I always thought one of the strangest weird foods to eat was snails. Call it escargot – a snail by any other name, it’s still a snail. Ew, ew. But collect community cookbooks, or for that matter cookbooks from all over the world, for any length of time and you will discover that people are eating weird food everywhere. Well, maybe not weird to them just to US in the USA with all of our meat, poultry and fish coming to use sliced, chopped, and packaged in clear plastic wrap or frozen into pieces or chunks not resembling anything like a the animal or critter it used to be. Oh, trust me, I’m not lecturing you on the subject – I’m as bad as anyone. The first time I saw my father skin a rabbit over the kitchen sink, I was ‘off’ rabbit the rest of my life; the first time my husband skinned and deboned freshly caught fish in the back yard, I became a vegetarian for two years. I like my fish looking like, say, fish sticks. I’ve grown away from fish sticks but still like the filets of fish to be nice and clean, sealed in plastic wrap and no eyes looking back at me. How can anyone eat something that has eyes looking back at you?
But if you really get into cookbook collecting, especially community cookbooks, church and club cookbooks – chances are you will at some point in time become obsessed with the idea of collecting cookbooks from all 50 of the states. I think it was sometime in the 1960s that I acquired my first Alaskan cookbook and discovered – whoa, Nellie! They cook up some strange stuff in Alaska! Braised bear chops, corned bear meat, moose heart and mooseburgers, barbecued reindeer (Reindeer? As in now Dasher, now Dancer, now Prancer, now Vixen?) Jellied Moose Nose, anyone? (In all fairness to Alaskan cookbooks, those recipes are in old cookbooks – the newer ones are far more homogenized, with recipes pretty much the same as you will find in the rest of the USA)—that could easily be a topic for a future blog post – how regional cookbooks are becoming less and less regional with time. To really be regional, a cookbook needs to present recipes to the reader that truly represent the area in which they live – whether it is recipes for bear, moose, reindeer, or recipes using Alaskan blueberries, huckleberries, or gooseberries. But I don’t want to get sidetracked so I’m going to stick to the topic at hand – weird food! Of course, you understand that what is weird to you and I may be standard fare far, far away – like up in Alaska or somewhere in Canada. THAT is what started this whole train of thought; I was going through a Canadian cookbook my girlfriend Sharon sent to me and came across this recipe for boiled owl. Boiled Owl? Is that one of those that starts out “first catch your owl?” I found this recipe in a neat cookbook titled “The Flying Skillet” sponsored by the Women’s Auxiliary RCAF Station, Rockcliffe, Ontario, Canada, and published in 1954. Another recipe in the same cookbook is for turtle soup and it starts out requiring “One 120 pound turtle” and explains that 120 pound turtle is recommended as a good medium size turtle with delicate fat, since anything smaller often has no fat at all and might not taste very good. The turtle also must be alive. Well, heck, I can tell you right now I’m never going to wrestle with a turtle that weighs almost as much as I do. (And somewhere, probably in a very old pre 1900-cookbook, I remember reading the instructions for killing a turtle. You don’t want to know). Reading the instructions for cooking a calf’s head was almost frightful—never mind actually doing it (You hold the head by an ear and drop it down in a pot of boiling water). Of course, the head has already been detached from the rest of the calf. Ew, ew.
The Flying Skillet also provides a recipe for cooking blubber.
All of this being said – and it is what it is – I want to share with you something written years ago, in 1942 As a matter of fact, by one of my all-time favorite cookbook authors, M.F.K. Fisher, in her book “HOW TO COOK A WOLF” – If you can find a copy, DO read it; this is one of Fisher’s best books, written in the middle of WW2.
“Why is it worse,” she asks, “in the end to see an animal’s head cooked and prepared for our pleasure than a thigh or a tail or a rib? If we are going to live on other inhabitants of this world we must not bind ourselves with illogical prejudices, but savor to the fullest the beasts we have killed…”
She continues, “People who feel that a lamb’s cheek is gross and vulgar when a chop is not are like the medieval philosophers who argued about such hair-splitting problems as how many angels could dance on the point of a pin. If you have these prejudices, ask yourself if they are not built on what you have been taught when you were young and unthinking, and then, if you can, teach yourself to enjoy some of the parts of an animal that are not commonly prepared…”
She goes on at length in this chapter and I will leave it to you to find a copy of the book which undoubtedly has been reprinted many times. My copy was published in 1944 and is yellowed and stained; I wouldn’t give it up for the world. I wish I could have somehow let M.F.K. Fisher know, when she was still alive, how much I enjoyed her books.
Marguerite Patten is a name and a face probably as recognizable in Great Britain as Queen Elizabeth II. During WW2, Marguerite was hired by the Ministry of Food to go around the country teaching citizens how to get the most out of their rationed food. Rationing ended in the USA with the end of the war; it continued in war-ravaged England until 1954. The staff at the Ministry of Food, Marguerite included, gave demonstrations in Britain Food Advice Centers, as well as in market squares, hospital out patient departments, in large stores or any other place where they came into contact with people. Marguerite went on to write something like over 500 cookbooks and is still going strong.
“The Victory Cookbook” by Marguerite Patten, published in 1995, provides recipes for things people were eating during the war – including a sheep’s head recipe. You and I might be groaning ew, ew, (oops, no pun intended!) but people starving in Great Britain for a piece of meat were probably very happy to get a sheep’s head (and didn’t ask where the rest of it went).
The point being, if a person is hungry enough they will eat almost anything.
Another interesting British cookbook is something titled “OUR OF THE FRYING PAN” with a subtitle, “Seven Women Who Changes the Course of postwar cookery” by Hazel Castell and Kathleen Griffin. One of the recipes provided by Marguerite Patten was for Oatmeal Sausages. During the war, oatmeal and rolled oats were unrationed foods and consequently used in many recipes. The oatmeal sausages DID have 2 ounces of meat or sausages or bacon chopped into it, but the bulk of the recipe was oatmeal. One can only surmise that all of Britain’s subjects didn’t suffer from a lack of fiber. I doubt anyone was constipated.
And on this side of the pond, there were (and still are) Rocky Mountain Oysters. Cowboys were willing to eat almost anything including Rocky Mountain Oysters, aka prairie oysters, or cowboy caviar. All are considered cowboy delicacies.
Rocky mountain oysters are that part of the bull that is removed in his youth so that he may be easier to get along with, become meatier, and behave less masculine. When the calves are branded, the testicles are cut off and thrown in a bucket of water. They are then peeled, washed, rolled in flour and pepper, and fried in a pan. Like any other organ meats, testicles may be cooked in a variety of ways – deep-fried whole, cut into broad, thin slices, or marinated. At roundups in the old West, cowboys and ranch hands tossed the meat on a hot iron stove. When they exploded they were thought to be done.
FYI–Eating animal genitalia dates back to ancient Roman times, when it was believed that eating a healthy animal’s organ might correct some ailment in the corresponding human organ of the male person eating it. Because of this belief, the practice continues to the present day, especially in Asia, where animal genitalia are considered an aphrodisiac.
And, for that matter, I think many Indian tribes had the same belief.
So, before I close, here is a recipe for:
Rocky Mountain Oysters Recipe
2 pounds calf testicles*
2 cups beer
2 eggs, beaten
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup yellow cornmea1
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce
* Ask your butcher for calf testicles, not bull testicles. Calf testicles are the size of a walnut and are more tender than the larger bull testicles.
**Also you want to use enough vegetable oil to fill your frying container halfway to the top (to allow for bubbling up and splattering) and to completely cover calf testicles while frying. With a very sharp knife, split the tough skin-like muscle that surrounds each testicle. Remove the skin (you can remove the skin easily if the testicles are frozen, then peel while thawing). Slice each testicle into approximately 1/4- to 1/2-inch-thick ovals. Place slices in a large pan or blow with enough beer to cover them; cover and let sit 2 hours.
In a shallow bowl, combine eggs, flour, cornmeal, salt, and pepper. Remove testicles from beer; drain and dredge thoroughly in the flour mixture. In a large, deep pot, heat oil to 375 degrees F. Deep fry 3 minutes or until golden brown (will rise to the surface when done). Drain on paper towels.
Serve warm with your favorite hot pepper sauce.
Personally, I can’t imagine asking my butcher for a couple of pounds of testicles. Ok, go out and buy a chicken. And consider this: many people claim that rattle snake tastes a lot like chicken. Ew, ew.
Or –Let’s just have hamburgers for dinner tonight, ok?