Street Meat

It’s unlikely you’ll ever find yourself in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Fewer than 10,000 people live in the nearly 1,000 square mile region, and its largest town, Marlinton, has only 1,000 residents. But if you’re there on the last Saturday in September, you’ll almost certainly be attending the annual harvest festival held in Marlinton.

And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet Little Miss Roadkill.

Roadkill — an animal accidentally killed by motor vehicles while the former was crossing the street — is generally not eaten in most parts of the Western world. That’s true in West Virginia as well, but there’s a segment of society that thinks otherwise, and it’s stronger than usual there. West Virginia law specifically allows people there to pick up “wildlife” which was “killed or mortally wounded as a result of being accidentally or inadvertently struck by a motor vehicle” and, implicitly, cook it up for dinner. (You’re supposed to notify the authorities, though.) And in 1991, a man named Jeff Eberbaugh penned a guide book titled “Gourmet Style Road Kill Cooking and Other Fine Recipes,” which, per Amazon, contains (among some joke recipes) “ real, but somewhat unusual, recipes collected from old timers in the rural counties of West Virginia.”

For most, the whole idea is just gross. But for the people of Pocahontas County, the culture of roadkill cuisine became an opportunity.

Each year, Pocahontas County hosts its Autumn Harvest Festival. Food, drink, and a reason for the community to come together in Marlinton. But that wasn’t bringing in money from the outside — until inspiration set in. Inspiration came in the form of Eberbaugh’s book, which captured a culture uniquely West Virginian. The same year the book came out, festival organizers added a new part to the celebration: the Roadkill Cook-off. Entrants take to the grills, deep fryers, and the like, with the winning team taking home a $1,200 prize (as of 2014). That, too, became part of the annual event, and it’s worked — in 2009, CNN reported that 10,000 people came to the previous year’s celebration. The poster art promoting the 2014 event can be seen above.

If the idea of a roadkill party grosses you out a bit, don’t worry — the attendees of the Roadkill Cook-off aren’t eating actual roadkill (necessarily). The rules of the event (pdf here) require that the main ingredient he of “any animal commonly found dead at the side of the road” and any meat be “wild game.” But that meat could have been hunted or purchased. (The Washington Post half-joked that “judges prefer that it not come from the interstate.”) The West Virginia Department of Commerce assures would-be attendees that “all meat is inspected on-site and must be high quality (no gravel please!),” if that makes you feel better.

If you still don’t want to eat, that’s OK — you can stay for the beauty pageant. Each year, the Festival hands out sashes with the word “Roadkill” on it — five total. There’s “Miss Roadkill,” “Miss Teen Roadkill,” “Miss Pre-Teen Roadkill,” “Little Miss Roadkill,” and “Tiny Miss Roadkill.” Each of the winners takes home either a scholarship ($500 for Miss Roadkill) or some gift cards, depending on age, and earn an invitation to compete at pageants at other state fairs and festivals.

But those typically don’t serve car-smashed hedgehog.

Bonus Fact: What do you do after writing a roadkill cookbook? If you’re Jeff Eberbaugh, you become a roadkill-for-the-needy advocate. In 2012 — two decades after publishing his recipe book — Eberbaugh tried to set up a “roadkill hotline.” He told the West Virginia Gazette, “I see so much good meat lying along the road going to waste. It’s meat that a lot of people could use, if there was a road kill man to take care of it.” He asked the paper to publish his phone number so West Virginia residents could call him to pick up a recently killed deer if one were to come across one. The paper obliged.

From the ArchivesMiss USA — For a Day: The woman who won the crown, and then had it taken from her.

Related: “Gourmet Style Road Kill Cooking and Other Fine Recipes” by Jeff Eberbaugh.