Whenever we drive out to Lake MacBride, we remark on the quantity of dead, car-struck animals at the side of the road. Most of them are raccoons. In certain macabre moods, I wonder whether there’s a suicide pact among a faction of the coon population of Iowa. These are intelligent creatures, after all.
High above the dead animals are buzzards and carrion crows, slowly circling on updrafts, waiting for a cessation of traffic to swoop in for a feed. They, at least, seem to understand the danger of cars.
Wild animals coexist with humans in an increasingly uneasy imbalance. The animals generally lose the ongoing struggle for territory, resources, and survival. For every deer who wanders into a house and makes itself at home, coyote who poaches domesticated chickens, or bear who snuggles up in a car, snacking on leftover McDonald’s, there are exponentially more tales of woe: thousands of geese killed to protect airplanes, mysterious massive die-offs of honeybees and now moose, the total disappearance of sardines from Pacific waters.
And road kill is everywhere. In New Hampshire, it’s usually deer, 1500 a year or so. It’s legal there to eat the deer you hit with your car. In fact, over a dozen states have passed pro-roadkill laws, including Georgia, where bear is often on the menu. You just have to call the authorities after you hit the thing and have them okay it, and then you’re free to take home your bumper game, or flat meat, as it’s called.
Road kill has become so popular in certain parts of rural New Hampshire that there is growing suspicion that these deer are not killed by accident, but are “car hunted,” in typical DIY Yankee derring-do fashion, due to new restrictions on traditional hunting. “Live free or die,” indeed.
PETA approves of eating road kill; it’s healthier than factory-raised meat. “It is also more humane,” their website reads, “in that animals killed on the road were not castrated, dehorned, or debeaked without anesthesia, did not suffer the trauma and misery of transportation in a crowded truck in all weather extremes, and did not hear the screams and smell the fear of the animals ahead of them on the slaughter line.” In other words, the free-range, hormone-free, cage-free animal never knew what hit it.
A very helpful and informative Wiki website called “How to Eat Road Kill” advises that the following are edible: “Badger, hedgehog, otter, rabbit, pheasant, fox, beaver, squirrel, deer (venison), moose, bear, raccoon, opossum, kangaroo, wallaby, possum, rabbit, etc. Reptiles can also be eaten, but they might be fairly squashed. Rats may carry Weil’s disease and are therefore best avoided.”
Down at the bottom, there is this comforting reassurance: “Rabies virus dies fast once the host is dead. Cooking destroys the virus.”
Anyway, so as we were driving along the highway the other day, staring out at the motionless furry critters by the side of the road, one after another after another, we started talking about the idea of eating road kill, not for the first time, and not in any actual or intentional way, just in that speculative musing mood that often besets motorists staring idly out at cornfields and sky, daydreaming aloud. In other words, we have no plans ever to eat road kill, but it’s an interesting thing to contemplate.
That night, my independent-study student, Vanessa, came over for dinner and a “work sesh,” bearing a gift: Iowa’s Road Kill Cookbook by Bruce Carlson, published in 1989 by Quixote Press. It’s a small grey paperback with a silhouette of a squashed rabbit in a tire track on the cover.
“How did you know?” I sputtered excitedly. (As a side note, a phrase like “sputtered excitedly” evidently breaks one of the MFA-program rules for dialogue writing, which only makes me want to use it all the goddamned time from now on.) “We’ve been obsessed with eating road kill lately!”
“Dude, I just found it at Haunted Books. I must be psychic.”
We sat out on the porch and discussed her project and ate wild Alaskan salmon filets with a simple but delicious chipotle sauce I invented a couple of years ago and never get tired of (into the blender go a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce, a big dollop of mayonnaise, the juice of one lemon, and three garlic cloves; whizz into a smooth creamy sauce, pour over the fish, and bake). Alongside, as usual, I served wild rice and garlicky baby spinach. The salmon was, presumably, not killed on any road, anywhere.
Folded and tucked into the book was a menu, mimeographed on cheap paper, from Nebraska’s Roadkill Cafe: “You Kill It… We Grill It!” Inside, Chef “Wheels” Pierre offers such delicacies as Chunk of Skunk, Smidgen of Pigeon, Awesome Possum, and Rigor Mortis Tortoise. For the more adventurous, there’s Pit Bull Pot Pie, Poodles ‘N Noodles, and Shar-Pei Filet. The Shake ‘N Bake Snake looks especially tempting. However, I might be inclined to skip the Daily Special, “Guess That Mess:” “If you can guess what it is… you eat it for FREE.”
The book itself is dedicated to Iowa Ventre Montanters, a French term for those who salvage animals who are “Belly-up.” Ventre Montant cuisine, according to the author, is eco-conscious, sensible, and budget-friendly. However, the tone of the book is irreverent and cheeky and not for the squeamish, and the recipes are improbably disgusting. Still, it has added a level of connoisseurship to our daily drives to and from the lake. Very freshly killed raccoons have begun to strike me as acceptable candidates for certain of the more playful dishes.
Crunchy Coon Gizzards
2 C. coon innerds
1 C. rye flour
2 duck eggs (if unavailable, use chicken eggs)
2 C. Rice Krispies
Spread in greased 9 x 13-inch pan. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes
1 C. chopped coon gizzards
5 large Hershey bars
Mix in blender till smooth. Spread on baked innards and season to taste. Serves 4.