Kentucky BBQ: Bring Your Own Squirrels, Raccoons, Possums And Porcupines

kentucky bbqIn Kentucky, you can get a porcupine hickory-smoked for five bucks. A squirrel or a frog will set you back just $2.50. I had no idea that one could kill an animal and then bring it to a place that would smoke it for a fee until I road-tripped to Kentucky last week with my family.

I travel because I’m curious by nature and I like to know how people live in other parts of the country and the world. But America is huge and it’s easy to get lulled into the notion that you have to leave the country in order to experience another culture. Within an hour of arriving in Kentucky last week, I was reminded of how very wrong that assumption is.

Owensboro is only 360 miles due south from my home in suburban Chicago, but the people who live there inhabit a very different world than the one I live in. In Evanston, my adopted hometown, people with extensive record collections and cars made in Scandinavia pay $4 for fancy cups of coffee and $3 for croissants at the weekly farmers market and shell out big bucks for organic treats at either of two Whole Foods locations that are only a half- mile apart along Evanston’s Chicago Avenue.

In Owensboro, people who get their groceries at Wal-Mart and drive pickup trucks can hurl a dead animal onto their trucks and bring it over to the Old Hickory BBQ restaurant, where the good people who run the place have been hickory-smoking meats since 1918. I know we were in a very different place from listening to the rush hour traffic report on the radio: the only traffic tie-up involved a deer carcass.

old hickory bbq in owensboro kentuckyOld Hickory BBQ was our first stop in the state after spending much of the day driving south from Chicago and it was a perfect introduction to one of America’s most distinctive, and for my taste, interesting states. Coming from Chicago, where you have to clear out your 401k to get a sandwich in some places, everything on the menu appeared to be ridiculously cheap- sandwiches were around $4 and platters including two sides were about $8. The place was moderately full but if it were transported to Chicago with the same prices, there would be a 9-hour wait to get in.

Kentucky’s BBQ specialty is mutton but I was most interested in the burgoo, a stew native to the region that is usually mutton-based. I went up to the take out counter, where many of the BBQ specialties are on display, and Jordan, one of the kitchen staffers, gave me a taste and offered to show me the restaurant smokehouse after our meal (see video below).

I loved the burgoo and everything else I tried and was elated when the bill came. $22 for our family of four, or less than we sometimes spend at McDonald’s. And as soon as I stepped into the smokehouse, I was overcome by the glorious smell of smoking meat. Jordan yanked open one of the smoke chambers and gave us a little tour of the meats people had brought in for 24 hour smoke sessions.

“Here are some pork butts,” he said. “Over there we’ve got some deer hind quarters.”

He said that he’d seen people bring in just about every type of animal you could imagine: squirrel, possum, porcupine, raccoons, frogs, and goats among others. And he confirmed my suspicion that Owensboro wasn’t much of a hotbed for vegetarians. I’m not a hunter and I tend to limit my meat intake but I would have loved to have strung up a hammock in the smokehouse and just enjoyed the seductive smell of grilled meats for hours.

The following night, while staying in a cheap motel in Beaver Dam, forty minutes southeast of Owensboro, and I got another taste of the hunting culture. The hotel’s free breakfast starts at 4:45 A.M. to accommodate the hunters, who filled the place to capacity on the first Saturday night of the deer-hunting season. It turns out that Kentucky has a huge deer population and hunters converge on the state from far and wide. We heard them chattering excitedly in the hotel corridor at 4:15 A.M.

Despite the sleep interruption, we didn’t emerge for breakfast around 9 A.M and the breakfast room was empty until a camouflaged foursome came in and began filling up on biscuits and gravy.

“Seems like you guys are the only hunters who slept in,” I said to a bleary eyed young man with a hunters knife hanging in a long sheath from his belt.

“Oh no,” he replied. “We were down here right at 4:45. We went out hunting and we’re back for our second breakfast now.”

“Did you get any deer?” I asked.

“I saw one,” he said. “But she was too young. I just couldn’t do it.”

The young man explained that deer hunters, like photographers, need to be out at dusk and dawn to stalk their prey. I asked him a whole host of dumb questions that anyone who grew up in Kentucky would already know the answer to, but then was able to show off a little of my own newfound knowledge as well.

“You know,” I said. “There’s a place in Owensboro that’ll smoke a porcupine for just five bucks.”

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Vagabond Tales: An Introduction To Possum Punting

If you want to anger a New Zealand local ask them if their accent is from somewhere in Australia. While this is sure to elicit a stern yet polite correction, if you REALLY want to enrage a New Zealand local ask them what they think about possums. Strangely enough, the two annoyances are intertwined as New Zealand actually places the blame for the possums firmly on Australia.

Why? Because the non-native possums are Australian, not Kiwi, and many New Zealanders would simply prefer to see them exist solely in the country from whence they came.

Officially known as the Australian Brushtail Possum, the noxious pest was introduced to New Zealand in 1837 in an effort to kick-start the fur industry. All this managed to do, however, was allow the possums to populate with reckless abandon and quickly spread to over 95 percent of the country. Whereas in Australia the possum has a litany of natural predators to keep their numbers in check, New Zealand lacks any form of land predator to naturally stem the flow of hyper-population. Flower gardens, native birds and farmers’ crops have never been the same ever since.

Even the cows in New Zealand are at odds with the possums, thanks to the possum’s innate ability to spread bovine tuberculosis and cripple New Zealand’s lucrative dairy industry.

So how much do the Kiwis actually hate the possums? Enough that a local school recently held a possum-throwing contest, which unsurprisingly sparked outrage amongst the nation’s animal rights activists. Shooting possums is a right of passage for children growing up in rural New Zealand, and I’ve personally witnessed drivers swerve cars towards possums in an effort to strike them as they attempt to cross a road.

I simply cannot make this statement in any plainer terms: people in New Zealand simply hate the possums.Given this unified level of hatred there really are few limits on what’s considered unacceptable in terms of their general treatment. The degree of discontent never really sank in, however, until an evening spent camping along the remote shores of Abel Tasman National Park.

Having sea-kayaked for most of the day past a string of postcard-perfect sandy coves, two mates and myself pulled into the welcomingly-named Mosquito Bay to pitch our tents just prior to dusk. With no rain clouds to be found anywhere on the red and orange horizon, the team opted to pitch the tents sans rain fly to provide maximum star viewing and feel the ocean breeze. A few beers and few shots of whiskey later, our haggard troupe of semi-drunk paddlers retired for the evening into our three-man tent amazed that we had the sliver of sub-tropical perfection all to ourselves – or so we thought.

Somewhere between the hours of 1-4 a.m., I awoke to the sound of my city-bred college Sea kayaking Abel Tasman National Park in New Zealandroommate Ted repeatedly making a sound I can classify only as “shooshing.” Ted was obviously attempting to “shoosh” away some unforeseen creature, yet given the depth of the darkness his passive efforts were simply lost in the coastal night. Chalking his antics up to the cheap brand of whiskey, I attempted to roll over beneath my Patagonia sleeping-bag liner and drift back into a blissful outdoor sleep.

That was, of course, until I felt the evil red eyes staring straight into my soul. If you’ve never experienced a face-to-face encounter with a possum while in the throes of a whiskey haze, the furry rodents, which appear as cute marsupials by daytime, change by night into real life Chuck E. Cheese rats seemingly possessed by Satan.

Amazed that at one point I had failed to see our evening visitor, I now sat within a claw’s reach of the foraging rodent – the thin fabric of the tent a laughably meager form of protection.

Then, just when it seemed that the red eyes and scavenging claws of the nighttime lurker were going to tear their way through the tent walls, a rogue human leg appeared out of the darkness and laid a swift and powerful kick right into the gut of the mischievous prowler.

Not even knowing that there were other people camping in the confines of Mosquito Bay, at some point during our booze-induced slumber a native Kiwi couple had arrived late and pitched their tent right next to ours.

As the possum was apparently disrupting their slumber as well, the largest rugby-playing, Haka-dancing Kiwi of man you have ever seen had emerged from his tent wearing nothing except boxer shorts and a single hiking boot, no sock.

As Ted was “shooshing” and I was entranced by the red pupils of evil, the mostly-nude Kiwi bushman was instead preparing for a possum punt of dramatic proportions that nobody saw coming in the darkness. With a single drop step and a rotation of his right leg – which could nail a field-goal from 50 yards out – the possum-hating forest dweller laid the top of his right foot into the underbelly of the possum with such ferocity that it sent the shrieking marsupial on an aerial departure from which it never returned.

“Just gotta lay a firm foot into ’em mate!” exclaimed the freelance rodent destroyer. “Let the little bahstards know who’s in charge. Nothing like a good possum punt!”

With the tips of his boxer shorts waving in the evening breeze, the mysterious possum punter single-stomped his way back to his nylon fortress – his work here was dramatically through.

I was stunned by what had actually just occurred and the fact that the man’s tent was completely gone by morning only added to his mystique.

So here’s to you, Mr. Possum Punting vigilante. I want to thank you for your swift and thorough cleansing of our campsite and your public display of where you stand on New Zealand’s possums. Your nationalistic pride shines like a beacon through the night, and you have served your country well.

Looking back, I’m just glad I never called him Australian.

[Image courtesy of turtlemom4bacon on Flickr]

Roadkill cuisine: a guide to why and where you should pick up that possum

roadkill cuisineReduce, reuse, recycle is hardly a new concept. Except when it’s applied to roadkill. Oh, sure, backwoods folk, the itinerant, and gritty survivalist types have been making good use of roadside casualties for years. Slowly but surely however, the benefits of roadkill cuisine have been creeping into the public conscience.

Witness the popularity of The Original Roadkill Cookbook and its ilk, or the new Travel Channel series, “The Wild Within,” in which host/outdoor journalist Steven Rinella travels the world channeling his inner hunter-gatherer (see “San Francisco Roadkill Raccoon” clip at the end of this post). It’s only a matter of time before hipsters get in on this, mark my words.

Lest you think I’m making light of what is essentially a tragic waste of life: I’m an animal lover, grew up on a ranch, and my dad is a large animal veterinarian. I’ve slaughtered livestock, and admittedly have a somewhat utilitarian outlook on the topic of meat. That said, few things upset me more than seeing a dead animal or bird on the road.

The first time I ever thought of roadkill as having a purpose is when I visited Alaska a decade ago. A guide informed me that the state not only permits the use of roadkill for human consumption, but that there’s a waiting list. Think about it: a moose carcass can feed a family for a year. It’s only fairly recently that I learned every state has different regulations that apply to roadkill (more on that in a minute).

If you can overcome your initial disgust at the thought of plucking a carcass from the road and doing the necessary prep to render it casserole-ready, utilizing roadkill makes sense. No, seriously.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Irargerich]roadkill cuisinePros

  • It’s economical.
  • It utilizes a perfectly good (usually) protein source that would otherwise go to waste.
  • It’s giving a purpose to an otherwise wasted life
  • It’s ecologically responsible.
  • It’s a free, nutritious food source that can help sustain anyone, including individuals or families in need.
  • Many roadkill species taste great, and command premium prices when farm-raised and sold retail (elk, venison, boar, certain game birds).
  • It’s free of the hormones and/or antibiotics found in factory farmed meat and poultry.
  • It’s a better, kinder, more responsible alternative to poaching.


  • Parasites and disease

Obviously, if the meat looks bad, don’t use it. But wild animals can also play host to a wide variety of parasitic and bacterial critters invisible to the naked eye. It’s critical to thoroughly cook meat to kill any pathogens (fortunately, braising is the best method of preparing most roadkill species, as it renders the meat more tender). If you’re freaked out by the thought of ingesting roadkill for this reason, think about how often ground beef recalls are issued due to E. coli. Personally, I’d rather eat roadkill, when I think about what’s in the average fast food burger.

So now that you know roadkill is generally fine to use as long as it’s fresh and not too damaged, what are the rules? Well, it depends upon what state you’re in (for the record, roadkill cuisine isn’t just a U.S. thing, waste not, want not being a global concept). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website has a state-by-state directory of Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Fish and Game/Fish and Wildlife/Division of Wildlife offices; each state has different rules as to which office oversees roadkill regulations. In many states, permits are issued by state troopers or county law enforcement.
roadkill cuisine
Be aware that in many states, collection of roadkill is illegal, although drivers are asked to call and report dead animals so they can be properly disposed of. The most expedient thing to do if you hit an animal/see fresh roadkill is to call local law enforcement.

For your perusal, a sampling of regulations for states that permit collection (or “salvage”) of roadkill:

Western U.S.
Alaska: Sets the bar for philanthropic roadkill rules. All specimens are considered the property of the state, and by law, drivers must alert state troopers if they spot roadkill. If the meat is fresh and in good condition, the carcass is butchered by volunteers, and distributed to the needy. Roadkill wait lists are also available for the general populace living in rural areas.
Wyoming: As long as you have it tagged by a game warden (to deter poaching), it’s yours.
Colorado: Obtain a “donation certificate” or tag issued by the Division of Wildlife, first.

Illinois: If you hit it, you can keep it, as long as you’re a resident, not delinquent in child support payments (um, okay…), and don’t have your wildlife privileges suspended in any other state. Deer must be reported to the DNR prior to claiming.
Nebraska: If you hit a deer, antelope, or elk, report it to the Parks and Game Commission to obtain a salvage permit before you butcher the carcass.

New Jersey: Get a permit by calling a state trooper, and you can collect deer.
West Virginia: If you report the fatality within 12 hours; it’s legal to remove and consume any and all roadkill. There’s even an annual roadkill cook-off.

Southern U.S.
Georgia: Hit a bear, report it, and it’s yours. Deer don’t have to be reported.

A few states that prohibit collection of roadkill
roadkill cuisine
An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of roadkill
Ideally, the goal is to avoid creating roadkill at all. In 2008, the Federal Highway Administration estimated between one and two million vehicular collisions with large wildlife species occur annually in the U.S.. Only a small number of those result in human fatality, but it can certainly wreck or mess up a car. When you also consider smaller animals/birds, collisions can have a devastating impact upon wildlife populations, especially on already threatened species. Many states have instituted wildlife tunnels underneath highways that are considered high impact zones (this could be due to migratory patterns, easy road access, etc.).

Please drive carefully in designated wildlife or rural areas (you know, where you see those glaring yellow, triangular road signs with deer or cows or elk pictured on them), and try to avoid driving at dawn or dusk, which is when large game head out to feed. Night driving should also be avoided if you can avoid it, or undertaken with extreme caution. Trust me, after years of living in the mountains of Colorado, I’ve seen more than my share of wildlife road death (and unfortunately contributed to the early demise of a few prairie dogs and rabbits). I’ve also seen what a run-in with a moose can do to a car, and it’s not pretty.

Obviously, it’s not worth causing a multiple-car accident to avoid an animal in the road, but stay alert, don’t text or use your cell phone without a headset, drive within the speed limit, and odds are, you’ll never have a problem. Worst case scenario, please be a responsible citizen, and pull over to make sure the animal is dead. Regardless of how you feel about animals or eating roadkill, no living creature should be allowed to suffer. Have a heart. Then take it home and cook it.

[Photo credit: bbq, Flickr user The Suss-Man (Mike), deer, Flicker user Eric Bégin]