American Barbecue Showdown judge dishes on eating iguana, possum, and more - Exclusive

The barbecue pit is fair game for just about any kind of meat — and in some parts of the United States, that includes game animals. If this fact has somehow managed to escape your attention, you'll never forget it after watching one particularly memorable episode of Netflix's new cooking competition, The American Barbecue Showdown, in which contestants compete to see who does a better job cooking animals most of us associate with roadkill — not a main course.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, show judge Melissa Cookston explained how proper cooking technique and seasonings can make a squirrel, possum, raccoon — or even a large reptile, like an alligator or iguana — taste not only edible, but delicious. Cookston did acknowledge that it's much more challenging to prepare an animal you've never cooked or eaten before than it is, say, to grill a steak. "When you're faced with something like that, you just treat it like something you know," she explained. The contestants need to think to themselves, "I know how to pull gaminess out of wild game. And I know how to cook something about this size," Cookston added.

Melissa Cookston has cooked game meat herself

Cookston knows what she's talking about when she explains how to properly cook game meat; she herself is no stranger to barbecuing strange animals for competitions. "I was driving out to L.A. to do this competition. And I was making fun because we pulled over at a roadside stop, and it said, 'Beware, rattlesnakes.' And I took a picture of it, and I said, 'Anybody got a recipe for rattlesnake?' I'd be danged if that wasn't one of the things they gave me to cook," Cookston recalled.

So how did her rattlesnake BBQ turn out? According to Cookston, she served up a mighty fine reptile. "Well, I did pretty well," Cookston recounted of her dish. "That was one of the ones where you get eliminated, and they thought my rattlesnake was pretty dang good, so I didn't get eliminated." Ultimately, Cookston said, the game meat contest is a head game. "So really, it's kind of psychological warfare when you're given these things that you have no idea how to cook," she explained.

What it was like to have to eat cooked squirrel, raccoons, and other wild animals

Cooking an animal that might make you squeal if you saw it in the street is one thing – eating it is another. While many of us might be a little squeamish about being asked to judge the taste of an animal we're used to seeing creeping around at night, sniffing out the trash cans, for Cookston, though, sticking a fork into raccoons, possum, and other such animals just wasn't a big deal. "I'm from Mississippi," she explained. "So, I mean, there's not really a lot we don't do down here."

Plus, Cookston added, she took her responsibilities as a food competition judge very seriously. "As a judge, that's what you sign up for. And in order to give everybody a fair shot to win that show, that's what you have to do," she explained. "Really, as a restaurateur, the only thing that I really ever worry about, if something wasn't safe to eat. Because as far as eating possum or beaver or raccoon or iguana, I mean, that's what I signed up for." Sure, Cookston had moments where she paused for a moment before digging in. "But yeah, I toughed it out," she said. "And I ate more than one bite of everything to give the contestant a fair shake. I went for it. I was a team player."

Challenging contestants to cook wild animals was a way to find out how talented they really were, according to Melissa Cookston

Cookston has been in the food competition circuit for decades, and perhaps most famously was a judge on the TV show BBQ Pitmasters. Compared to traditional barbecue competitions, The American Barbecue Showdown is much more challenging — precisely because it called upon the contestants to prepare meats they hadn't cooked or eaten before, she said. "Well, BBQ Pitmasters was a lot of the same meats that we cook at barbecue competitions. American Barbecue Showdown was not the same meats," Cookston explained. "And you got to realize, yeah, as a competitor, we spend years honing our skills–cooking those same meats that we cook in competition. So, we're pretty good at those."

That's why challenges like the game animal episode really spotlighted true cooking talent. "When you throw in challenges... that's where it really kind of sets apart what you're made of. What can we put upon you that you may not be able to handle?" Cookston said. "And really being able to see what you can do with those adversities, seeing how you handle that, really shows me what your skill level is as a barbecuer."