Outlaw Cuisine: Eating Road Kill

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Photo By Nicki Varkevisser
Jason’s a fun person to hang out with, particularly if you want to learn self-sufficiency skills. He once sent me a text message that said something like this: “Road kill deer … my place. Wanna help?”

Portland has the kind of features real estate agents love to boast about: snow-covered volcanoes rise to the clouds in the distance, old-growth rain forests ring the metropolis, and gardens are productive, enjoying long growing seasons with plenty of precipitation. But the city also has something a little less charming: impending doom. On a slow news day, this is the sort of thing you might read in one of the local weeklies: 

In the reasonably near future, perhaps within our lifetimes and quite possibly as soon as tomorrow, an earthquake will strike Portland with roughly the same force felt in the January 12 [2010] Haitian earthquake. But while that quake lasted less than 40 seconds, the shaking in Portland will continue for at least four minutes. Portland will feel a quake with a strength, duration, and destruction never before experience in the developed Western world.

That is the beginning of an article that ran in the Willamette Week newspaper in January 2010. It continues:

Underground gas, power, and water lines will be pulverized. The soil beneath the Portland International Airport will temporarily turn to soup. […] This is the scientific consensus on what will happen here sooner or later. And the latest data suggest it may in fact be sooner. […] The latest studies of undersea landslide debris, released last spring by Oregon State University geologist Chris Goldfinger, suggest a Cascadia subduction zone quake happens every 300 to 350 years. The last one occurred 310 years ago yesterday.

The thing about living in a place that could crack at any given moment is that you get to thinking about survival situations in a more serious way than people who read zombie novels in, say, Pennsylvania. You get to thinking about them kind of often, actually. Even people who are not living on a fault line can choose their own adventure from a dazzling array of options: hurricanes and tsunamis, infectious disease, volcanoes, nuclear war, solar storms, asteroids, economic collapse, and so forth. Any of the above could short electricity and disrupt the transportation of farm-raised foods to grocery stores, leaving us to suddenly fend for ourselves off the grid. When water ceases to flow through garden hoses, crops will wilt, but wild plants and animals will be thriving as much as ever.

My friend Jason lives in an urban homestead. He gets his electricity from solar panels, keeps chickens in has backyard, and grows much of his own food in a large garden. When I stop by his house, I usually find him working on some kind of do-it-yourself project, like brewing his own beer or sewing leather shoes by hand. He’s in his late 30s, and he’s a fun person to hang out with, particularly if you want to learn self-sufficiency skills. He once sent me a text message that said something like this: “Road kill deer … my place. Wanna help?”

Even though I had no plans to eat meat, I said yes, because animal-processing know-how might come in handy someday. Maybe I would want to get a hide or make bone jewelry. In any case I saw no moral conflict; scavenging and eating road kill seems better than leaving an animal to decompose on the side of the road. It’s a way of being resourceful and getting local food, and it could be a respectful interaction. I wasn’t sure what I was about to get myself into, but I went to it with an open mind.

Though he doesn’t look like it now, Jason grew up a “redneck” kid on the eastern shore of Maryland. “I got my hunting license when I was seven. I used to kill all kinds of animals: deer and squirrels and ducks and geese and what-not. I would gut and skin and process them all,” he told me.

His back porch was about to be covered in blood. A large doe with a shiny red-brown coat lay on her side. She looked to be in pristine condition except for a smashed leg. I felt fondness for her, and sadness, too.

Jason had brought one of his students there to assist him and I stood back while she spread the animal’s legs so that he could drag a knife along its underside. With sticky, bright red hands, he took a small axe and knocked it against the deer’s rib cage several times until it split apart. The body cavity was filled with burgundy liquid, a result of trauma that had caused internal bleeding.

“This is illegal, right?” I said.

“Right,” Jason said. “You’re not allowed to have road kill.”

Jason scooped out the lungs and heart with his bare hands. He set the organs in a pile next to the body. Then he took a garden hose and rinsed the blood off his deck. It streamed into the garden.

“Do you know anyone who was actually arrested?” I asked.

“Me. Federal agents came to my house,” he said. 

It was hard not to cringe as I watched him work. I had to remind myself that the doe couldn’t feel pain in death. 

“So the fact that you did get in trouble, is it going to stop you?” I asked.

“I’m not doing anything dreadfully wrong. I’m not harming anyone or doing anything that’s going to lead to anyone getting harmed. When I pick up an animal to bring it home and butcher it, I’m doing it to eat,” he said.

I was just standing off to the side, watching, until Jason asked me to help him lift the doe so he could hang it from a rafter. I hesitated. This was gruesome stuff. At the same time, I understood my participation to be a way of honoring the animal, in the way that holding a funeral honors a person, so I obliged. I squatted down, wrapped my arms around the doe’s heavy body, pressed my chest against its back, and stood up, lifting with my legs. My hands were sticky with its blood.

Jason climbed to the top of a stepladder, leaned over, and slipped a rope over its neck like a noose. My stomach felt queasy.

“I feel horrible that in the fast-paced way we live–the freeways, you know–animals are victims at times, and they’re so disregarded, so disrespected. People drive over them. It turns my stomach. It hurts my heart to see that. It makes me cry,” Jason said.

He slid his knife into the deer’s shoulder, cutting the hide from the flesh and peeling it back. He paused and looked at me.

“So yes, I know it’s illegal, but my heart tells me to stop and pull over and drag this animal off the road so it won’t keep getting smashed. If it was a human being, we would do that, and there’s no difference between animals and human beings, really,” he said.

Later, I called the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and asked for the specifics on the road kill law. Spokesman David Lane told me that in Oregon, it is illegal to pick up animals that are hunted and regulated. It is legal, though, to pick up non-protected species such as coyote and badger, and it’s also legal to pick up regulated species during fur-bearer season if you have licenses to do so.

Some people think it’s illegal to touch any kind of road kill for any reason, but Lane assured me, “It is not illegal to touch an animal, it’s illegal to take them into possession.” So if you see a dead deer in the road blocking traffic, you won’t get in trouble for hauling it out of the way.

Another day that fall I went to Jason’s house and he took me to gather hawthorn berries. When you hang around Jason long enough, you’re bound to hear some stories you wouldn’t have heard otherwise. He reads a lot of obscure things, especially about his ancestors, the nomadic hunter-gatherers whose descendents became German and Irish people.

“Their societies were set up in a very similar way to the way Native American societies were set up before agriculture,” he told me. “There are some great stories about when they met the Romans, who were agriculturalists. The Romans came in with their disciplined legions and started fighting with them. And in order to fight the Romans, the Germanic tribes developed a standing army, like the Native Americans–Crazy Horse tried to do that. In order to feed their standing army, they had to start growing grains, rye, and things like that to make bread, and it really freaked the Germanic folks out, because being hunter-gatherer herder folks, it was against their nature to compel the earth to feed them, to dig it up and to plant things and to wait for it. And also, to seed felt like bad luck to them, because they were used to taking what was available, not compelling Earth to give.”

“That makes sense. I get that, as a forager,” I said.

“What really freaked them out, too, were the large fields of grain moving in the wind. It was really eerie to them. They would say, ‘The wolf is in the wheat,’ or ‘The wolf is running through the rye.’ And when they harvested the rye–these superstitions and traditions built up over time–they would yell and scream as they were scything the grain down because they imagined they were chasing this bad-luck animal spirit through the grain. They would get down to the last bundle and they would grab it and bind it, like, bind that bad luck.”

“Agriculture is bad juju?” I asked.

“Yeah, because you’re compelling the earth to give you something that is not already provided,” Jason said. “They learned from the Romans to build grinding wheels using river power to drive the stones, and that really scared them, too. In compelling the rivers to work for them, they felt like they were enslaving nature, and that felt really bad to them. That’s why there are so many stories throughout Medieval Europe where the miller is a supernatural character and the grain mills are always located outside the city limits, because it felt unnatural to folks to be using the river to drive the mill. It was so contradictory to the way they had lived.”

After we gathered the hawthorn berries, Jason took me to some overgrown alleyways where we found a stand of yellow dock. “Jason, do you ever wish you lived back in the days of your ancestors?” I asked.

“No, it’s not like I wish I lived a thousand years ago,” he said.

“You don’t?”

“No,” he said. “We live in this golden age with electricity and motor cars. I can play in bands and tour and go to cities. I can get in a plane and time travel to the East Coast in six hours–a path that would have taken months under the power of my own walking. But you know, this can’t last forever–cars and trucks and grocery stores and power plants and all that kind of stuff. We’ve really forgotten a lot in this industrial age that we live in. I think part of what I’m doing here is to help remember a few things to inspire maybe a few other people–if they’re lucky enough, or maybe unlucky enough–to survive what’s coming.”

“I would like you on my apocalypse survival team,” I said.

Rebecca Lerner is one of the best-known urban foragers in America. Lerner and her popular blog, have been profiled or quoted in the Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, the Boston Globe, Adbusters, and many more. Adapted from her new book, Dandelion Hunter (April 2013), published by Globe Pequot Press.

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