We are halfway to Sooke, listening to crackling old-timey banjo tunes on the pickup's tape player and talking deer testicle soup when we spot a raccoonish lump on the shoulder.
My stomach goes flip-flop as I clamber from the truck.
Last weekend, Janica Comeau, 23, and Joel Barrett, 20, picked up six roadkill raccoons and a feral cat on a round-trip to Courtenay. It was Thanksgiving weekend. They made raccoon burgers, served the cat up stuffed, and tucked the rest away in the freezer.
Yes, stuffed cat.
Barrett, who describes himself as a professional lay about, gathers most of his food from dumpsters, "the bush" and the side of the road, and Comeau, a student and an herbalist in Victoria, is an equally experienced wildcrafter.
For the record, I was raised vegetarian. So vegetarian, indeed, that my father used to substitute roast tofu for ham in "This Little Piggy." However, in the spirit of participatory journalism, I've pledged to sample highway fare, should the opportunity arise.
This opportunity's mouth is bloodied from impact and his tongue has begun to dry out. One little black eyeball is missing, but the other still looks moist, a sign of freshness. It is late morning on a cool October day, and my hosts suppose he died some time the night before.
Driving through slaughter
A car isn't a particularly good hunting weapon, but the highway is like a blind machine gunner in the woods: each year 4,300 wildlife deaths are reported on B.C. roads. Since animals often crawl off the road, get cleaned up by scavengers, or simply go unreported, the actual number is thought to be more in the neighborhood of 17,300, plus house pets.
So what happens to all that meat? "Depends on where it is," says David Turinne, road and bridge manager at Mainroad, the company that maintains southern Vancouver Island's highways. "In a wilderness area, we drag it into the bush. If it's on a freeway, or a numbered route in a residential area, we do one of two things: one, we take it to a registered landfill, or two, we compost it in one of our yards, then take it to the landfill."
'People see what they want to see'
We park on the side of a gravel road near the Sooke River. There are more cars on this stretch than the last time Barrett was here — people fishing and day hikers out to enjoy the sunshine — and this makes Barrett and Comeau cautious. "It's always illegal to possess dead wildlife without authorization," says Chris Hamilton of the Ministry of the Environment.
Still, Barrett isn't too concerned: "People see what they want to see." The law isn't heavily enforced, and recent changes mean that people with hunting or trapping licenses are automatically "authorized" to pick up deer, elk and bear, as well as schedule B and C wildlife (most small mammals) for use as bait, so long as they file paperwork within 30 days.
Barrett carries the coon concealed in a mesh onion sack and we hike half a kilometer down to the Sooke River. Comeau's dog Toshi is disinterested in the dead animal and bounds ahead, overjoyed to be in the woods.
"The reason I opt for roadkill as opposed to hunting — which I'm also down with," says Comeau, "is because there's so much roadkill. I feel like it's sort of ridiculous for me to start hunting, say, deer, when I can get so much deer on the side of the road."
Butchers on the riverside
Barrett lays the coon out on the grass. Both he and Comeau wear a familiar buck knife, ready at the hip. Our raccoon has some gravel stuck among the fur of his chest. His belly is damp with urine. Barrett drives the knife into the raccoon's tough belly, drawing the blade upward from within.
It's only the first incision that makes me wince. As Barrett cuts the fur back, I am surprised by how clean our critter looks on the inside. He is white and glistening, covered in an immaculate layer of fat.
Is wildcrafting foodsafe?
I call Chuck Zuckerman, former president of the Port Coquitlam Hunting and Fishing Club, to find out whether roadkill is safe to eat.
My concern is that all the instructions for butchering wild game seem to emphasize the importance of gutting an animal quickly after its death so that the meat won't be contaminated by gastric juices and rot. Obviously, immediate butchering isn't always possible with roadkill.
"There's no animal where you would get some kind of poison that would occur to the point where you would die," says Zuckerman. "If the stomach juices [got on the meat] there'd be a variation of food poisoning." But this would only happen if the gut lining were broken, an easily observed detail.
(Actually, omnivores like raccoon, bear and pig should never be eaten uncooked. You can get a very nasty parasite called Trichina from them.)
Zuckerman points out the conditions aren't necessarily all that different for game meat; sometimes he isn't able to retrieve an animal for half a day, "Or you shoot something on a ridge and it bounces down the hill. Well, that's kinda like roadkill."
Follow your nose, it always knows
Zuckerman maintains that it's easy to tell bad meat from good by the look and smell of it, and Barrett and Comeau say they've never gotten sick off roadkill, nor have any other roadside diners they know.
As cool as Zuckerman is on the topic of roadkill, the raccoon part takes him aback. "Down at the club we've eaten all kinds of things: mink, testicles, bear, even squirrel. But nobody has ever come forward with a raccoon."
"A lot of this is a mental kind of thing," concedes Zuckerman. "I had an old friend [from the Bronx] come to town and I had a barbecue. This guy's on his third burger and I tell him it's moose. The guy goes green. Everything in his mouth comes out."
The question of what animals we consider "edible" is a largely arbitrary expression of culture. Barrett says the only animals he wants to eat are ones he likes when they're alive. "[People] will be like, 'I don't want to eat this animal because I like it.' What the fuck? You actually don't like the animals you eat? You're fucked up! You're an asshole!"
'The fat is waxy and pleasing to the touch'
Twenty minutes into the skinning, Barrett is hunched over the raccoon, still scraping away at belly hide. Because of a thick layer of white fat between the hide and meat, a raccoon can take longer to skin than a deer, despite its size. The hide must be scraped bare or the fat will blacken and rot on it, making it unusable. Where the hide is particularly well cleaned, the purplish undersides of hair follicles show through.
Comeau asks if I'd like to try.
A long, rapt silence ensues.
When I do take the knife in hand, I have to grip the edge of fur and pull it taut away from the body, slicing again and again into the tough skin. The fat is waxy and pleasing to the touch. I come away with specks of brownish dried blood on my hands, and a sheen of grease that won't wash off in the river.
The first cut is the deepest
Despite Comeau and Barrett's guidance, I'm fairly overwhelmed by what little participation I've managed in the day's activities, and amazed to learn that both Barrett and Comeau are mostly self-taught.
"For a long time before I ever ate roadkill," says Comeau, "I tried to find people who could teach me how to butcher." She often saw roadkill deer and wanted to be able to use them. "Eventually a friend showed me, very briefly, how to skin. The next time I got a deer, I taught myself how to do it."
As a child growing up in Prince Edward Island, Comeau's parents used to pick up roadkill animals to take to the taxidermist. She also cites growing up on a hobby farm as an enabling influence: "We would castrate the lambs — and also cut their tails off — with elastic bands," she says. "One of my jobs was to walk around the field and look for lamb testicles and put them on the manure pile. I guess I have a fairly high tolerance for things that a lot of people think are gross."
As with most things, knowledge and familiarity breed comfort. "Talking to people about wildcrafting," she says, "I'll be like 'Oh, you know, you can wildcraft this plant,' something really common like dandelion. They're like, 'Oh, you can pick that? What if I misidentify it? What if I poison myself?' People are so removed from any sort of wild existence."
'A strong smell of yuck'
Two hours later, our creature is transformed again when Barrett chops off the head. He slices the belly open and bares the organs to the sun: tiny red heart, spongy lungs, bloated belly, blue-green intestines. They bring a strong smell of "yuck," and flies. After he removes the organs, Barrett rinses the carcass in the river.
We leave the raccoon's head and entrails out for other scavengers, and spend an hour foraging for burdock, nettle, rose hip and crab apple, and then head home, tired. And, yes, hungry. Ravenous, actually.
Crammed into the back of the cab with Toshi, I can suddenly imagine what her body would look like without a head on it, can feel the looseness of her skin on her body. I have a similar acute awareness of my own muscles and organs.
A roast beast feast
Roadkilled food is like dumpstered food: booty. Booty is to be shared. Barrett enters the kitchen with two back legs, thick with fat, the hind paws still attached. He lops off the feet and, while the haunches cook, sits whittling on the paws.
The first course is freshly dug burdock root, fried in butter and dipped in fancy dumpstered mustard. The roots are tough, and full of unfamiliar flavors. The mustard is wonderful, and helps a lot. As we eat, we sip on two types of refreshing, herby homebrew.
I'm nervous as the meat comes, queasy all over again. Can I do this? I've already done a lot today that I couldn't have imagined doing this morning.
The legs come out of the frying pan beautifully browned. They smell wonderful, and we eat. The meat is dark and greasy, like lamb fried in butter. And frankly, it's delicious.
For dessert, Comeau goes to a basket in the living room and brings hazelnuts from up island, the nuts still soft and creamy inside beautiful streaked shells.
"I think wild foods are more nutritious," she says, "and I also think that it's a lot more sustainable. The things that sustain you are the things that you try to protect. If you're living off wild land, then that's the kind of place you try to protect. Say it's not just roadkill, say you're hunting. You take an animal's life; in my opinion you make this pact where — and it's the same with plants — where you are now responsible for allowing that species to continue, for protecting their land base."
The names of people and dogs have been changed.