CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- NOTE: Now before everybody gets their hackles up in defense of another perceived poke at West Virginia's hackneyed hillbilly image, let's be clear that the annual RoadKill Cook-off in Marlinton does not involve any actual road kill.
The entries feature meats from the kinds of animals that could be found along the side of the road after losing a battle with a fast-moving vehicle. That's pretty much deer, wild turkey, frogs, squirrel, turtle, rabbit, groundhog, possum, bear -- game. Technically, cows, sheep and goats have been known to wander into traffic.
A group from New Orleans served catfish, and claimed that fish sometimes jump across the road and get hit. Alligator and crayfish also find their way into entries from the South.
Most of the 20,000 people who attend the festival consider the entries and atmosphere rustic. The participants, including the Dickenson family and Naomi Roberts, whose entry won last fall, get into the spirit, exaggerating their mountain roots and accents. It's all in fun and not intended to offend. The food tends to showcase heritage foods prepared in old Appalachian ways.
The Pocahontas County Chamber of Commerce sponsors the RoadKill Cook-off as part of its Autumn Harvest festival, held annually on the third weekend of September. This year, Andrew Zimmern, host of "Bizarre Foods" on the Travel Channel, judged the contest. His crew taped coverage of the event, which will be featured on a segment exploring West Virginia foods that airs at 9 p.m. Feb. 27 on the Travel Channel.
The event's name, I agree, is unfortunate.
First, find a groundhog
When she heard "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern was judging the RoadKill Cook-off in Marlinton last fall, Rachel Dickenson of Dunmore was determined to cook for him. She'd entered the cook-off on three other occasions and won third place. She thought this would be the year her Smeared Hog with Groundhog Gravy would win.
She was right. Zimmern and two other judges chose her dish, an apple cider-soaked country-fried pork loin in a brown groundhog gravy, for first place honors.
Not bad for an entry that came together despite some formidable obstacles.
Dickenson decided to enter the week of the Sept. 24 competition. Her last-minute decision to enter didn't give her usual crew enough time to clear their calendars. She needed help, so she called her sister in St. Albans, Naomi Roberts, who also declined because she had to work.
On Thursday, Roberts called Dickenson to tell her that she'd rearranged her work schedule as a nurse at St. Francis Hospital and could make it to the Saturday competition after all.
"But I was still in big trouble. I needed a groundhog, and we just couldn't find one," she said. The day before the event, her husband, Tom, called her at her job at Snowshoe Mountain Resort and said he'd bagged not one, but two groundhogs.
"It's a good thing I work well under pressure," she said.
Her husband skinned the groundhogs and placed them in a mixture of salt water and vinegar to soak overnight. Dickenson's and Roberts' mother and grandmother, both good country cooks, taught them that step that reduces the meat's gamey flavor. They both remember visiting their grandmother in the spring when she would cook young groundhogs. Young groundhogs are preferable because they are tender, but large adults are all that could be found in the fall.
The meat from the adult groundhogs would require an extra long cook time to tenderize. Contest rules stipulate only two hours for cooking, so Dickenson speeded up the process by using a pressure cooker.
Dickenson sent her daughter Stacey out to the garden where she gathered potatoes, carrots and cabbage for the meal. This competition isn't only about food. Presentation counts, so Stacey also picked up cornstalks and pumpkins for their booth. Dickenson named her group "Ridge Runners," a nod to the Pocahontas County holler in which she and Roberts grew up.
"There were several people around us in the holler who were moonshiners. I thought it would be a good theme," she said.
The colorful booth manned by Rachel and Stacey Dickenson, her 4-year-old daughter, Taylor, and 7-year-old son, Gabriel, and Roberts caught the attention of wandering judge Andrew Zimmern, but it was the food that kept him coming back.
"When the other judges came over, he told them he'd already sampled ours three times," Rachel said.
Zimmern asked Dickenson about her recipe and she told him about her memories of grandmother preparing groundhog. When the other judges sat down, they said that the plate of gravy smothered pork, served with potatoes, carrots, bacon-seasoned cabbage and biscuits, looked like something they would have eaten at their own grandmothers' tables.
The dish was also popular with the festival goers. They served 1,050 portions of it, along with Headlight Delight, a fruit, cream cheese and marshmallow confection assembled and served by Gabriel and Taylor. Zimmern, who has a young son, seemed particularly interested in the children and their efforts.
They cooked and served all day.
"It wasn't all fun," said Roberts. "She kind of misled us when she asked us to help. We were on our feet all day."
Cook-off participants sign a release for their recipes, which can be featured and published elsewhere.
Dickenson's winning recipe and dish were featured on a Today show in the 11 a.m. segment hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. The show covered unusual dishes from different states. Stacey and Rachel watched the program together. Rachel was not pleased with the coverage.
"Kathie Lee turned up her nose and said, 'If you think I'm going to eat that, you're crazy,' " said Rachel, who said somebody in the New York studio prepared the dish, and must have altered her recipe. "It didn't look the same."
"She was livid," said Stacey of her mother's reaction.
"I feel like you could take that dish and serve it in a New York City restaurant and they'd never know that it had groundhog in it," Dickenson said, who is anxious to see how the lengthy video Zimmern's crew shot at the festival is shown on "Bizarre Foods," airing at 9 p.m. Monday on the Travel Channel.