MARLINTON, W.VA. -- First there was Rule 10: "The judges reserve the right to refuse to taste any entry that appears unhealthy or spoiled, or unfit for consumption."
Not exactly a comforting clause, but totally in character with this culinary contest's Rule 9: "All judges have been tested for cast-iron stomachs and have sworn under oath to having no vegetarian tendencies." And Rule 8: "Judges will deduct points for every chipped tooth resulting from gravel not removed from the road kill."
Road kill! Yes, the culinary contest I had been invited to help judge was featuring dishes made from "road kill," a k a road pizza or crushed critters.
The contest, an event giving new meaning to the term "Michelin rating," was the Second Annual Roadkill Cook-Off, a feature of the Autumn Harvest Festival in Pocahontas County, a beautiful piece of earth about 250 miles southwest of Washington.
The mountainous, sparsely populated (8,700 residents) county labels itself "The Birthplace of Rivers," and it is within this rugged landscape that the Elk, Gauley, Greenbrier and five other rivers are born. It's also famous for its magnificent scenery, its four ski resorts, 300,000 acres of national forest land, four state parks, and more than 300 kilometers of wilderness trails. Pocahontas is also where you will find the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and the National Radio Observatory in Greenbank.
But a Road Kill Cook-Off?
"It started out as a joke," explained Cara Hefner, director of the Pocahontas County Tourism Commission. "We had done the 'World Largest Pumpkin Pie' -- it was 12 feet in diameter -- and we couldn't do that again. We were looking for something unusual. During a meeting one person saw the cookbook and suggested we do a festival."
The "cookbook" was "Road Kill Cooking," volume I of which is subtitled "Redneck Style." The more sophisticated volume II bears the headline "Gourmet Style."
The books' author is Jeff Eberbaugh of Sissonville, W.Va., whose books offer humor and recipes ("Steel-Belted Beaver Brains," "Guess That Mess," and "Armadilla Parts," for example) in pages of rhyme. The back of each book does contain some real wild-game recipes.
Eberbaugh is persistently vague on just how he got into this business, but does concede that in real life he is a registered nurse, a fact that no doubt might come in handy during the judging.
Last year's cook-off took place on the last Saturday in September, the date of the annual Autumn Festival in Marlinton, the county seat of 1,200 people. The festival also featured a parade of logging trucks and equipment, local football teams, cheerleaders and Boy Scouts, a hay-bale toss contest, a cake walk, a rifle raffle, country music and various street vendors.
The cook-off was held on an abandoned rail siding next to the spruced-up former rail station, which now serves as the headquarters of the tourism commission.
There were four other judges: an Associated Press writer, Eberbaugh and two chefs from nearby Snowshoe resort. The two professional chefs packed antacid pills. I wasn't so prepared, although I did add my own Rule 11: Don't eat anything that looks too flat or has treadmarks.
After a briefing by Hefner we were given colas -- to cleanse the palate, she explained -- and then we went forth to confront the nine competing cooks and their creations, which included deer, squirrel, groundhog and possum dishes. The meals were freshly prepared, cooked over camp stoves, on charcoal grills and, in one case, in a real gas stove on a trailer.
I started with the "Squished Critter Shish Kebab," served on a hubcap on a table made up of the hood of a 1947 Dodge. This kebab was made up of venison, groundhog, peppers and onion, soaked in soy sauce and cooked on a small grill. The chefs were Steve Bennett and Lauren Stanfield. "I shot the deer in the mountains and shot the groundhog in a farmer's field," explained Steve, who boasted he had been cooking since he was 8. "I was born and raised on nothing but groundhog." "We never get road kill," Lauren added hastily. The shish kebab was interesting, very flavorful thanks to the soy sauce, but too chewy. The style couldn't be topped; it was the first time I had eaten off a hubcap.
Next was "Mom's Wild Turkey Stir Fry," by Betty Kershner of Droop Mountain. The dish reminded me too much of what you get on the fourth day of turkey leftovers. Betty's daughter, Susan Kershner, served up "Outhouse Revenge Chili," a venison-based dish that was too watery and lacked almost any taste.
At the other end of the taste spectrum was "Uncle Glenn's Yellow Line Jambalaya," prepared by coal miner Glenn Vanover. "We just scraped it off the road," joked Vanover. "We think it's squirrel." The jambalaya was potent, so spicy that I needed a cola to cleanse my palate. One of the chefs from Snowshoe required half a roll of antacids to calm her stomach. This dish was rated superior in taste, but the spice was so overwhelming we couldn't tell whether it was made up of chunks up all-weather radials or squirrel meat.
At the far end of the culinary lineup was a pair of barn doors flanking the cooking setup and tables placed by Ernie Shaw, a local dentist, and his sister, Judy Dean, an office manager hereabouts. Their dish was "Venison Ragout." Ernie was rather vague on the deer's origin. "Just say it came from Pocahontas County," he insisted. His vagueness was because of an old law that made it illegal to serve deer more than six months after the hunting season ended. "That was before the days of refrigeration, and folks who ate deer more than six months after the season were poachers. We take poaching seriously down here. In fact, it's probably easier to get off from shooting your spouse than it is from shooting a deer in off-season."
Legal or not, the venison ragout was exceptional in taste, rich and flavorful and a sure contender for king of the road kills.
Next to Shaw was Linda Simmons and her creation, "Crushed Groundhog Over Grass." "My husband killed it on the farm," she said, explaining that she lived on Hillsboro Lake Angus Farms in the county. The groundhog was cooked in a broth in a pot atop a camp stove until it became a deep, mahogany color. The "grass" was ramp, a powerful spring vegetable that holds a powerful onion-garlic flavor when it is fresh. "The ramp is frozen, that's why it's rather mild," Simmons said. This meat was very tasty and had a strong though not unpleasant flavor. The ramp was tasteless and limp, like overcooked kale.
After the groundhog came "Shawnee Turtle Soup," prepared by Ida Craft of Monroe. "We didn't hit it, but it was caught in the road," Ida explained as she stirred her pot. The soup contained the meat of a snapping turtle, fruit juice, hard-cooked eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. The soup was interesting, but lacked any punch. It needed more spices.
The cook who went all-out to win this contest was Del Cohrs, a 50-year-old truck driver from Odenton, Md., who also has a place in Pocahontas County. He had a flatbed trailer on which he placed a four-burner kitchen stove hooked up to a propane tank, a picnic table covered by a red-and-white checked cloth, china, silverware candlesticks and a bottle of wine chilling in a silver bucket. His dish was "Dagwood's 18-Wheeler Venison." The venison was baked with mushroom soup, vegetables and peppers. It looked beautiful and tasted even better than it appeared.
Last, but certainly not least, was "Stir-Tired Possum With Maggots," a dish I and the other judges saved until last because we were not sure we could stomach it. The possum was the creation of Allen Johnson, a nursing home administrator from nearby Dunmore. Johnson came prepared with a display featuring the possum head and pelt, recipe handouts (the "maggots" were brown rice), a burlap apron and a song.
Johnson said he had caught the possum several weeks earlier and had kept it in an empty rabbit hutch until the night before the festival. "I fed it lettuce and the like," he explained. "It should be all cleaned out by now."
Not all the onlookers were convinced. "You gonna eat that?" asked one witness whose red T-shirt barely held in his ample belly. "Yeh," I replied. "You know it's just sewer rat," he responded with a chuckle.
The dish was a surprise, appearing more like a Chinese dish with yellow squash, brown rice and chunks of mystery meat. Before the judges could taste it, Johnson gathered his reluctant wife and two children, pulled out a bass fiddle and began plucking away while his family quietly mumbled some ballad about "possums in the moonlight."
Dinner entertainment was not something the judges expected, but it was taken into account in the judging. The possum was a surprise. It was actually edible. Even mildly interesting -- if we could forget what we were eating. It tasted like the dark meat of chicken, but greasier than any of Perdue's finest.
By this time the judges, filled with all these many creatures of the field, retired to the train station for deliberations. Unlike a jury's discussion, our consultations were interrupted repeatedly by several characters who had apparently sampled the liquid refreshments more than the baked dishes. "You gotta like the possum," mumbled William Ray McFarland of Charleston, a bearded-auto parts dealer whose picture appears on the cover of Eberbaugh's books.
Ignoring these influence peddlers and several gastric attacks, we rated the dishes this way:
No. 1 -- Del Cohrs' "Dagwood's 18-Wheeler Venison," a truly outstanding dish, fine enough for any table.
No. 2 -- Linda Simmons' "Crushed Groundhog Over Grass," a good dish and in keeping with the festival theme.
No. 3 -- Allen Johnson's "Stir-Tired Possum," who got the award mainly because it was more in the spirit of the festival (even if the possum head cost him points).
The Autumn Harvest Festival will be Sept. 25, the last Saturday of the month (the cook-off starts at 10 a.m., the judging at 2 p.m.). Call 304-799-INFO or 800-336-7009 for further information. Jeff Eberbaugh's "Road Kill Cooking (Redneck Style)" and "Road Kill Cooking (Gourmet Style)" are $7.95 each and can be found in bookstores or by ordering them from Eberbaugh, who also sells cans of "Pickled Possum Parts" and "Armadilla Parts" ($3.50 per can and definitely not for human consumption). Order by writing Road Kill Cookbooks, P.O. Box 13592, Sissonville, W.Va. 25360. Please include $2 shipping and handling per order.