Wild About - Roadkill (How to Harvest Backstraps and a Few Meatier Matters)

If you didn't read my first post about roadkill, Roadkill is Real Food, please please please do so now. It contains some important info about obtaining a permit, and eating found meat.

It's no secret that deer is my favorite meat. And the vast majority of the deer meat that I eat comes from roadkill. Stop squirming. I'm not talking about little critters squished beyond recognition. I'm talking about magnificent wild deer and elk who have had the misfortune of being hit by a car.
I live in the mountains, where even the summer overnights are cold enough to preserve a fresh kill. And the roads here are managed well enough that it's rare that an animal will be left to lay roadside long enough to rot. The roadkill that I eat is premium meat, finer and fresher than anything you can buy in a store. Just look at that lovely garnet-colored meat!

Sometimes it's nice to go out looking for roadkill. If you do, go in the early morning to take advantage of the overnight kills. Most of the time, it's about taking advantage as the opportunity presents itself. That's why I travel with a cooler, some bags, and a knife in my truck. A pair of disposable gloves are nice, too, but not necessary.

The other day, I was driving up the canyon for a walkabout when I spotted several cars stopped on the other side of the road. As I passed, first I saw the cars and people on their phones, then I saw the dead animal, a deer. The accident had just happened. Since it appeared that no person had been injured and the situation was under control, I decided to come back in an hour, after the ruckus had cleared.

After a quick walk in the woods, I returned to the scene of the accident. I saw nothing. Did someone else snag the animal already? I pulled over and walked the edge of the road. Before long, I spotted the deer, which was a good 50 feet down the side of the mountain.

So, with cooler and knife in hand, I billygoated down the mountain. The deer had landed back-side down on an incline so steep that I could barely keep my footing. But it turned out to be a fortunate thing, because it was nice to be off the road an away from traffic in that steep canyon.

I won't lie to you, it was a little startling to put my hands on that animal for the first time, to feel it's warmth and still-soft flesh. It had been alive just an hour before. It was a buck, which had been impacted so hard that it's antlers were snapped off near the skull. Being that it had taken such a hard hit, I decided to only take the backstraps. They are easy to harvest, rarely sustain major damage, and can be taken without piercing the body cavity (which means that there is very little blood, and no chance of accidentally soiling the meat with urine or fecal matter).

How to Efficiently Harvest Backstraps Roadside

To take backstraps, first pinch up a bunch of skin along the spine, and make an incision with your knife to create a small hole in the skin. Next, slip your knife under the skin, and slit the skin open along the length of the spine from the inside out. Cutting from the under side is important because it helps to keep fur from getting everywhere and also protects your knife from some dulling.

Once you have the skin slit open shoulder to near-tail, reflect it back to expose the muscle. If you're very strong or have a good angle on it, just pull the skin. But I find it easier to pull the skin up with one hand, and gently tease apart the membrane between the skin and muscle with my knife.

Now you should be able to see the backstraps quite clearly; they are the fat muscles that run lengthwise along both sides of the spine. You will harvest them one at a time, using the same method on each side.

First, locate the spine with your fingers. Cut down next to the spine, letting the bones guide your knife, until you hit the ribcage. This will get the muscle halfway free.

Next, look to see where the backstrap ends on the outside of the body, you should easily to able to see the division between the backstrap and the muscles that cover the ribs. Along the edge of the backstrap, cut in perpendicular to the ribcage. It is nice to start at one end of the backstrap, and as the muscle is freed, lift it away from the body to better visualize where to cut. Take this cut along the full length of the backstrap, and you should easily be able to take it out in one long strip.

Flip the animal over, if necessary, and repeat on the other side. This whole process takes less than half an hour, and is makes so little mess that you can clean your hands with just a small squirt of water. Pack the meat in snow or ice for your journey home.

I'd like to reiterate what I said in my first post about roadkill - always be familiar with and obey the laws in your area.

Meatier Matters

Eating roadkill is local eating at it's finest. I don't say that in jest. It's one thing to eat food bought in a local store or grown on a local farm. But it's something truly special to eat food, plants or animals, that have lived wild in your area. It creates an immense sense of connection to your home. When you harvest your own wild foods, you can't take for granted their place in the land, right next to you. They are no longer things, there for your consumption. Suddenly, what it means to be of a place, and to eat locally, goes from being a concept to a fully realized experience. I know my food is local. I saw it with my own two eyes, cut it from the bone with my own two hands.

As I mentioned, the deer that I harvested the other day was newly dead, still warm. When you cut into an animal like this, you can't deny for even a second that your meat comes from an animal, not so unlike yourself. That animal lived and breathed and had a life all it's own - a life which is no more or less important than your own. Harvesting meat is messy and it takes time, and it makes you think about the life of the animal from which it came. As it should be! I suspect that the disconnect which buying packaged parts creates is part of the larger problem we have as a culture that creates malnutrition and obesity.

I think that this is a very important thing to realize, as a meat eater. How easy is it to carelessly toss those last few bites of a fast food hamburger into the trash? But when you have looked at the face of the animal whose flesh you are eating, that kind of waste is nearly impossible. Harvesting your own meat creates great respect and mindfulness, and taking in that flesh is a kind of communion.

And so, before I cut into that buck, I took a moment to thank it for it's life, which would pass between us and feed me and my family. I placed a few leaves of oregon grape onto its forehead and felt the gravity of this interchange.

And in the weeks to come, as I eat that deer's flesh, I will again think of it's life and feel thankful, each bite a kind of prayer. If you ask me, this is the finest source of nourishment - not the meat itself (which is surely organic, grass-fed and abundantly nutritious), but food taken with absolute gratitude and pleasure.

I'm sharing this post with the Hearth and Soul hop, Real Food Wednesday, Real Food Deals, and Pennywise Platte., and Fight Back Friday.


  1. Wow, I saw this link in the Heart and Soul Blog Hop and had to read it. Why? Well, last Monday we were coming back from my future in-laws and as we got close to my fiance's home (he lives in CO), we drove thru this canyon and we hit a 3 point buck. Neither of us has ever hit a deer, so that was pretty startling for me. Unfortunately, we hit the deer right on his side and he was dead instantaneously. We were doing 50 on the road, and because of breaking we are thinking we probably hit it about 30MPH. Now, I am a city girl, the fiance hunts all the time. When I asked if we should take it, he said no because the meat would be bruised and would not taste good. But everyone we told about it asked the same question: why didn't you take it? To me it seemed fine to take it, but apparently I was wrong??? Angie
    PS. Were you in the same canyon as us :)

  2. I am in complete awe of this post. I totally could envision you harvesting the backstrap and could even imagine myself doing it if necessary - you are so right about "knowing" your food. Seeing the animal and then knowing that it is what is sustaining yourself and your family totally changes the way you regard food. Thank you for such a thoughtful and informative post for the Hearth and Soul Hop and for being such and awesome host! (and my friend!)

  3. Angie - If your fiance is an experienced hunter, then he'd know very well which meat was bruised and which wasn't. Likely, there was still a lot of good food on that animal. Thank goodness you are both ok, 30mph is a pretty hard impact with a deer.

    Christy - Thank you :) I know you could do it if need be. I think that as women/mothers we are especially well equipped to hold the duality in our hearts - the horror of the loss of life, and the wonder of the ways in which life continues on.

  4. Butter - you are so totally awesome. This is a wonderful post - I so agree that you cannot help but hold the utmost respect for the animal you are consuming when you enter into such "communion" with that animal. To have the opportunity to harvest your meat in that way, in the same place that you have both shared, is a wonderful thing.
    Sue :-)

  5. What a lovely post. And congratulations on the harvest of two huge tenderloins!

  6. Dearest darling Butter, I am simply in tears reading this article because of the gratitude and reverence you share for the "circle of life" I was thinking about how some people might feel about taking that back strap, but the idea of that magestic animal's life being lost in vain to an automobile and then not harvesting his meat seems even more horrible to me. In our area, we don't get deer that often, but I see loads roadkilled in connecticut and left to rot because there are no large predators to clean them up and recycle them into the natural world. I have shared with you that I too feel communion for every morsel I put into my mouth as the ancient elements which have come into communion in one being or plant then coalesce into form within me. it is a miracle. I am so sharing this article on my thoughts on friday link love because it simply must be shared. Hugs and thanks for hosting and posting on the hearth and soul hop! LOVE YOU! Alex

  7. Sadly, this state doesn't allow any sort of game salvage. I'm not sure why. It isn't exactly cost-effective to use a motor vehicle to take large game.

  8. Thanks Bella. Wish I could share some good eats with ya.

    Alex - It is a miracle, absolutely.

    Farlo - When I first started eating roadkill, I explained that it's legal in our area. And my mother asked why more people weren't "hunting" with their cars. I had to laugh when I was explaining how much damage even a small critter can do upon impact, let alone something the size of a deer or elk. Shame not all areas allow it.

  9. Also, I wanted to address what you mentioned about worrying about how some people might feel taking those backstraps... When you eat meat, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, you are responsible for that life. But for me, that thought doesn't drive me to be a vegetarian, it compels me to see the process up close and personal. When you buy a piece of meat in a glossy plastic package, you don't know whether or not that animal lived and died a horrible life, but either way, you are still connected to it. I'm no fool, I know how some people view eating roadkill. But I prefer to eat an animal that has lived a natural life in the wild, and to take the meat myself. I feel the same about hunting. It may be upsetting, it may even make me cry, but I chose to *know*. It gives me a proper perspective on my place in the chain.

  10. Amazing post! Thanks so much for sharing all of this information.

  11. I have no problem with the concept of eating roadkill, and I think it is allowed in our state if you follow specific procedures with the Conservation Department.

    But similar to the question raised about bruised meat, I have always been told that roadkill deer is inferior because of hormones coursing through the animal's body when it's not field dressed immediately.

    Have you been able to tell much difference between a roadkill deer and a freshly killed and cleaned one? My husband is meticulous in the cleaning and butchering of the deer he shoots (we do our own processing) and the meat ends up with no gamy taste at all. I love it, but strong, gamy-tasting deer? Not so much.

  12. Wonderful info and respect for the animal, it should be that way. Thanks, I am not a game eater, but so believe in the respect of all wildlife and you present that here so very well.

  13. Wonderful. Absolutely awe-inspiring, as always my friend. I've thanked many an animal under my knife, but never on the side of the road...the closest I've gotten is by the pond. Thank you for sharing this heartfelt and informative post with us (and of course with the hearth and soul hop)...you continue to inspire me. You are WOMAN!

  14. I followed girlichef's tweet to read this and I'm so glad I did. We've been gifted with 4.5 deer (someone kept the other .5) this season. These were from hunters who love to hunt but can't manage to consume all of the meat. That is another great way to get venison and a great option for anyone who is squeamish about acquiring their own meat.

    We process them ourselves, and find, just like you, that it's almost impossible to allow ourselves to waste any of it. When you look on the whole animal, you can't just toss a half-eaten plate in the garbage. It makes us more circumspect in how much we pile on our plates in the first place. So all around? We win!

    Thank you again for this great post. I can't wait to read more of what you have here. I think I'd better go make a cup of tea and settle in for a while.

  15. This is a great post. I am sending to my Son's and Son's In Law. They will love having this information. Thank you for sharing and you have a great week.

  16. Dude. You are awesome :D :D :D.

  17. I have a new found respect for roadkill. Seriously. I'll never forget years ago when I was just a teenager and my husband's (back then he was my boyfriend) grandfather offered me some of his roadkill for dinner. It was a squirrel he watched get hit on the road right by his home. At the time, I was extremely grossed out by the thought of eating squirrel - let alone *roadkill* squirrel and politely told him "no". As the years have gone by, I've shared the story with many people and have come to really respect my husband's grandfather (who has now passed on) because he understood the value of his next meal and never wasted anything. You know THAT generation. *smile*

  18. Annie - I can't say that I've noticed the difference. The only time I've tasted "stronger" meat was when an animal wasn't taken by a clean kill while hunting, and was very stressed, and by contamination of fur. But I might be the wrong person to ask because I like my game meat to taste wild, not like some gussied up beef steak ;)

    Heather - Roa-r!

    Rebecca - You are so lucky to have such generous friends. You'd be hard pressed to get a gift of deer from me :)

    With Love - What a wonderful memory, that really makes me smile. I think I had an advantage, coming from a hunting family. My gran always had rabbits and squirrel and frog legs in her freezer, and the main meat in my house growing up was deer. But, even so, it took a bit of a leap as an adult to come face to face with eating wild. I don't regret it for a minute, though, because it has revolutionized how I view my food.

  19. This is a wonderful post - and raises such an important point about respecting the life of the animals that we eat.

  20. Butter...I have on more than a few occasions done EXACTLY what you describe and without an ounce of guilt. My boys and I eat several deer a year along with fish, squirrels, quail, rabbit and other game. When people ask me (with an outraged expression) "How could you DO that!?" I ask them..."Is it better to harvest what could be saved or let the animal go to waste so no one is nourished?" They often don't know what to say...

    I hunt for much of my food and tell people that scoff upon it that at least I know exactly where it comes from...unlike the local markets.

    You ROCK!!

  21. Hopefully you never get stopped by a cop with gloves, a knife and plastics bags. haha
    The deer does look beautiful though -- tasty and fresh! But I'll be honest, I've never had deer before. But I would love to try it!

  22. Ah! I see my question has been at least partially answered, thank you! This will go to my husband as well.

    My father does the same thing you do before he brings his (hunted) deer home, and he thanks God for the provision of this food.

  23. I don't know what to say.. I've never eat a deer in my whole life but thanks anyway. Very informative:)

  24. Jason- And the animals that you hunt live a nice free wild life until the moment they die, unlike animals born and killed in captivity. I know that part of the attitude hunters face is just a social disconnect from death, from what it means to be a part of the food chain, of the circle of life. But I think it's really important to understand the "death" aspect of it in order to fully appreciate the life part.

    Ha, ha, Elsa, never thought about it like that. I have a fish billy club in my truck, too. Mighty suspicious.

    Elpi - Deer is such a lovely meat, and I highly recommend it. But eat and savor whatever you have in your area.

  25. Jen - My addy is under my profile, email me if you have any questions :)

  26. Would I ever dare?
    I'm so in awe. I'm not a vegetarian and I know that i will never be but I don't truely assume where meat comes from. Live beings not so different from me.
    I've been wanting to learn to hunt for some time now to accept the chain of life. But I'm terrified by the idea of taking a life. I've been comming to believe that the only way to respect the beings that I eat is to be aware of their lifes and deaths.
    The way you eat seems sacred, and so true and simple. You are a real inspiration for me. You've opened a new path in my mind's eye.
    Thank you so very much!

  27. Alwayshungry - You know, sometimes I wonder if perhaps everyone should witness a slaughter or hunt just once for that reason. It so hard to take meat for granted afterward. But, that said, I'm a big believer in the fact that not every lesson in life needs to be earned the hard way.

  28. Wow. Thank you for sharing this and for your thoughts about being reverent and thankful for life. I agree with Butterpowderedbike too that everyone who eats meat should at least observe a slaughter or hunt.

  29. I haven't had deer in years. But when I saw the picture I knew what it was. Lucky you that get to get your hands in a fresh meat like this.

    Their meat makes one of the best stew I had ever tasted.

    Great post!

    Happy 2011!

  30. Mexico - Deer is my favorite :) A taste of my childhood, a taste of my adulthood, just good food.

  31. Wow. Lovely and powerful post. I agree with another comment that this is such a sacred way to eat. I've always been so sad when we pass a fallen deer (or other animal) and I always say a little prayer for it and apologize that we have cars in their wild land- a technology they do not recognize and are not equipped to avoid. Thank you for sharing and enlightening me- I surely have a different perspective on this now and hope that this inpires more people to not let these lives lost go to waste.

  32. Wow, I have never heard of doing something like this. (Of course, I am from Long Island where the deer have been pushed away from humans completely. Too many malls and stores! And I've never eaten venison.)

    I wonder how many other people are doing the same? It does seem like a waste to just throw an already-slain animal in the trash.


  33. Karen - I think you'd be surprised at how many people do this. And around here, because the meat is so well preserved by the cold air, the officers sometimes have a list of needy people to donate the animals to.

  34. Another good way to get the roadkilled deer fresh is to have a friend or two on the police force. Where I live they usually get the call first. I picked up two warm deer last year this way, and gutted, skinned, quartered and butchered them at home.

  35. Hi. Excellent blog post. I'd like to cite it in a news article I am writing. Can you email me please at aselsky@ap.org? Would like to get and use your name, if you don't mind. Regards, Andrew

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