DIVAGATING by Gwen Clarke
Who among us hasn’t grown up hearing authority figures say: Try it, you don’t know what you’re missing!!!
Whether it’s some unidentified pod-shaped vegetable, a diving board higher than the childish imagination can fathom, or worse, an oily concoction with reputed curative powers, those words have the ability to imprint themselves into the memories (and nightmares) of youngsters, universally.
At some point that gauntlet of a childhood admonition gets picked up, dusted off, and becomes a self-directed challenge to the adult self—for me, at least.
Take the year 2002, when I was doing research for an annual writing commission. Among nine states’ promotional literature was a Marlinton, W.Va. notice advertising their annual Road-Kill Cookoff. The contact number led me to the town’s librarian and a challenge I couldn’t refuse.
Yes, she said, the event lives up to its name, but only to a point. The criteria for the foods to be judged was not that it had been found on the road, dead, but that it could have been.
Intrigued, I wondered out loud how the winner of the $600 first prize was determined. “Funny you should ask,” said my contact. “We have two judges lined up and we need a third. Would you like to come up and be a judge?” Would I!! I was already thinking of a snappy lead sentence for my squib.
“You’re on your own,” was the encouraging message from my spouse. There’s that storied gauntlet.
Traveling solo, I found Marlinton, thanks to the 2002 version of GPS—Go, Ponder, Squint-at-map—repeat as necessary. Then, as now, the cook-off is held on the last Saturday in September, though the $600 first prize has doubled to $1,200, with second and third also reflecting the changing dollar. Evidently, that $600 was incentive enough for the nine groups of competitors scattered across Marlinton’s municipal park.
Each team was allocated a 10′ x 10′ space in which to demonstrate their showmanship and originality, in addition to the menu’s feature. A monster-truck radiator decorated one cubicle, complete with a taxidermied, spread-eagle squirrel embracing its grill.
The entry/entree here was wild boar, which had been marinated in apple brandy. It was being basted with a reduction of cider and brandy while it roasted over open coals. Wonderful smells blanketed the grounds. Not what one would expect from a meeting of chrome and critter.
Fortunately, one member of our judging team was not only a professional hunter, he wrote a column on wild game cooking for a prestigious magazine. His expertise came in handy when we were confronted with a dish of ”Turbearson.” The other two-thirds of us could assess the merits of wild turkey and venison, but the know-how involved in preparing palatable bear meat needed explanation and appreciation.
Among other memorable dishes was a chili-seasoned mixture of venison and turtle meat, fried in garlic butter and smothered in an orange-cranberry sauce. And one had to appreciate the flair of one elaborate printed menu that announced: DROPPED LIKE A BRICK, BAMBI ON A STICK WITH ROAD FLARE HARE, JUST GRAZED IT GLAZE—(adding in parenthesis: venison and rabbit with carrot, apple, and sriracha.
The hardest part of our duties involved pushing ourselves away from each table after only a few bites, in order to pace ourselves. We knew we had our winner when we were served “El Grande” Hoppito Bambito Relleno and, as one, requested doggy bags for the balance of that stuffed pepper delicacy.
My thoughts during the drive home that Sunday centered on how to shoe-horn my amazing experience into 40-words-or-less. I was proud of my snappy headline: Kill ’em and Grill ’em.
This may have been about the time our three adult offspring favored me with what they determined would be my epitaph (at some far, far future date, I trust): “She tried not to miss anything.” Thank you, kids.