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Malcolm eats a tin of armadillo. Hmmm, it tastes like salmon mousse. 

Question: How do you know that spring has truly arrived?

Answer: Roadkill.

Sure, you'll see a few felled mule deer in the winter months, but it is not until the rains come and the weather warms that the critters really begin sacrificing themselves en masse upon the tread of our tires.

Possum, squirrel, snake and muskrat: Missouri's sacrificial roster hasn't changed much since the first Model T ground its first animals to dirt. But that's all changing now.

There's a specter over Missouri, and its name is armadillo.

Long known as a bloody pile on the highways and byways of Louisiana and Texas, the armadillo has been moving north, to where last spring the gruesome evidence of its march was on display every few miles west of St. Louis on Highway 44.

But even though we've seen proof they've arrived, how many of us have actually seen an armadillo in the wild? They're nocturnal creatures, after all, and the closest I, for one, have ever come to seeing one rambling about is by way of their bloody roadside pulp.

Until now, that is, when a friend's gift gave me the opportunity to see another side of the armadillo: a tin of Pure Texas Armadillo Sun Dried and Road Tenderized.

Now, we all know the adage about looking a gift horse in the mouth, but knowing as I do that one in every six armadillos found in the coastal marshes of Texas and Louisiana carries leprosy, I have to question my "friend's" motives.

After all, their protective bony shells cannot alone explain the expansion of these slow-moving and nearly blind animals. Sure, their hard shell may protect them from many predators, (the name armadillo is Spanish for "little armored one") but my money's on the leprosy: Any coyote that knows what's good for him is going to give the armadillo a wide berth.

Alas, I'm no coyote, so, pulling back the tin's ring I get my first view of an armadillo's pinkish innards. The can itself promises its contents will contain "not over 20 percent hair, gravel & foreign matter." Cold comfort, indeed.

To the naked eye, though, this tin of Pure Texas Armadillo looks like it contains considerably less than 20 percent hair, gravel or "foreign matter." It's pink, smooth and creamy. It looks more like a salmon mousse than the pulpy remains of some primitive mammal that's been "sun dried and road tenderized."

On closer inspection I see that the creamy meat, made up of thousands of fleshy granules, appears to be a close (if somewhat more runny) relation to the line of potted meats produced by Hormel. I'm even beginning to have my doubts that this is armadillo at all.

There's only one way to find out. So, stirring the potted meat, I scoop a spoonful into my mouth and let those thousands of balls of flesh melt over my tongue. It's salty, tastes vaguely of ham and is wholly devoid of hair, gravel, and — not counting the weird foreignness of what is essentially liquid meat — I can detect no other "foreign matter."

So, is it armadillo? I don't know, but I'll be sure to tell you if my toe falls off.

Seen a foodstuff you're too timid to try? Malcolm will eat it! E-mail particulars to keepitdown@mac.com

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