West Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, can be a confusing place for outsiders.
But the history of Appalachia is one of independence and intellectualism co-opted and corrupted. The quintessential story of Appalachia is detailed by John Gaventa in his book Power and Powerlessness, which details the demise of Clear Fork Valley from a progressive colony to oppressed mining town after being overtaken by a British mining company and pillaged of its local resources. By sweeping the people up in the notion of progress—paved streets, picket fences, and gas lamps—Clear Fork Valley struggled to maintain its identity, such as values of community and family, living sustainability and self-reliance, and profound respect for nature. Such is the microcosm of Appalachia: a misunderstood bastion of communal sustainability and progressive thoughts fallen to industrialists, politicians, and third parties. West Virginia has been environmentally and culturally exploited several times over.
I came to West Virginia to attend the annual West Virginia Roadkill Cook-off and Autumn Harvest Festival in Marlinton, population: 1,500. Signs of civilization and cell service eked away on the drive to Marlinton, and my roadkill sightings included two fawn, two groundhogs, two squirrels, one opossum, and one raccoon. I was tempted to bring them as offerings, but the rule book for the festival asked, "Please: no gutting on-site." Upon arrival, the city had evidence of struggle that was forgotten for one afternoon—half the buildings down Main Street sported faded "for sale" signs, shattered windows, plywood doors, and crushed rubble where a sidewalk should be. But spirits remained high.
In preparation for the roadkill tasting, I spoke with Uncle Millie, a wild game aficionado from Michigan, where he is known as the "Killer Cook." Although he usually hunts his game, he will also scavenge.
"Many times down the road" on late nights, Uncle Millie told me, he comes across roadkill, and "as long as its still warm," (freshly-dead warm, not been-baking-in-the-hot-sun-for-hours warm) Uncle Millie cuts out "backstrap, hind quarter, whatever," from the animal. "I'm pretty good with a knife," he said. "I can take off take parts off without opening it up or exposing it to anything." If you're interested in collecting roadkill, Uncle Millie says to "always, always, always, keep" a heavy duty plastic bag on hand for your freshly butchered, free-range game, and "just put it right in there—it's fine."
In Uncle Millie's local small-town community, many of his neighbors are poor, and fresh meat can be a luxury. "You're living in a trailer about half the size of this tent," Uncle Millie said, gesturing to his 150-square-foot vendor's booth. When I told Uncle Millie that people in DC didn't collect roadkill for consumption, he asked incredulously, "What do you do with it? Just let it rot?"
There were five teams competing in this year's Roadkill Cook-off, with booths edging the town pavilion. There were not many rules, but the first one clearly stated that pork, chicken, and beef were forbidden. One booth, themed "Venison from Venice" had a braised venison with portabello mushrooms, celery root, and toasted pecans, over garlic-lime rice with a cilantro pesto. Despite the festival's theme, the team openly laughed when asked where they sourced their roadkill from, suggesting that it wasn't sourced from the freeway.
At the second booth, the Coal Hollow Brothers showed me their recipe. When I saw that the first ingredient said "canned venison," I was disappointed. Here, too, was meat that hadn't been peeled off the road—though it was delicious. The stew was served over homemade noodles and with a side of peach cobbler, crisped to heart-clogging perfection by a Dutch oven and copious amounts of butter.
The Hot Potty Cooks set up their booth to look like an outhouse. "We got a single hole operation here" said NaNa, the team's leader, with a cackle. "And we use all natural gas!" They were cooking jerked venison over a bed of rice. The smell of curry powder overwhelmed the cooking area, but perfectly complemented the deer meat.
The Pocahontas County High School cooking class was one of the few teams to go beyond venison in their dish. Although they did use deer meat, they supplemented their dish with some rabbit—along with a morbid backstory. "The rabbit, well ... I think we fed Mr. Fluffykins too much and he died," said Kim Lester, one of the high schoolers. "He was diabetic," explained her classmate, Kaila Peck, "but we loved him." "I figure he's been biting me all my life, so I get to bite him back," Kim said, a glint of revenge in her eyes. The high schooler's dish had root vegetables and the meats laid over rice, but their novice experience showed due to a lack of spices (or just salt).
The Three Amigos decided to toe the line of normalcy and the rules by making a chili dish consisting of chorizo, chicken, and turkey. Although only the turkey qualified as game, and the rules explicitly stipulated that no more than 20 percent of the dish should be chicken or pork, The Three Amigos were never disqualified. To my dismay, they won the People's Choice award.
Uncle Millie, a judge for the competition, echoed my disappointment, "there was no possum, no 'coon, no squirrel," he said with a sigh, "I figured we were gonna have squirrel gravy ..."
I explored some of the other attractions. Live ducks, chickens, turkeys, and rabbit were up for sale. Wyatt Turner, a country singer from nearby Stony Bottom, said that he not only appeared on American Idol a few times, but also passed on the song 'Barefoot Blue Jean Night' after deciding "it was not country enough." (It later became a huge hit for musician Jake Owen.) He stood on the gazebo in the town pavilion with his band, sighing, "No one ever does this for me, but I'ma need y'all to get up and dance on this one..." One man complied, writhing and limboing in front of the crowd, as they hooted at him.
It was then that I realized that this day was a spectacle, not a reality. It was a show put on for cultural tourists looking to experience their own idea of Appalachia—as a backwoods amusement park for city slickers to get fleeced by country folk, and to return with simple souvenirs like a deer painted on a saw blade to hang over their mantles. As the sun went down and the crowds filtered out, Marlinton metamorphosed from a backwoods commercial hub into another deserted Appalachian town—until next year.