Friday, March 6, 2009

The Road Kill Chef

Today I came across a documentary that has been uploaded to Youtube in six nine-minute segments. I’m still processing what I watched and how I felt about it, but in general I was impressed.

The documentary is about a young man in England named Fergus Drenna who has been foraging for food for 15 years. He’s a self-labeled vegetarian, but he makes allowances for meat if he comes across it freshly killed along the road. In other words, he eats road kill. He considers it wasted life, basically, if an animal unfortunate enough to have been killed by a car or truck is left to rot. And in the case of badgers, if he deems them unfresh, he drags them into the woods from which they came so that its fellow badgers may bury and mourn it (according to Fergus, badgers are known to do this).

The documentary follows him around a small town in the countryside called Sandwich as he shares his foraging knowledge with local people and then tries to recruit them for a big meal he wants to throw for whoever is interested. For the meal, he collects watercress from the local river, mushrooms (including the giant puffball and horn of plenty), blackberries, wild plums, wild spinach, wild flowers, stinging nettles, and local seaweed from the town’s rocky beaches. Rabbits and pheasants feature as the road kill meat; he would have prepared badger, too, but a health inspector advised against it, and Fergus decided he wouldn’t take the chance with his guests.

Fergus is a natural in front of the camera, and if he were on the Travel Channel I expect that he’d do just as well as Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain in attracting a huge audience. He’s personable, quick-witted, enthusiastic, and articulate. His articulateness is important, too, because his philosophies about food and nature are very convincing. (Don't worry, Mom, I'm not going to eat road kill.)

I have to admit that I was riveted by the documentary. I would love to have the knowledge that would allow me not just to find food in nature, but also to prepare it properly for consumption. In both cases, I haven’t the foggiest idea of where to start. Wild foods, as many note in the documentary, have a much stronger flavor than what is available in stores and markets. They’re also probably much more nutritious, and the fact that they haven’t been processed or transported thousands of miles is obviously a big plus, too.

Road kill, on the other hand, I’m too queasy for. If you have a well-trained nose and are comfortable handling dead animals lying in ditches – and if you’re willing to bend down in front of passing cars to sniff a dead animal – I guess that’s an advantage. So is the belief that an animal died simply because it was struck by a vehicle; he never talks about the possibility of disease factoring into an animal’s demise.

In the United States, the legal ramifications of a “road kill feast” gone terribly wrong are obvious, but perhaps the law is different in the U.K. (or people simply aren’t as litigious). Then again, maybe it’s such a “new idea” that the law hasn’t quite caught up to it yet.

If you’re interested in the documentary, have a look below.

I’ll warn you that there are a few moments that might make the more sensitive viewer turn away, but those moments are rare and, in my opinion, not particularly disturbing – PG13 stuff, in other words.

Also, in 1968 John McPhee wrote a fascinating piece for The New Yorker about Euell Gibbons, a well-known forager and wild edible plants author. Aptly named “A Forager,” it can be found here (registration required):

The article also appears in Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink.

If anyone reading this has done any serious foraging, I'd be interested to hear about your experiences...and advice!

Stumble Upon Toolbar


  1. I'm definitely interested in watching these segments. In an anthropology class, we discussed the idea of the Ratchet Effect on human cultural knowledge - that extant knowledge leads to new innovation. However, it may also mean that as we create/discover 'better' ways of doing things, we discard the knowledge of previous methods . . . such as learning to forage and prepare foods from the wild. Our 'new and better' techniques are dependent on external variables such as electricity; what happens if we lose access to those?

    Thanks for bringing this fascinating person and topic to our attention!

  2. Thanks, it sounds fascinating! I will try to watch these segments soon.

  3. It's so fascinating. I couldn't bear to watch this video, roadkill takes it too far for me to handle. Recently I watched a podcast called "Sky full of Bacon", and they had a great clip on urban foraging, picking apples, and salad greens in public city areas, which I thought was very cool. Great blog here, I just joined you as a follower!

  4. Awesome topic.
    I can't claim to have done a ton of forraging (urban or otherwise), but I do know how to identify a few wild edible plants, and have a good idea as to what can be eaten from flower beds... Some of this knowledge is from a restaurant I worked at that had a menu full of things like nettles, snow on the mountain, flowers, wild mushrooms (oh, how I hated cleaning the trumpet mushrooms!), and wild fruits. Some of the knowledge is stuff my grandpa taught me when I was young.
    It's neat to think I could make a salad by taking a walk around the neighborhood- in summer, of course, all I can make right now is snowcones :)

  5. Very cool. Have you seen Bear Gyllis (I may have misspelled the last name) on the discovery channel? He does these survival shows in all sorts of places and eats only what he can find.

    I must admit I'm a bit scared to forage on my own, but would love to learn more about it.

  6. I am adding you to my "Friends of SippitySup" blogroll (if you do not mind), because 2 days in a row (the only 2 days I ever read you) you spoke to me directly about experiences I totally understand. It is fine to read about Aunt Gemma's wonderful sugar cookie recipe. But I look for food bloggers with a P.O.V. You are that and then some. GREG

  7. Tangled Noodle: I’d love to take some of these classes you talk about. It seems that in most societies – or at least the ones I’ve seen firsthand – foraging has generally disappeared as a means of gathering food. (The hill tribes in northern Vietnam seemed to, and in Bali I was blown away by the self-sufficiency of the upland villages, but they grew what they needed rather than foraged for it.) Which is odd, in a way, because foraging would seem to offer economic incentives, especially to those who lack money, to say nothing of the nutritional benefits that foraged foods can provide. My concern is that I’d inadvertently pick something poisonous…and then I couldn’t blog anymore. Thanks for your comment!

    5 Star: I hope you’re able to check the videos out soon. It’s amazing the effect that a one-hour program can have on my views about food!

    Heidi: Thank you for letting me know about “Sky Full of Bacon” (what a great podcast title – if I could start my own music group, I might want to use that name). I’ve looked up urban foraging groups in Honolulu, but nothing turned up. I think it’s a great idea, though, and if you ever try it I’d love to hear about your experiences with it. Thanks for the comment, and thanks, too, for joining my blog as a follower!

    Sweet Charity: I think it’s a valuable skill to be able to identify even a handful of wild edible plants – all I can identify are dandelions. I would be so thrilled to go out for a walk and come back with everything I needed to make a healthy, delicious salad, or something I could use in a main course. If you come back to read this…how did your grandpa get his foraging knowledge? Oh, and good luck with the snowcone making!

    Gastroanthropologist: I think I have seen Bear Gyllis, yes! I saw one episode where he couldn’t get a fire started and had to smash open his camera and remove something that would help him ignite a pile of brush. He seemed pretty frantic at the time, which made for good watching. :) I didn’t see him forage, though of course he must have. Like you, I’d love to learn more about foraging, and perhaps next week I’ll order one of those Euell Gibbons books that I mentioned in my post. Thanks for your comment!

    Greg: Sup, sippity? I’m flattered to be included on your blogroll. Thanks very much. I just visited your blog, too, and noticed an entry or two on urban foraging. I plan to read through “Foraging in the Wilds of the Big City” tonight after dinner, and hopefully I’ll come away from it enlightened. Thanks again for the kind words, and I look forward to checking out more of your blog soon. Awesome photos, by the way – but I’m sure you hear that all the time!

  8. I don't think the law is that different her in the UK, as far as I'm aware (and I'm no expert) as long as he wasn't charging people for it and they knew the risks then he would be safe from being sued.

    If it was a restaurant on the other hand then they could and would be sued

  9. I would be very open to eat wild vegetables, but probably not road-kill. I know people who have hit a deer and taken it home and eaten it, but I don't think my stomach can take it. For some people, as long as it doesn't stink, it's okay I guess.

  10. Hi
    You can post your comments in english. I can
    understand it very well. And I would like to be able to write better than I do in your language (I´m a lowsy writer). In my job,as a laywer, I don´t need to practice the english.
    The story you told make me feel so far away of our ancesters.Some how the kill road chef seemed to be more tuned with the human nature than the rest of us.
    However...I prefer remain vegetarian...and collect mushroom...

    Now in portuguese:
    A reportagem que partilhou é muito interessante. Faz-nos pensar que a humanidade cada vez mais se encontra distanciada da sua verdadeira natureza.
    O que choca as pessoas nesta história, não é o facto de comerem carne (porque o fazem e eles são mortos, a maior parte das vezes de formas bastante cruéis)mas esta forma de caça indirecta não ser asséptica. Agora para comer carne "retardada" basta ir à prateleira do supermercado e simplesmente comprar peitos de frango, bifes, lombos de peixe...e tudo sem ter que ver o verdadeiro animal.
    Fiquei fascinada com o tamanho daqueles cogumelos. Presumo que ele sabe distinguir perfeitamente os comestíveis dos venenosos...
    De facto é mais fácil escrever em português...acha que consegue traduzir este texto?

  11. Only a true adventurer can handle roadkill! That is not the Duo. :) But the milder foraging for fruits, nuts, berries, etc., that's a nice way to live off the land.

  12. Sam: What you say makes sense. I wonder if he made them sign a waiver before eating, which is kind of a scary prospect. The interesting thing was that the restaurant agreed to host the dinner, and one of their cooks, if not others, helped prepare it. I’m sure plenty was going on behind the scenes that the documentary didn’t have time to describe. Thanks for your comment!

    MTC: I think I’m much like you, though I WISH I could be more radical about what I’m willing to eat. I’ve heard the same about deer being hit, then taken home to be eaten. At least then, I guess, you know the meat is fresh. But again, did the deer wander into the road because it was sick? Perhaps not, but what if was?

    Borboleta Africana: From now on I’ll definitely post in English. You’re obviously fluent in English, whereas I use Google Translator! I think I had the same feeling as you with regard to feeling far removed from our ancestors, as well as from nature, and your choice to pursue vegetarianism seems healthy and responsible. Be careful collecting mushrooms! As for your Portuguese post: Yes, it has become much too easy for us to eat meat without ever confronting the fact that it came from a sentient creature. If we were to know just how animals are raised for our consumption, especially by agro-industry, I’m sure that our eating habits would change to some extent. And yes, those giant mushrooms were fascinating. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

    Duo Dishes: I’m with you; I’m not nearly as adventurous as Fergus. Though to him it’s clearly not a matter of being adventurous, but rather being a moral, responsible person. To each his/her own, of course! But I’m glad I watched this documentary, as it expanded my views on modern eating habits and what nature’s role can be with respect to that. Thanks for your thoughts!

  13. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing it.

    Yes, you are right, Fergus is so natural in front of camera.

  14. I think most of the things my grandpa knows about in terms of foraging are things that were passed down to him from his parents. He grew up in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia- lush farm lands and orchards that grow stone fruits, pommes, and nuts, surrounded by fish filled streams and mountain forests full of berries, mushrooms, and lots of other edible plants.
    It's pretty neat, actually. Even now he has special spots that he visits to pick berries every year.

  15. I think it is definitely true to say that people are not as litigious here in the UK as in the USA but, in some regards, they are a little madder too! I would draw the line at badger but would happily eat the rabbit and pheasant.

  16. Selba: I hope he gets his own show sometime, though he may not be in the market for fame. Thanks for watching the video and commenting!

    Sweet Charity: I just did a Google image search of Okanagan Valley…wow! What a gorgeous area to have grown up in. (I think I might have just seen a flash of my retirement plans way down the road…) It looks like an idyllic place, and the natural features you describe would be perfect for living off the land. I hope you’re taking copious notes on where he goes and what he picks! And that you end up sharing with us what you learn.

    TonyM: Yeah, I can’t imagine that any other country has the US’s penchant to sue the pants off their neighbors. I’m with you on rabbit and pheasant over badger. Were you referring to road kill or more conventionally gotten food? I enjoyed your blog, by the way, and encourage you to feed your addiction to cookery books and cooking implements!

  17. Really interesting post. I love your writing style, too. Definitely one of the few blogs I'll follow.

  18. Wicked Noodle: Thanks so much for your kind words, and I'm glad you like the post. I look forward to you returning to my blog, just as I look forward to visiting yours!