The Rise of Roadkill
Food festivals can be found in almost every American hamlet and burg, with many showcasing local specialties from biscuits to pickled vegetables. One that would take most of the country by surprise, though, is the Roadkill Cook-off held each year in Marlinton, W.Va. The festival has been going for more than 30 years, with most attention paid to it in that time of the clickbait headline style (“This man hits a racoon with his car. What he does next made me lose my lunch”). But, whether because of concerns about future food supplies or the rising cost of meat or a real desire to go freeway to table, roadkill as food source has been picking up credibility far beyond the hollers of West Virginia.
In most states, salvaging roadkill is either explicitly illegal or considered to be part of the state’s hunting laws, most of which require permits before gathering game regardless of how it was killed. Some allow animals that meet their demise on the highway to be gathered only by those with licenses for fur trading. In justifying these laws, state lawmakers often point to food safety concerns and a desire to prevent people from purposefully hitting wildlife so they can harvest more meat. Also, we should acknowledge, it just seems more than a bit icky to most Americans.
However, a number of states have recently changed their laws, allowing people to collect roadkill to eat at home, including Oregon, where a permit system will be in place by 2019. In several states, such as Washington, those who wish to take a roadkill deer or elk may do so, but must apply for a salvage permit within 24 hours of claiming the animal. In each state, the animals that can be taken are outlined, always excluding any endangered animals in the area.
Some states, such as Alaska, Connecticut, and Ohio, have more stringent regulations regarding roadkill. These states have a “roadkill list” that citizens and charitable organizations can sign up to be on. When an eligible animal is struck by a vehicle and reported, someone on the list will be contacted to come out and retrieve it.
The Appeal of Roadkill
Why the push to make roadkill salvage legal? For some it is a matter of practicality. Roadkill, especially large animals like deer or moose, seems to many to simply be wasted meat if it is left uneaten. Often, roadkill is consumed by scavengers like vultures, but if the carcass is left in the road, that puts a whole new set of animals at risk for being hit, not to mention the danger of cars swerving around them. Allowing local citizens to retrieve roadkill helps limit waste while removing a potentially dangerous object from the road. Additionally, in many cases this meat can be provided to food pantries or soup kitchens, helping feed hundreds of people for little to no investment.
Another group of people who advocate for roadkill salvage are, surprisingly, vegetarians and vegans. Members of this group who abstain from meat out of concerns for animal welfare have less to worry about with roadkill; while it’s a regrettable side effect of busy roadways, it is also one that is difficult to avoid. The animals killed by traffic will die regardless of whether anyone chooses to eat them, so many vegetarians have no moral objections to eating them. Additionally, there are no concerns about the impacts of large-scale farming or animals being raised expressly to be eaten.
Roadkill in Restaurants
Because so many people still look askance at eating roadkill, it’s not likely that roadkill options will start showing up on restaurant menus any time soon. It’s long been used as a gimmick, with restaurants named “Roadkill Café” easily found around the country, but they generally offer traditional American fare. Even large chains like Texas Roadhouse poke fun at the practice on their menus.
The Roadkill Cook-off, however, is not using the title as a joke at all. While entries aren’t required to use roadkill, due to the unreliability of availability, they are required to use meat that could be found locally as roadkill and often do enter food made with meat they peeled off the pavement themselves. A hotel in Vermont serves a roadkill menu as a recurring special event, featuring goose, deer, bear, moose, and muskrat on a prixe fixe menu.
As more states adopt laws allowing citizens to retrieve fresh roadkill and customers continue demanding local, sustainable food, roadkill meat may start showing up on more menus. Until then, the idea may be relegated to urban legend and the occasional truth.