If you’re keen to slash your grocery budget, you might have tried growing your own garden or even raising rabbits in your backyard. But you might not have considered a free source of valuable protein right in front of your eyes -- in the middle of the road.
That’s right, we’re talking about eating roadkill. Why would you want to? Is it actually legal? Is eating roadkill even safe? The answers require a bit of explanation, but the short version is that eating road-killed animals is legal in many places and can be a safe and affordable way to enjoy wild meat.
Harvesting roadkill isn’t for the faint of heart. If you’re curious about eating road-killed meat, here’s what you need to know.
Before you head toward the freeway to find tonight’s dinner, check the law in your state. Montana is the most recent state to pass legislation making it legal to “harvest” road-killed animals. But it’s not the only state where drivers are allowed to take home roadkill; here’s an interactive road map of state-by-state laws.
California and Texas prohibit taking of roadkill. Alaska won’t allow you to take it, but if you report a collision to authorities promptly, they’ll collect and distribute the meat to those in need. Florida’s law says, “You hit it, you keep it.” Contact your local Department of Fish and Wildlife or Highway Patrol for permit details.
Okay, so it’s legal in your area. But why would you choose to eat a deer, moose, elk or other wild animal?
One of the best reasons to nab a road-killed animal is the meat is often lean and clean. Wild game has not been injected with hormones and antibiotics like factory-farm raised livestock. These nomadic animals eat a varied diet that often enhances their flavor, and their meat usually contains less cholesterol, more vitamins, more iron and more protein compared to meat from domestic factory-farm animals.
On the financial side, eating wild game is far easier on your pocketbook and planetary resources than eating most meat from the grocery store. For example, getting a New York strip or T-bone steak from my small-town grocer costs $11.98 per pound. Free-roaming wild game found fresh on the roadside will cost you a permit fee (the cost depends on your state, but several are free) and a butcher’s processing fee. In my area, butchers charge $50 to $75 for a deer or antelope, or around $300 for a moose or elk. Compare the prices per pound, and taking home 50 pounds of road-killed deer instead of beef could save you up to $500!
In addition, take into account the environmental effects of farming, such as water use, pollution from fertilizer and topsoil erosion. Each pound of beef at your grocery store required 1799 gallons of water, according to National Geographic's water calculator.
The roadkill you can try depends on your state. In Montana, fur-bearing animals like bears, mountain lions and wolves are a no-no. But most ungulates (hoofed animals) like deer, antelope and moose are allowed. In West Virginia, you’re allowed to harvest all road-killed animals if you report them, so you could try opossum or squirrel. In Georgia, bear is fine to take as long as you report it, and you don’t need to report a deer.
Jonathan McGowan, who has been eating roadkill since age 14, told The Guardian about some of the meat he has tried:
Rabbit is actually quite bland. Fox is far tastier; there's never any fat on it, and it's subtle, with a lovely texture, firm but soft. It's much more versatile than beef, and has a salty, mineral taste rather like gammon. Frogs and toads taste like chicken and are great in stir-fries. Rat, which is nice and salty like pork, is good in a stir-fry, too -- I'll throw in celery, onion, peppers and, in autumn, wild mushrooms I've collected. Badger is not nice and hedgehog is hideous.
The best roadkill is an animal you hit yourself or saw someone else hit, hunter Steven Rinella told The Missoulian.
The ideal freezer-filling opportunity is a deer killed by a glancing blow to the head from your side mirror (or that of the car in front of you, so you avoid damage to your vehicle). Like in hunting, where many believe the ideal shot is one to the head, this kind of collision means there’s no damage to the meaty parts of the animal and no shattered bone fragments to contaminate the meat.
A collision with any other part of the animal’s body results in bruising, which means blood has dispersed into soft tissue. You’ll be able to see the full extent of bruising after you skin the animal. Bruised meat can have a gamey, undesirable flavor and poor texture, so you’ll want to avoid harvesting those sections.
If you find an animal rather than hitting it yourself, evaluate its quality before touching it. Avoid bloated animals with bad smells, swarming flies, road rash or tread marks. If you observe fresh blood, a warm body temperature and clear eyes, you may be in luck. Follow up with the sniff-and-tug test: grab a pinch of hair and pull. If it comes out by the handful, the meat is spoiling. When in doubt, throw it out!
It’s best to gut your animal within an hour of its death to retain the best flavor. Most laws require the entire animal be removed and dressed out at home -- you can’t cut it up on the side of the road and leave the bits you don’t want in the ditch. This is for the protection of predators who might come eat the leftovers, as well as to prevent road maintenance crews from having to clean up piles of rotting meat. If you’re not confident in butchering the animal yourself, ask a hunting friend or look into professional gutting and dressing services.
Once you’ve skinned and gutted your prize, most experts recommend freezing or cooking it immediately for safety reasons and for the best flavor.
Wondering what to do with your deer or moose? Try some of the recipes from cookbooks like Buck Peterson’s The Original Road Kill Cookbook, Charles Irion’s Roadkill Cooking for Campers or Hillbilly Hank’s free Roadkill Recipes.
Here’s a simple recipe for a venison appetizer from DeadFood.com:
In a jar, shake these ingredients well:
Cut about one pound of venison into small bite-size chunks. Place venison in a bowl and marinate in above sauce several hours. Wrap a small slice of bacon around each chunk and spear with a toothpick. Set oven to broil. Place venison bites on broiler rack or pan. Cook on the lowest rack from heat and then move closer to heat to crisp the bacon. Be careful not to overdo; venison gets tough when overdone.
It might not be your standard dinner, but roadkill can be an interesting, nutritious and frugal addition to your meals. It’s an unusual way to save money on groceries, but if it’s legal in your state, why not fill your freezer with wild meat that would otherwise go to waste?
Your Turn: Would you eat roadkill?
Lori Parr is originally from S.L.C. Utah. She calls a 77-square-foot, off-grid cabin on 20 acres of prairie in Western Montana, Home. There she farms lavender and cut flowers, forages wild food and medicines, and hones her writing craft.