Baylee Blankenship has the sort of winning smile that beauty contest judges love to see. In the two years since the 9-year-old from Lewisberg, W.Va., started entering pageants she has been named Little Miss Greenbrier County, Little Miss Mercer County and Little Miss Ronceverte River Festival. At a pageant in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., she was crowned Little Miss Dandelion.
Now she is Little Miss Roadkill.
Her mother, Stephanie Blankenship, had second thoughts about entering Baylee in the pageant, part of the annual Roadkill Cook-off and Autumn Harvest Festival in Marlinton, W.Va.
“I said, ‘Do I really want my daughter to be Miss Roadkill?’ ” Stephanie recalled.
In the end, she did. And so on Saturday, Baylee donned a blue-and-white sash embroidered with “Little Miss Roadkill 2011,” put on a silvery tiara and took her place among a court that also included Miss Roadkill, Miss Teen Roadkill, Miss Pre-Teen Roadkill and Tiny Miss Roadkill.
“It’s actually a pretty cool deal,” Stephanie said. “The name is deceiving.”
The winners were picked a week earlier. Two pageants were held simultaneously at the local high school. Winners of the other pageant bore sashes like Tessa Kiner’s, which proclaimed her Little Miss Autumn Harvest.
“I think it sounds prettier,” said her mother, Cammy.
Prettier than Little Miss Roadkill, she meant.
But roadkill has a hallowed place in Marlinton, a town about five hours southwest of Washington. Town burghers started the festival in 1991, inspired by author Jeff Eberbaugh’s cookbook “Gourmet Style Road Kill Cooking.”
The idea of the festival, said David Cain of the Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce, is to cook good food, provide entertainment and have fun. David wore a Roadkill Cook-off polo shirt with stitching that read, “PETA: People eating tasty animals.” (“I did that shirt on my own this year,” he confided. “The chamber didn’t approve it.”)
Earlier in the week, he talked to a reporter from Sweden, who called to say an automaker there had come up with technology to help vehicles avoid hitting animals. He wondered what that would do to the Roadkill Cook-off Festival. Probably help the chefs be more selective with their ingredients, David said.
In other words, the people of Marlinton get the joke. It’s a rural area and nearly everyone in town and in the surrounding hills has tasted wild game, from squirrel (the season opened two weeks ago; the limit is six a day) to deer.
Some wild game is taken with a .22 or a 20-gauge. Some is taken with a steel-belted radial.
With upward of 10,000 attendees a year, the festival is an economic shot in the arm, too. This year, 13 teams competed for the $1,000 top prize. The cook-off rules stipulate that the meat must be of the sort that gets hit by cars and trucks, although judges prefer that it not come from the interstate.
“It’s a little unusual,” pageant director Shawn Smith admitted. “But around here they’re used to it.” (Her granddaughter Adelyn Warner was named Tiny Miss Roadkill. A conflict of interest? No, Shawn said. “I’m related to 90 percent of the people in town.”)
Shawn wants people to keep in mind how much girls can learn from pageants, Roadkill or otherwise: confidence, independence, public speaking skills. Then there’s the scholarship: $500 for Miss Roadkill, 16-year-old Brooke Riffe.
“Our expectation of Miss Roadkill is to be of upstanding moral character and to set a good example to all the others,” Shawn said. “And to be able to tell everybody she meets about the Roadkill Cook-off.”
Brooke said her title doesn’t bother her. “It’s not a problem saying I’m Miss Roadkill,” she said, “or having the confidence to say my festival is awesome and you should definitely come try it.”
In January, Brooke will go to Charleston and compete against girls from around the state for the title of Miss West Virginia Association of Fairs and Festivals. Miss Dairy Princess will be there and Miss Strawberry Festival, Miss Pumpkin Festival and Miss Poultry Festival.
Here’s hoping Miss Roadkill leaves them all squashed by the side of the road.
To see my video report from the Roadkill Cook-off Festival, go to postlocal.com.