all-you-can-eat buffets. This was nine years ago and since then a few things changed about our culinary habits — most notably, we don’t eat as much in restaurants, instead preferring food prepared at home, with good ingredients and good energy. Thus, this time around, our curiosity drifted in another direction: the culinary tradition of America. What did people eat here before the fast-food era? What did country mom’s cook for their kids, being away from big supermarkets? We knew nothing on this topic.
Our interest was piqued by uncle Lloyd, who grew up in West Virginia. “I was brought up in the mountains. We often went out with mom, carrying a salt shaker. The lunch was whatever the local nature provided.” The uncle, like many Americans, is an avid hunter and knows wild game well, also from the perspective of his plate. West Virginia, a mountainous state where coal mines were the dominant source of employment, is a place burdened by many stereotypes, an object of jokes and jibes aimed at its isolation, flagging economy and underdevelopment. The time flows here more slowly, Starbucks are hard to come by and endless forests are full of wild animals. Supposedly, there are more deer living in WV than people! West Virginians are obviously very unhappy with such unfavorable perceptions and, at the same time, very proud of their heritage.
Uncle Lloyd also gave us a brochure about West Virginia which contained information about the Roadkill Cook-off Festival. Roadkill Cook-off Festival? To our non-native English readers, who don’t know what this means (like we didn’t before), let me explain: A cook-off is simply a cooking competition, while roadkill is any animal hit by a car. In some states, like in WV, it’s legal to collect and take it home to prepare for dinner. The forests here are full of game, so it’s not uncommon for hit or shot animals like raccoons, squirrels, deer, boar, rabbits, possums, groundhogs, pheasants, wild turkeys, geese, quails or even bears, to find their way onto tables. At least such was life in the past, as currently it seems to us that this culinary event is more of an extravagant curiosity and a memento to days gone by, than a showing-off of home-made dinners. One way or another, we knew where to head next.
We set out to go with Sean, a friend we’ve met just a week earlier. The further we went into West Virginia, the more interesting things became. There were beautiful vistas and curiosities such as roadside general stores, micro gas stations with just two distributors, a drive-through beer store or a shop that combined a hardware store and a taxidermist’s. Approaching our destination, we rolled through the no signal zone, where, because of a space observatory, there’s no mobile reception or internet.
The beautifully set town of Marlinton, in Pocahontas(!) county, welcomed us with cloudless September skies, hot, hot sun, and tons of people. Normally, the town’s population is about one thousand, but this one day of the year brings thousands more. Even though the heat was real and Lima constantly kept trying to hide from the sun (she even shunned the bear tacos we offered), we patiently waited in long lines leading toward various competitors’ stalls. While waiting, we had the opportunity to watch Miss Roadkill and Miss Grandma Roadkill strolling around, and even managed to snag a photo or two. Though we knew that according to the rules the animals did not necessarily had to come from under the wheels (instead, they had to be considered roadkill type), yet we still were a bit disappointed by the lack of variety of meats offered by the contestants. This is understandable though, if you take into account the logistics of the affair — it’s easier to prepare two thousand samples of deer, than say, squirrel.
Almost all dishes featured meat that was ground and served in the form of a stew, tacos filling, meatball or some other form of stuffing. We tried deer, boar, bear, wild birds, tortoise, frog and even iguana (that had to be brought from California). Unfortunately, we were disappointed by most, including bear tacos, jerky (which we otherwise really like) made from deer, and the disgusting tortoise stew. My definite favorite were the deer, wild bird and pork meatballs, with an outstanding cilantro sauce. I have the recipe and will try something similar in the future, for sure. Number two for me was wonton with deer stuffing, served by an Asian-American couple, who, in fact, won the competition. Marcin disagreed and voted for iguana tacos.
The road back again abounded in beautiful sights, while we compared our opinions. The idea of eating game in a place where wild animals are present in great numbers and are not threatened by extinction, seems to us the best option for meat-eaters. It allows the bypassing of financial and environmental costs of mass meat production, the animals are not held captive, and, at the same time, it’s a healthy diet, since the species inhabit their natural habitats and feed naturally. Furthermore, if we are using meat that would otherwise spoil at the side of the road, is there a more ecological or ethical option? It’s a bit sentimental, too, because we still remember the times in Poland when roadkill hares were brought home to make pate. What’s your, dear readers, take on the subject?