Getty Images 106409284

Why you should be eating roadkill

Think consuming 'flatmeats' is revolting? BBC Autos gastronome David K Gibson offers 11 good reasons to reconsider.

I GREW UP EATING RABBIT AND DEER hunted from the forests around my Mississippi home. I have eaten “hunter's stew” that contained raccoon (certainly) and opossum (probably). We would hunt squirrels with .22-calibre rifles and save their tiny heads in a plastic bag in the freezer; when enough had been collected, we’d scramble up the brains with eggs as breakfast before an early morning hunt.

But we never ate roadkill, because that was disgusting.

When I was about 8, my father struck a six-point whitetail buck with the front bumper of his GMC pickup. One antler pierced the grille, snapping the animal’s neck and killing it instantly. As my father assessed the situation, a sedan pulled up behind, and a woman got out.

“If you’re not going to take him, can I?” she asked, before hoisting the 100-pound carcass on her shoulder and to the trunk of her car, driving away with a friendly toot of her horn. We were not particularly wealthy — that grille stayed broken for longer than it should have — but it didn’t occur to us that we were desperate enough to eat roadkill. Yet a few months later, we piled into that same pickup to go deer hunting, after a breakfast of brains and eggs.

I don’t remember us taking a buck that day, but I can imagine the meal of pan-fried cube steak we would have eaten afterwards, as somewhere the woman with the beat-up sedan was digging into a big chunk of venison saddle.

She was the smart one. And there are at least 11 reasons why.

1. It's our responsibility.

“People tend to think that wheels are part of the human anatomy,” says Jonathan McGowan, a fierce advocate of eating roadkill — and one who says he’d be a vegetarian without it. “People drive like idiots at night, and we’ve got six species of deer here [in the UK] that are active in the twilight. That makes for a lot of roadkill.” Even if you, personally, manage to avoid hitting animals, it’s the infrastructure underneath your vehicle that leads to animal deaths. Why not acknowledge your culpability, and season appropriately?

2. It makes ecological sense.

“The world’s wild animals are being depleted at an alarming rate. Farming and the consumption of meat is having such a detrimental effect on the planet, chopping down rain forests to grow soya to feed beef and sheep,” says McGowan. “If some people can limit their carbon footprint and clean up the meat that’s already there, then that’s a more responsible way to live.” Throughout the United States, gleaner crews gather large herbivores for butchering and distribution to feed the hungry; the Alaska Moose Federation drives massive crane trucks that lift the giant ungulates from the roadways to processing centers for butchering.

In the past, especially in the Depression, ‘flatmeats’ helped sustain people. Now it’s done from a position of living closer to nature, and knowing what you’re eating.

3. It’s ethical.

Whatever you think of meat-eating in general, an animal killed needlessly shouldn’t be left to rot needlessly — circle of life and all that. Yes, scavengers and carrion birds may get a meal out of roadkill, but the fact that a highway runs through their dinner table means that they may end up as roadkill themselves.

“People assume it has something to do with poverty,” says Alison Brierley, an artist who is known as the Roadkill Connoisseur. “In the past, especially in the Depression, ‘flatmeats’ helped sustain people. Now it’s done from a position of living closer to nature, and knowing what you’re eating.”

“It’s a moral way of living for me,” says McGowan. “I’ve grown up being a conservationist, learning to respect the world we live in. Eating roadkill helps educate the world that wildlife is beneficial — if you can eat it, it shows that it has value.”

4. It’s cheap.

If parsimony is your thing, it’s obvious that roadkill cuisine “can be a safe and affordable way to enjoy wild meat.” Minus the petrol you’ll need to collect it (though McGowan has draped a badger over the handlebars of his bike for a carryout meal), it’s free. If you don’t have the facilities to tackle break down an elk yourself, you may pay a small fee to a wildlife butcher of the kind that hunters use, but it’s a lot cheaper than your grocer’s meat counter. And it comes in volume; “If it’s a deer,” says Brierley, “It’s a year’s worth of venison in your freezer.” Roadkill dining is the ultimate in extreme couponing, though you never know exactly what the daily special will be.

When you start getting into it, it’s not as dodgy as most people think.

5. It’s safe. Well, mostly.

“You’re not starving, so if you’re in doubt just leave it alone,” says Brierley. “When you start getting into it, it’s not as dodgy as most people think.” Few of the diseases carried by roadkill are zoonotic, and so don’t cross over into the human population. Rabies starts dying almost immediately upon the animal’s death, and very rare diseases (such as tuberculosis in deer in Michigan) are fairly evident upon butchering. Parasites are rarely a problem, and fleas can be a good indicator that the animal died a recent death.

Still, livers and other internal organs are best avoided, since (to use an automotive metaphor) it’s a bit like taking a bite out of an oil filter, and the animal may have been drinking from water sources high in contaminants. Brains and spinal tissue can carry spongiform encephalopathy similar to Mad Cow disease, especially squirrel brains (oops). Trying to field dress a carcass on the shoulder of a roadway may be life-threatening as well, so carry a tarp and carry your find home to butcher it.

Once you start talking about cleanliness of over-processed, drugged supermarket food as opposed to something that’s been hit by a car, people start to understand it.

6. It’s better for you.

We’ll give a great big caveat to this argument in light of the last one. But in general, a wild animal found roadside has led an uncrowded and healthy life, antibiotic and growth-hormone-free, and is very likely organic, depending on its diet. Even roadkill rats gathered from country roads are typically healthy (and reportedly delicious) specimens of Rodentia. “Once you start talking about cleanliness of over-processed, drugged supermarket food as opposed to something that’s been hit by a car, people start to understand it,” says Brierley.

7. It’s plentiful.

Sadly plentiful, in fact; though most roadkill surveys are mere wild speculation, a few have extrapolated that as many as a million animals are killed on roads in the United States every day.

“You’ll find many animals on the verges of the roadway, and they look you can hardly see what killed them most of the time. Most of what I find is useful and whole,” says McGowan. “There’s lot of roadkill in areas where I live — rabbits and pheasants and rats — so I can be picky. If I see a badger, I can pass it because it doesn’t taste good anyway.”

Mice and frogs and toads are fantastic in a stir-fry.

8. It’s delicious.

But even badger can be made palatable. “Enough herbs and garlic will cover up any taste,” says McGowan. But aside from obvious delicacies like pheasant and deer, other accidental meat can be mouthwateringly good. “Mice and frogs and toads are fantastic in a stir-fry,” he says. “You drop them in boiling water, and in five seconds a lovely white meat falls off the bone; it’s more delicate than chicken, but tastes quite like it.”

Brierley believes in good presentation. “If I present it on a plate, their eyes are interested first, then they’ll try it and really like it.” (A few of her recipes are available here.) It’s also important to remember that most meat consumed before the industrialization of agriculture was game meat procured by hunting, and that the great cuisines of the world were built on recipes for much more than beef, pork, and chicken.

9. It may save you during the coming societal collapse.

The well-prepared survivalist (who may or may not want to be called a “prepper”) knows that man cannot live on beans alone. Roadkill is a better protein source when “the smallest ripple in the industrial food machine can wreak havoc on food prices and availability.” In the event of economic collapse (that doesn’t affect petrol availability) or the impending zombie motorist apocalypse (which begs for a texting-while-driving reference), meat will be in ready supply to those who eat roadkill. But even before societal collapse, any survivalist knows better than to waste food.

10. It’s legal. Maybe.

In the UK, any roadkill is fair game, though landowners may make a claim of automotive poaching if you’re scavenging on forest lands. In Australia, in contrast, you’ll need a hunting license to claim roadkill. The US is a burgoo of regulations. Starting this July, the state of Washington will let you pick up deer and elk by applying for a permit online after you’ve made the recovery; that’s similar to systems in Idaho and Montana. Some states require permits for some species but not others, some require that you report your find to authorities, some require an inspection of the carcass, and some (such as Florida) are free-for-alls. In Alaska, all roadkill is property of the state. In Illinois, anyone may pick up deer at roadside unless they are behind on child-support payments.

11. It’s the cool thing to do.

The people that eat roadkill aren’t your average Joes, but then great ideas rarely emerge from the mainstream. The revulsion to vehicle-killed meat may be an Anglo hang-up, anyway. “Europeans are far less fussy than British people,” says McGowan, “and I suspect that a recent decline in availability, especially on local roads near towns, may not be due to the long-time locals.” Taboos vary from culture to culture, and increased globalization may be contributing to more widespread acceptance of alternative meat sources.

But it seems undeniable that the intersection of whole food, freeganism, and the locavore movements is the intersection of a wild animal and the front bumper of a GMC pickup.

Maybe you’ll want to start with a curry.

If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter. And while you're at it, join the BBC Autos community on Instagram.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Autos, Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.