ODENTON -- When the opossums appeared on the evening news, Del Cohrs glanced at the television in his living room and expressed a strong opinion on the subject: "I don't care how you fix one of them things, they ain't fit to eat."
It was the voice of authority, of a man who has eaten opossum and found it consistently greasy. It was the voice of a man who has dined on rabbit, quail, deer, even squirrel, and for the moment wears a crown of achievement in the field -- first place in West Virginia's annual wild game cook-off.
Mr. Cohrs, a United Parcel Service truck driver, won the $100 prize last month in Marlinton, W.Va., by cooking a venison dish that was judged superb, better than the roast ground hog, the stir-fried opossum or the spicy squirrel. He calls it Dagwood's 18-Wheeler Venison, the culmination of years of trial and error.
"I've been working on it a long time," said Mr. Cohrs, who sometimes goes by the nickname Dagwood, adding that a buddy used the recipe to win a game cook-off in Tennessee two years ago. And that was before Mr. Cohrs improved the recipe with Knorr Pepper Sauce, a touch that "is what makes it," he said.
"It was some of the best venison I've ever eaten," said Jeff Eberbaugh of Charleston, W.Va., one of five judges who agreed unanimously to award Mr. Cohrs first prize. And "I've had it every way you can cook it."
Nancy Hill, assistant director of the Pocahontas County Tourism Commission, was not a judge but she did taste all nine contest entries. A lifelong venison eater, she said, "I believe [Mr. Cohrs'] was the best I ever ate. My mother will kill me if she hears that."
Mr. Eberbaugh is a published authority on the subject, having written Gourmet Style Road Kill Cooking and the sequel, Road Kill Cooking Redneck Style, including recipes for Pot Hole Opossum and Fayette County French Fried Frog Fritters, all written in verse.
The West Virginia cook-off was dubbed a road kill cook-off, but that was just for laughs. Contestants were told not to cook animals they found dead on the road unless they hit the animal themselves and could vouch for its freshness.
"They had to be safe to eat," said Ms. Hill, whose organization sponsored the second annual cook-off, part of an autumn harvest festival held in an old logging town in the Allegheny Mountains. Last year, the winner among four entries was Buzzard's Breath Enchiladas, a Mexican-style melange of squirrel, rabbit, venison and groundhog.
This year's nine contestants cooked outdoors on gas stoves they brought themselves. They carried the road kill theme through the event, one serving shish kebabs in a hubcap, another offering a squirrel dish called Yellow Line Jambalaya. Then there was Mr. Cohrs, tailoring his recipe to the occasion by adding to the ingredients "one very heavy eighteen wheeler," and "one unsuspecting venison."
The fact is, Mr. Cohrs has never eaten an animal killed on the road and has never killed a mammal on the highway in 27 years with UPS. "I've had a pigeon commit suicide in my windshield one time, but that's all," he said.
He killed the deer he cooked in Marlinton with one shot to the neck from a Remington rifle one morning last November in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.
The 110-pound whitetail buck hung for a few days outside his home in Odenton before he and his wife, Laronia, brought it inside to butcher it, wrap the steaks and freeze them.
He said much of the trick to preparing venison is in the work you do before you cook it. If it's not aged for a few days, much as beef is aged, it will be tough and gamy. Too much fat and bone left on the meat can also spoil the taste, he said.
Encouraged by his success this year, Mr. Cohrs said he plans to compete next year with a recipe for venison chili, a recipe as yet unnamed to prepare a deer as yet unclaimed. Next month, he'll take up his rifle once more to stalk the main ingredient in the woods of West Virginia.