Over this past Thanksgiving break, I went back home for a visit to Lawrence, Kansas – an aggressively quirky college-town Neverland where people do in fact grow older, but only just a little bit. It is chock full of hipsters (who are actually nice). A circus school has set up shop in my old neighborhood. The most ambitious person in town is a man who has stood on the same street corner twice a week since the 1970’s, holding a sign that says “HONK FOR HEMP.” Though slightly batshit, most Lawrence weirdos are harmless and quite personable, and will definitely sit down with you for an interview over an infinite supply of crab legs at a Chinese buffet.
One such local character is Michial J. Coffman, a.k.a. “the Roadkill King.” I had first heard of him from tales of when the local post office hosted a yearly to-do on Tax Day – a big bluegrass band would play outside as people waited in line to fork over their hard-earned money to Uncle Sam. Catering was courtesy of the King, who put the literal “tail” in tailgate. With assistance from a friend, I tracked him down to talk about the process of turning asphalt tragedies into sustenance. We talked about deer balls (yes, those kind of balls), raccoons and more.
What got you started / inspired you to make use of roadkill?
Necessity. I hate to see anything go to waste. Dad was the one who taught us not to waste anything. And that’s called “possum living.”
One day I drove Elaine [Michial’s wife] into town for a doctor’s appointment. Coming back, there was a mama coon and four baby coons laying on the road. Dead. Well, they weren’t there when we went to town! So Elaine walked back up there and gathered all five of those animals. She mounted three of them – she mounted the mama and two of the babies, but – they were less than an hour dead. So we took those home. That young raccoon is awful good eating – it’s very rich, but it’s very good eatin’.
How do you find the roadkill? Do you go, uh, out searching for it?
We just come up on it! You can tell by picking it up how fresh it is. And the old saying is – you gotta beat the flies to it.
Oh, yikes. So if you see flies …
If you see flies, it’s pretty much gone, because the flies have probably already laid their eggs in it.
Is there something else you do, in terms of safety? Like, in the controlled world of butchering, obviously you try and make sure to avoid puncturing the intestines and such, but how do you do that with roadkill?
If it’s been hit and if the ribs have gone into the intestines, you open the back up and take the backstrap out; you don’t open the stomach up. If the stomach is bloated, the enzymes have already started to work. And you don’t want those enzymes; they’ll make you sick.
Have you ever gotten sick?
No. I can smell meat and tell how fresh it is, whether it’s any good or not. That’s the only thing that’s not going bad on me – my eyes are going bad, my ears are goin’ bad – I still smell things, though.
At one point, the police actually called you to let you know about roadkill, right?
One day I called the sheriff and said, “You got any roadkill? I’m interested in the meat, if it’s decent enough.”
They said, “Sure, we’ll put you on a list!” Now there are maybe 30, 40 people on that list.
Do you think the police like to call people like you because they don’t have to deal with the deer?
They have to wait for a sheriff to get there … make a report and turn it in to Fish and Game. When they do that, I go out there, and they give me a permit to take it home – the carcass permit – and then it’s my baby. I can do with it as I wish.
How long does that process usually take?
Once I get there, 10 minutes – he goes back, records everything, fills out a card, says you’re ready to go. He won’t touch the deer. I have to take it. And when you get a 250 lb whitetail deer, try to get that in the back of a truck – you try doing that alone!
Your average deer – how many would that be able feed?
An average deer – if you do it right, it’ll feed a family of six – if you have potatoes to go with it – for three weeks. You can’t be particular about it – you’ve got to eat a lot of soup; that’s what makes it go longer.
What’s the strangest / most unique animal you’ve ever taken?
A five-foot-long rattlesnake. You cut it down the belly, peel him off. He still had mice inside of him, but he was roadkill. And he was still alive. First thing you do is cut their head off. Two hours after I cut his head off, if you reached down with a stick and and touched his head, his mouth would open up. He would twist around and follow you. They’re a tough creature.
Tell me about the Tax Day celebration. What did that exactly involve? (Author’s note: I always lamed out and used TurboTax, so I never ever went to any of these. Clearly, I was an idiot.)
Every Tax Day, down at the post office, the Alferd Packer Memorial String Band would be there, and they would play bluegrass music, and I was the official roadkill chef.
One year I got a good deal on a bunch of chicken wings – I called them crow’s wings. We made a sign up: “You know you’re eatin’ a little crow when you’re payin the government for something you don’t want ‘em to do.”
Do they still do the Tax Day thing?
We just quit two years ago because we got a new postmaster, and she was exerting her authority. We were staying there ’til midnight, and she even had people who offered to keep working there ’til midnight. But it’s against the rules, ‘We can’t pay overtime,’ so she shut it down.
And Topeka and Kansas City, right around that time, they started to do what we was doing – but they don’t have a bluegrass band, they don’t have a roadkill chef. KFC and McDonald’s cater food over to them – they have a drive-thru and give you free hamburgers and chicken! It ain’t the same as roadkill stew.
Other choice tidbits:
On picky eaters:
I used to teach a survival class in Colorado. I’d find things for these people to eat. And if you don’t eat it, you don’t pass. If you want to learn how to survive – ain’t none of this squeamishness. You’re either gonna learn – or just go on your way. You just wasted your 200 dollars!
Now worms aren’t that bad. You can just open one end and push all the entrails out – but that’s where a lot of your protein is!
On his pet raccoon, “Coonie”:
We had several [raccoons], but Coonie was the best. She would get up on my head and lay on my head, and reach down and grab my eyebrows … and very gently lift my eyes open and look down and see if I was awake.
On which animal has the best balls:
Deer balls! I cut ’em in half, and peel ’em, cause when you peel ’em and cut ’em in half they are so tender, and they are so full of flavor – they are very buttery. Actually, turkey is probably the best, but deer is right there with them.
On ball humor:
[At a party wherein deer testicles were served] The girls were talking about it, “We’ve been eating these balls all day, and not one of us got a hair in our mouth.”
Michial generously bequeathed to me a deer bone necklace, a bag of deer jerky and several parcels of miscellaneous road venison from his freezer. All made from his hands (and, I suppose, the grill of the vehicle that had initially taken out the deer). I certainly learned a lot about possum living from the Roadkill King, and I hope you did too. Stay tuned for next time, when I put my money where my mouth is – I try out one of the Roadkill King’s recipes.
Kim Le is a writer and shiftless gadabout who hails from the distant wheat fields of Kansas. Obsessions include sustainability, extreme DIY and the macabre. Also, she makes sculptures out of food, mostly potatoes. She never updates her blog at http://badmetaphor.net.