Friday, January 9, 2009

Road Food

Colette, C's French teacher and our friend, lives in a village up in the mountains, the last village on my mental map before the mountains edge out everything except ski resorts. She is cheerful and practical and sensible, and one evening a few weeks ago (this is the story she told C), she was driving home and saw, along the roadside, a rabbit that had been hit by a car. She pulled off the road, got out of the car, and went to check the rabbit. It was dead but still warm. So she picked it up and took it home for dinner. Her American husband was, she related in a tone that was fond but a little puzzled, distressed to learn that he was enjoying--in a wine sauce, with raisins and onions--what we in the States call roadkill. Colette confided that the lapin had been a little tough, which she attributes to her having been in such a hurry to make dinner that she didn't hang the carcass in her larder to age.

This is not the first roadkill for dinner story we've heard; in fact, it's the third. There was Violette, whose car collided with a sanglier, which she then put in the trunk and later packaged up for the freezer. Wild boar stew, sausages, and steaks all winter long. And there was Marcelle, the main course of whose Christmas dinner last year was built around venison from a deer that her father had found, likewise, newly dead by the road.

We are told that it is illegal in France to pick up and take home a dead animal that you yourself have hit with a car. (Violette is a fugitive from the law.) It is difficult to resist speculating on how that law came to be required, exactly. Were French people waiting until dusk every day, and then getting behind the wheel and going out to aim at animals as they crossed the road? Were people hitting deer and wild boars and rabbits and, it's France, god knows what else, on purpose? You have to admit that it's easier than going hunting, doesn't require reflective clothing or artillery, and can be done while listening to Johnny Hallyday on the radio. Of course, it's easy to get around the law if you are a two-car family: the first car finds dinner, the second car brings it home.

We dined out on these stories while we were Stateside and our friends and family had reactions that ranged from Aren't the French wonderful wistfulness to But that rabbit could have been diseased! They might all have contracted rabies from eating it! disdain. It was universally inconceivable, regardless of where our audience fell on the reaction spectrum, to have scooped up a rabbit from the side of the road and eaten it for supper.

Then we came home to France and told Colette about the banana pudding that my aunt made for Christmas dinner. She's been making it for decades; here's a recipe similar to the one I think she uses. You will note that the recipe calls for boxed vanilla pudding mix, whipped topping (which advertised itself, last time I checked, as non-dairy), and vanilla wafers. The wafers she uses are called Nilla because they don't actually contain any vanilla, and advertising them as such would be like calling the whipped topping cream. Colette laughed long and hard at the notion of eating such a concoction, and that was even before we mentioned the Velveeta that also figured in a few of our American meals. Is it cheese? she asked. Well, it is, and it isn't. It comes closer to being cheese than whipped topping comes to being cream, but not by much. At all.

It's a conversation about cultural differences. How processed do you need your food to be? How far removed from nature, red in tooth and claw (and fender), and how far removed from the chemistry lab? We've not been offered a dinner of freshly hit meat, and I'm not sure what our response would be if we were; it would probably have a lot to do with whether there was adequate red wine on offer. As for the banana pudding and Velveeta, I have to say, first, that I had always loved both. Okay, not loved. Enjoyed ambivalently once or twice a year may be closer to the truth. Loved eating the food that my family had made for me, loved feeling cared for. Wished, though, once I was grown, that my family loved to make something else, something that had less of a plastic after-taste.

I think part of our relationship with France is rooted there, in that wish that our families--disclaimer: whom we love and would never trade in--were more like the families in Madeleine L'Engle's books, where the parents are both Nobel prize winning physicists who read poetry aloud at the dinner table and teach the children to sing in four-part harmony while they're spending summers hiking in the Andes. And that our country concerned itself less with figuring out how to manufacture a cheese that had a shelf life of a century (and giving it a handgun to fend off any other cheeses), and more with protecting small things, like the local farmers who might make a little extra money making their own cheese and selling their own cows' cream. Or with making sure that people don't just go out and aim their cars at wild animals as an easy way of getting dinner.

If, however, you've got a friend to drive behind you, remember to hang the lapin for a few days before you cook it. It'll be more tender that way.


  1. Wonderful post! Thank you for the stories.

  2. Here in Tennessee, it's now perfectly legal to consume roadkill. I haven't seen statistics on how many people have taken advantage of that law, though.

  3. Americans DO eat roadkill. We call those people "hillbillies."

    The horror mainstream American have of eating roadkill derives from their parents' desire to put as much distance between themselves and the hillbillies as possible.

    Hillbillies ate whatEVER they could find; nice middle-class strivers could afford "clean" meat at the supermarket.

    Now I am pleased to hear that eating roadkill is sophisticated again. LOL. Hey, nothing new under the sun.

  4. My husband and his friend were moving from Baltimore to Seattle. They were nervous about moving to the wild west. They drove out here, and on the way they hit and killed a deer in Montanna with their U-Haul. Later, when they stopped a McDonalds to eat lunch, they heard some locals talking about the deer they hit and indignantly questioning who would leave a fresh deer by the side of the road and waste all that meat. Their poor city brains almost imploded.