How to eat roadkill: everything you need to know

Poppy Noor in New York
Photograph: Bee-individual/Getty Images

On Monday, California made it legal for people who fatally hit an animal in the road to take it home to eat. The law only applies to certain animals – deer, elk, pronghorn antelopes or wild pigs – and the perpetrator must apply for a “wildlife salvage permit” within 24 hours in order to legally move the animal.

California is the 29th US state to enact such a law; many US states have been happily serving up roadkill for years. In West Virginia, there is even an annual roadkill festival, where local chefs compete with their best roadkill recipes.

We spoke to an expert to answer all the burning questions people may have about roadkill as a dinner entrée.

Is it safe to eat?

This depends on a few things, according to chef Doug Paine, who ran a popular roadkill supper club in Vermont. His first tip is to avoid already dead animals. “Don’t drive up to dead animals and pick them up,” he says, adding: “If the animal is injured or dying at least you know how long it has been there.”

(Anyone who finds an animal should notify officials first, to make sure of what the regulations are in your area around harvesting roadkill, or to see if it can be saved.)

If it is safe and legal for you to eat, you will need to cook it within 12 hours so it doesn’t begin to spoil.

Paine says that anyone with a basic understanding of food safety can prepare roadkill fairly simply. His definition, however, includes gutting, dressing and hanging the roadkill, so don’t attempt it without some basic butchery skills.

If you are unsure, take it to a butcher: “Most butchers are familiar with wild game, but you can also scout around online for speciality meat processors if you’re nervous about that,” he says.

What are the best animals to eat?

There are many good things you can eat off the side of the road – and much of it is better quality than what you would get in the store.

“Any wild venison or moose meat is far superior in flavor to commercially grown meats because they have a naturally organic diet,” explains Paine. In the US particularly, mass-produced meat is fairly mild because people are put off by stronger flavors like grass-fed beef or mutton, he adds.

Roadkill, on the other hand, is pretty much the most organic you can get – the animal hasn’t been reared in poor conditions or factory farmed, and it has survived on an organic diet, resulting in a rich and complex flavor, according to Paine.

The best thing he’s eaten? “For us the most surprising was black bear. It’s really quite tasty, like a darker pork with a little more red meat. We made some nice sausage out of it,” says Paine. (You’re perhaps best advised not to go out looking for that one.)

Is there anything you can’t eat?

There don’t seem to be any clear guidelines about animals that you can’t eat, although many people are against eating household pets such as cats or dogs.

Paine does, however, know of a specific animal which is not that tasty: “We tried muskrat once, and it wasn’t particularly great. It had a flavor like a cross between turkey and tuna fish. It was very strange,” he says.

Is it ethical to eat roadkill?

Studies suggest the most environmentally friendly diet is a vegan one, but for those hell-bent on eating meat, roadkill could be a more ethically conscious alternative.

The animal rights campaign group Peta supports eating roadkill over eating meat prepared in slaughterhouses.

“Peta has no ethical objection to laws that allow the collection of an animal’s remains discovered on the side of the road. While the best thing for animals, the environment, and human health is to go vegan, roadkill is certainly a superior option to the neatly shrink-wrapped packages of meat in the supermarket, which contain the corpses of animals who spent their lives on a filthy feedlot and were crammed on to a transport truck – and whose throats were slit in a terrifying slaughterhouse,” a Peta representative said.

Where can I cook or eat roadkill?

There are 29 states (now including California) where you can eat roadkill, and some even have roadkill eating attractions.

But you should approach with caution: the laws around harvesting roadkill differ by state. For example, in some there is a legal requirement to have a permit or to submit your roadkill for inspection first; in others there are certain animals you can’t eat depending on the time of the year. Always check the official guidance in your state first.

What’s a great roadkill recipe?

Paine’s easy recipe for bear chilli is laid out below, although we’re betting you can use a substitute if you don’t happen to stumble upon any wild bear.

Ingredients

  • Ground bear meat 1lb

  • Chopped bacon ¼lb

  • 1/2 a chopped onion

  • 1 chopped red bell pepper

  • 1 chopped fresh tomato

  • Lime juice 1/4 cup

  • Chopped cilantro 2 tablespoons

  • Chopped garlic 1 tablespoon

  • Cocoa powder 1 tablespoon

  • Dried chilli or chilli powder 2 tablespoons

  • Maple syrup 1/4 cup

  • Red wine 1 cup

  • Salt 1 ½ teaspoons

  • Tomato juice 1 cup

  • 1 cinnamon stick

Method

  • Brown the bacon and bear meat together.

  • Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer on low for at least 45 minutes or until thickened.