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The following excerpt is from from the West Virginia essay in Matthew Gavin Frank’s book, The Mad Feast, out this week from W.W. Norton, which is a collection of fifty essays, one for each of the U.S. states. Each essay begins with a foodstuff typical of said state and then digresses from there, engaging various shadowy back alleys of regional history—sometimes beautiful, sometimes atrocious—in an attempt to uncover the answers as to why we eat what we eat, where we eat. Matt’s essay, “Spoon Bread,” about Nebraska, appears in Ecotone’s Sustenance Issue.
Though rat meat often bears traces of pesticides, heavy metals, and human excrement, and though most residents of West Virginia (save, perhaps, for the town of Marlinton—famous for the annual autumnal Road-Kill Cook-Off featuring such local delicacies as pothole possum stew, rat gumbo, and the awesomely named Peter Caught-on-Tail Gate Roll) long to shuck the backwoods “barefoot and pregnant” stereotype (after all, we have the lowest birthrate in the U.S.), my uncle empties the traps into a stockpot as his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather did before him, adds the water, the tomato, the salt and pepper, and the hot red peppers (his personal touch). Uncle cracks his knuckles, says something about infertility, about eighty-hour underground work weeks, about coal as black lipstick, the sort he’d smear Aunt’s face with when she was alive and well and simmering anything but rodent on the range.
According to Calvin W. Schwabe’s book Unmentionable Cuisine, step one of Rat Stew: “Skin and eviscerate the rat and split it lengthwise.” Uncle dips his face into the stockpot’s steam and inhales. He calls you to the stove, puts his arm around you. You watch the little nuggets of sour meat surface and dive down, surface and dive down. You think of the pride of Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun—a Californian, no less—as she said, “I do as many necropsies of rats as I can, and between 1998 and 2003 I took measurements of the hearts of 150 rats.” You take comfort in the suspicion that you are not nearly as obsessed.
You know this: that in Bordeaux, vintners trap rats that inhabit the wine cellars and subsist on the fermenting grape juice. The vintners skin and eviscerate the rodents, then brush their bodies with a thick sauce of olive oil and crushed shallots, and grill them over a fire of broken wine barrels. Apparently, the resulting meat bears the flavors of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot grapes, the latter of which is known in French wine circles as the “little stiffener.”
You try not to think little when you think of fertility, and worry about the heritability of Uncle’s mistakes, anatomical and otherwise. You watch little heart tumble over little rib and little liver. You try to pick out the tenderloin, the neck meat. The feet. The hands. You try not to think of the appendages that anchor us into the mine shafts that only want to constrict, the earth filling itself back in, becoming whole again. This, we call collapse. You tell yourself each night in bed that those are canaries screaming into some implacable, original depth, and not the rats in the kitchen. You try not to think of stiffening bodies, of rigor mortis, of the 2010 mine explosion in Montcoal after which not a single survivor was found. The names of the dead were not released.
You know: Montcoal means Coal Mountain. According to Connie Baisden, columnist for the Coal Valley News, “Mine rats come into the mine to live on the oats spilled by the mine mules and on anything else they can find to eat. The mules are stabled underground and the oats are for feeding the mules. The oats provided the rodents with food. I knew a fellow once who brought food to feed the rats from the home because he said that the rats are the coal miner’s friends. As long as they were running around his dinner bucket, the coal miner believed himself safe.”
Uncle whispers something childishly poetic into the steam cloud, the vapor bearing the melee of electrons that once housed themselves in the flanks and brains and mouths of the rats, and hatches an unlikely recipe he thinks will take next year’s Road-Kill Cook-Off.
Road-Kill Cook-Off, past winners: Buzzard Breath Maggotini, Turtle A1-A Road Soup, The Buck Stopped Here Pepper Steak, Deer Drop Chili, Buffalo Balls, Wapiti Relleno, Raccoon Ribs, Skid Mark’s Bumper Grill, Wild Turkalo on a Log, Blood Rocks and Guts over Snails and Maggots (ground venison with black beans and rice), Rat-a-Tat-Teriyaki. One of the judging criterion is Tenderness.
Melt, if the stew is properly prepared, is what the rat meat will do in our mouths. Rattus rattus, we call them, as if even binomial nomenclature acknowledges their twitchy grossness, an expression of alarm (watch out! watch out!) that demands repetition. Strange: as the mortality rate of coal miners increased, so did their fertility. Says Baisden, “if the mines are about to collapse or flood, the rats will run out in the hundreds. It could be a day or more before the actual collapse or flood, but the rats can sense it. They can hear the movement in the walls or feel the oncoming water. That little rat over there can help to save your life.”
Continues Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun, “Externally I measured the length and width of the heart, and internally I measured the thickness of the left ventricle walls and the width of the left ventricle. I also measured the length of the rat when stretched out from nose tip to anus.” And Uncle reaches his arms over his head, but even with the wooden spoon can’t quite touch the ceiling. He mutters something about how the smallest things are the ones that sustain us; how a serving of rat has as much protein as a serving of bison.
Published in 1991, Jeff Eberbaugh’s book Gourmet Style Road Kill Cooking was a “runaway success in West Virginia.” (The headline reads: “Road-Kill Recipe Book Splatters Across West Virginia.”) The book’s page on Amazon.com sports only one customer comment, though, penned by none other than Jeff Eberbaugh himself, and is comprised solely of the line, “Great tongue in cheek humor,” and though Uncle’s friend Harold Brookman, a salesman from Princeton, WV, proudly says, “We’re West Virginia mountaineers; always free. Out here in the mountains, you have to learn to trust others,” you’re having a little trouble trusting the word of Jeff Eberbaugh.
Uncle knows, and so he tells you: West Virginia State Code Statute 20-2-4 “makes it legal to take home and eat roadkill.” Though most of them are found not in the road but already in the home, West Virginia allows rats to fall under the roadkill umbrella.
According to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food, “professed cooks, we are told, serve up rats’ brains in a much superior style to the Roman dish of nightingales’ and peacocks’ tongues. The sauce used is garlic, aromatic seeds, and camphor.”
Says Calvin W. Schwabe, “Brown rats and roof rats were eaten openly on a large scale in Paris when the city was under siege during the Franco-Prussian War. Observers likened their taste to both partridges and pork,” and Uncle says nothing of the window rattling in its frame, of the rats who love and couple and dream and make plans in our ceiling, of the roofs of earth falling in on so many men and women donning insufficient hard hats, or of mountains, or family, or freedom, or other kinds of siege.
Rat derives from the Latin rodere—to scrape, to file, to gnaw, to scratch, and to rasp. This, Uncle says, is also a sort of music, and, if we add the simmer, an orchestra . . . and the rats are freed of their names. Uncle finishes his bowl, picks his teeth with the vibrissae. He takes his fiddle from the closet, begins to play what his mother and father played, what his sisters and brothers played—what we in West Virginia sometimes controversially call “blue-eyed soul.” And when it’s quiet, and he’s feeling lonely, he plays for those still living. He plays for them, and they scurry into hay, pine straw; they scurry into our mountains and our sugar bowls, our oats and flour, our ducts and pipes, and shafts of all kinds. And when they scurry into places from which only they can find exit, he tells himself that they are dancing.
Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo, the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and two chapbooks. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction Editor of Passages North. This winter, he tempered his gin with two droplets (per 750ml) of tincture of odiferous whitefish liver. For health.