If I’m being honest, the last thing I’d like to eat is an animal sourced from a highway, by which I mean roadkill.
Not that I'm averse to feasting on animals offed so gruesomely; there's nothing less ethical about a truck-flattened deer than the shrink-wrapped chicken you buy from your local supermarket. If anything, the opposite is true: roadkill is kind of a sustainable food source, at least on a small scale.
That said, I had some questions for the man behind America's premier (only?) roadkill dinner.
Like: What kind of car killed my meal? Did it get picked up by a shovel? How long did it lie in the road before it was picked up by that shovel? Why was it even on the side of the road to begin with!? Have some compassion! But seriously, what kind of car was it?
The only man who could answers these questions is Doug Paine. He’s the chef at Hotel Vermont, a boutique hotel that’s not only among the best places to kick up your feet in Burlington, Vermont, but also the place that hosts a “Wild About Vermont” supper, a $75 prix-fixe dinner where roadkill is the night’s featured ingredient.
Meats on menus past: Black bear. Moose. Whitetail deer. Some rabbit and muskrat. How delicious.
Look: roadkill happens. In fact, it happens so much in Vermont that it’s one of only a handful of states that maintain an on-call procedure for roadkill. The program is headed by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department who, along with local clean water advocacy group Lake Champlain International, are partners in the annual dinner.
But Paine says the dinner is meant to bring diners together around sustainability and local Vermont wildlife, even if that means an animal that took a wrong turn. Also: not every dish will include roadkill.
To find out more, we sat down with the roadkill chef to discuss regulations, cooking highway game and the one type of roadkill he would never eat.
InsideHook: Off that bat, we gotta know: what kind of regulations do you have to follow to pull off a dinner like this?
Doug Paine: There are a lot of regulations regarding this type of dinner. First is that we don't profit from the meats provided by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department. Proceeds go to Lake Champlain International and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department to benefit conservation camps for kids. Then we must get approval from the Vermont Health Department with the stipulations that the meat was prepared in a separate kitchen than our restaurant and served in a separate private room.
What about the meat? How safe is it?
DP: The meat has to be deemed fit for human consumption by the Fish and Wildlife Department before it can be sent to a state licensed custom processor. Basically this means that an animal has to be alive if hit by a car when the game warden arrives to inspect the animal. Also, we have to tell the people at the dinner that the meat was not processed at a USDA-inspected facility and there are inherent risks to eating it. It is kind of like when you see a warning about eating undercooked eggs, shellfish or meat.
Explain the process of sourcing these animals to someone who may think you’re finding these animals on the side of the road.
DP: The animals are donated by the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, local hunters, fishers or trappers. We rigorously inspect the meat before it is prepared and I personally taste all of them ahead of time to be sure they are of the highest quality.
From a cooking perspective, what are the main differences between wild animals and commercially-raised animals? Isn’t that what we’re really talking about here?
DP: The biggest difference between meat from wild animals and farm raised is the flavor. There really is nothing like the taste of fresh wild moose or bear. Also the meat is truly organic and has very little environmental impact. Also there is a great feeling of being very connected to your food source.
Does this dinner give you an opportunity to experiment with meat you normally can’t serve in your restaurant?
DP: The thing that excites me most about this dinner is trying things I can't otherwise. None of the meats can be served in a regular restaurant setting and I have very little exposure to them otherwise. This year we will be featuring some meats that I am looking forward to preparing: possum, raccoon, red fox, and a couple more surprises.
Sounds delicious. Is there any roadkill you won’t eat?
Ha! I wouldn't eat anything that has been run over more than twice!