Road Kill: It's Fresh, It's Organic, It's Free
How broke would you have to get to eat roadkill?
Don't freak out. This isn't a sensationalist necrophilic bizarre fetishized kind of thing. It's legit. Actually, depending on several factors, it can be perfectly safe (and entirely affordable) to eat meat that has been left by the side of a highway or county road.
In fact, there may be not much of a difference from a deer you hunt, and a deer you kill accidentally. Now, this may sound a bit extreme to you. But according to Sandor Katz, lifelong activist and food lover, roadkill has been a source of food for poor people since cars were invented. So, don't be classist. At least read more about it!
The following is an excerpt from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements by Sandor Ellix Katz. It has been adapted for the Web.
If you pay attention and look at the road while driving (or, even more so, while walking or biking), you will inevitably encounter roadkill. Animals moving across the landscape are often unavoidable prey at fifty-five miles per hour. Little systematic counting has been done, but extrapolating from data collected by road crews in Ohio, one analysis estimates there are an average of more than one hundred million roadkill victims in the United States each year. Dr. Splatt, the pseudonym of a high-school science teacher who for thirteen years has organized students around New England to participate in a roadkill census, comes up with a very similar estimate of 250,000 animals killed by cars in the United States on an average day. Some people see food in these unfortunate victims of our car culture and regularly pick roadkill up off the road to take home and eat.
A few passionate souls I have encountered eat roadkill almost every day. My neighbors Casper and Pixey bring roadkill stews to our potlucks. For a while they did their frying in grease rendered from a roadkill bear they came across in the mountains. On one of my friends Terra and Natalie's visits, they had strips of roadkill venisons splayed across their dashboard drying into jerky.
When I first met Terra, she was vegan. Then she and her boyfriend Ursus -- who has the word vegan tattooed onto his shin -- discovered roadkill and quickly became roadkill carnivores. In her zine, The Feral Forager, Terra explains how they came to start eating roadkill:
Our first feral feast of roadkill was on spring equinox of 2002. That past winter we had experimented with skinning and tanning, using a possum and a raccoon we had found on the roadside. . . . On spring equinox we were driving in the suburbs of a large southeastern city and spotted a fox dead on the roadside. Our first thought was what a great fur it would make. We scraped it up (it wasn't very mangled at all) and took it to our friends' house downtown, and Ursus skinned it in the backyard while our friends assisted. When it was all done and hanging gutless and skinless from a tree, it was like some collective epiphany: why not eat it? There was a great firepit there and several willing "freegans," along with a few pretty hardcore vegans (including Ursus) who raised no protest. After a couple hours on a spit, the grey fox was edible. I guess it was something about the start of a new season -- it was almost ritualistic, without trying to make it so. Some stood by and watched while four or five of us feasted on the fox. Ursus, a hardcore vegan, was perhaps the most voracious. There was something primal about his eating -- like a wild man caged for years eating only bagels and bananas. Ursus tanned the skin and later wore it around his neck like a scarf.
Terra, Ursus, Natalie, and other members of the Wildroots Collective in western North Carolina now eat roadkill nearly every day, have a good supply put away in a freezer, and have tried dozens of different species of animals found dead on roadsides.
The Wildroots folks have become enthusiastic promoters of roadkill and work hard to spread information and skills to empower other people to tap into this huge available food supply. Members of the collective do a good bit of traveling on the do-it-yourself skillsharing circuit, teaching people how to judge the edibility of a dead animal on the road and guiding them through the experience of skinning and cleaning a small animal. At the 2005 Food For Life gathering at the Sequatchie Valley Institute/Moonshadow, one of the most memorable events was the hands-on roadkill workshop, in which we learned about the cleaning, skinning, and butchering of roadkill animals. The Wildroots folks brought a roadkill groundhog with them, and our friend Justin, another roadkill enthusiast, brought a squirrel he had found on his bike ride to the gathering. (The more slowly you travel, the more you notice not only roadkill but all sorts of roadside harvesting possibilities.)
People enthusiastically took front-row seats to see these animals get skinned. Some people shuddered in horror, had to look away, or otherwise expressed their squeamishness. But most people watched quietly, fascinated, as Natalie coached Dylan, a previously uninitiated thirteen-year- old (there with his family) through the skinning of the squirrel, and Jenny and Justin skinned the groundhog. Direct experiential education like this can be transformative. Laurel Luddite wrote about her first roadkill butchering experience, "The responsibility made me nervous at first. As I cut I began to feel confident that not only could I butcher this deer, but I could also fulfill my need for food whenever I saw some lying by the side of the road."
Roadkill has been a source of food for poor people since there have been cars. In American culture eating roadkill generally has a pejorative classist connotation, epitomizing ignorant hillbilly behavior. Now Wildroots and other enthusiasts are embracing roadkill with a political ideology, rejecting the values of consumer culture by "transforming dishonored victims of the petroleum age into food which nourishes, and clothing which warms." Beyond ideology, they are spreading practical information and skills to empower people.
Terra's zine, The Feral Forager, offers a basic primer for safely eating roadkill:
Picking up roadkill is a good way to get fresh, wild, totally free-range and organic meat for absolutely free. When you find the roadkill you should try to determine if it is edible or not. If you saw the animal get hit then it's obviously fit to eat (although you may have to put it out of its misery). If the critter is flattened into a pancake in the middle of the highway then it's probably best to leave it. Most of the time (not always), good ones will be sitting off the road or in a median where [they aren't] constantly being pulverized.
Sometimes it can be hard to determine how fresh a carcass is. A lot of factors can contribute to how fast the meat spoils, especially temperature. Obviously, roadkill will stay fresher longer in colder weather and spoil faster in warmer weather. It's best to go case by case and follow your instincts. Here are some considerations to help you decide:
- If it is covered in flies or maggots or other insects it's probably no good.
- If it smells like rotting flesh it's probably spoiled, although it is common for dead animals' bowels to release excrement or gas upon impact or when you move the carcass.
- If its eyes are clouded over white it's probably not too fresh (though likely still edible).
- If there are fleas on the animal there's a good chance it's still edible.
- If it's completely mangled, it's probably not worth the effort.
Rigor mortis (when the animal stiffens) sets in pretty quickly. Most of the animals we've eaten have been stiff. There's no reason to assume the animal is spoiled just because it's stiff. . . .
Potential Risks of Eating Roadkill: One of the most severe risks of roadkill is rabies. In order to assure your safety from this deadly serious brain inflammation, you may want to use rubber gloves when gutting and skinning any warm-blooded animal (warm blooded as in mammals and birds, not in regard to blood temperature). If you don't feel the need to exercise this absolute caution, at least make sure you don't have any open wounds on your hands or skin that touches the animal. Roadkill is usually safe from rabies because it dies quickly when the animal dies. Also, rabies will cook out of the carcass. Generally speaking, boiling the animal first (rather than just grilling it) is a good idea, especially if it's a notorious rabies carrier (like raccoons, skunks, and foxes).