I was a judge at the West Virginia RoadKill Cook-off.
If you are laughing, please realize that those of us who attended are laughing even louder. Despite the rain, it was just too much fun!
A highlight of the annual Autumn Harvest Festival in Marlinton, W.Va., the RoadKill Cook-off mixes culinary skill and creativity with a dash of self-deprecation and a large serving of antic good humor. (Imagine Granny Clampett and Andrew Zimmern working together in the same kitchen.) The cook-off is a good-natured feature of the festival’s celebration of Allegheny Mountain culture. If you are still skeptical, consider that good weather can find some 20,000 happy people strolling Main Street’s vendors’ row, listening to regional music, and enjoying the local gastronomy.
As one of “a select board of highly qualified judges,” the question I most commonly heard was: “But, do they actually use roadkill?”
The cook-off’s official rules state: “All entries must have, as their featured ingredient, any animal commonly found dead on the side of the road. … Cooks will sign a statement certifying their product is 25 percent wild game.” Nothing there about “manner of death.”
Regardless, many festivalgoers paid $5 each to queue up for 2-ounce servings of the eight entries. From kids in carriers to seniors looking for a taste of nostalgia, from Carhartt and ball cap-wearing locals to overly outfitted visitors, the crowds explored “Bear Butt Savory Stew,” “Wild Fowl Menagerie,” and “Drunken Deer Chili with Ramped Up Rice.”
Rating the entries
With the two other judges, I rated each team’s entry on taste, originality, presentation, and showmanship.
The first-place team took away $1,200, second place received $600, third place $300, and the best showmanship received $150. The tasting public chose the recipient of a $150 People’s Choice Award. Stews and chilis led the list of dishes, and venison, bear, and fowl were the meats most frequently used.
Each entrant set a table for the judges, with themed place settings, napery, cutlery, beverages, and side dishes. We had approximately 10 minutes to sample a team’s presentation, and despite mentally prepping for “speed dining,” I quickly found myself lingering over the food, enjoying it, savoring the flavors and textures, indulging in the side dishes, and too frequently forgetting to make notes on the judging forms.
Along with the food, humor formed a strong element in many presentations. Togged in over-the-top, stereotypical hillbilly outfits, the first-place prize winners, the Ridge Runners, sported a banner that read: “Kill ‘em and Grill ‘em Diner.” For napkins, they skewered rolls of toilet paper on a set of deer antlers, and their “burgoo”— a wild game stew — was allegedly designed to attract husbands for any eligible daughters. The burgoo was excellent, but their pulled bear barbecue was my personal show-stopper favorite.
Along with the comedy, the Ridge Runners’ foods were a tribute to traditional Appalachian cuisine.
“… What we are trying to do is pass down to our children and grandchildren how the woman of Appalachia cooked,” said Rachel Dickenson, one of the team members. “Our mothers and grandmothers passed this down to us. …We love to let the public taste the things that we grew up with, and we love that everyone enjoys the foods we cook.”
For me, tasting the traditional foods had begun the night before, at a wild game dinner hosted by Teresa Hammons, of the Marlinton Motor Inn. Hammons is an accomplished cook and prepared several dishes that featured local foods.
But, as I drove back to the city, I was reminded of Item 11 of the cook-off rules, which stated: “All judges have been tested for cast-iron stomachs and have sworn under oath to have no vegetarian tendencies.”
Don’t tell anyone, but I stopped on my way home, bought a huge salad, and savored every bite.
The Ridge Runners’ Catch Yer-Self a Huzband Hillbilly Burgoo
5-pound stewing hen
1 venison loin, cubed
1 bear loin, cubed
4 quarts potatoes
1 cup beef stock
3 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup red wine
1 head cabbage, chopped
3 cans creamed corn
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Butter to taste
1 sprig rosemary
2 packages egg noodles
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
Flour as needed
Water as needed
Place the stewing hen, rabbit, and venison and bear loins into 2 gallons of water.
Add chicken stock, 2 quarts potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, wine, salt, pepper, minced garlic, rosemary, and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 hours.
Remove the chicken and rabbit, let cool, and debone. Remove 3 cups of the broth and add flour to make a thickening. Return thickening to pot and gently stir.
Add creamed corn, beef stock, and cabbage. Add rabbit and chicken meat and egg noodles. Cook on low heat for 10 minutes. Add butter and pepper to taste; garnish with bay leaves.
Serve with cornbread or rolls.
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit reedhellmanwordsmith.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.