Sunday, October 16, 2011

Swinging Beef

Some say castrating a calf is a matter of taste.
Some do is slowly and others in haste.
Some gently saw, while others pull
While making a steer out of a bull.

The cowboy poet Lloyd Gerber, who recently died in Washington, DC at age 87, was once invited to read a poem on “The Tonight Show” when it was still hosted by Johnny Carson. He chose to read “It’s a Matter of Taste” - about cowboys castrating young lambs by biting off their testicles. Needless to say, Gerber got the attention of Johnny and his audience that evening. Although I have never personally bitten the testicles off a lamb or any other animal living or dead, I have seen it done. Furthermore, I must confess that I very much enjoy a properly prepared dish of ‘lamb fries” or “Rocky Mountain Oysters” a.k.a. bull calf testicles (frequently called “prairie oyster” up in Canada).

I am presently in Gainesville, Florida, in the heart of some of the best cattle country east of the Mississippi River. And although mountain or prairie oysters, as well as lamb fries, are not as popular as they are out west, seeing the beef cattle roaming the local ranches reminded me of Mr. Gerber’s poem and my own enjoyment of a well-prepared plate of assorted nuts.

Being from the Midwest, known more for its dairy herds than beef cattle, I never had an opportunity to savor these delicacies. This does not mean that farmers did not castrate their bulls and sheep. My grandfather did, but for some reason the thought of “peeling” the now detached testicles (removing the outer membrane), flattening them with a heavy spatula, and then dredging them in flour (why some call them “dusted nuts”) and deep frying them to a golden brown perfection, was not high on his list of priorities. Given me a good steak any day!

My father-in-law worked on Florida cattle ranches for years and was personally involved in the castrating of young bulls. The wife of one of his men would prepare a bucket of balls and he would eat and enjoy them, according to my mother-in-law who could never quite get her head around the idea of what they are and where they come from. My wife was young and does not recall ever trying them. But I know from personal experience that you will not find them on the menus of Florida restaurants, at least none that I have ever been to and I have been to a few. And what would you call them? Sewannee River Dumplings? Panhandle Pancakes? Florida is famous for its Apalachicola oysters, but these are real oysters. So you get the idea.

Attending graduate school at the University of Arizona, one of my colleagues lived on the large Robles Ranch, in the foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains southwest of the city. We enjoyed leaving our studies behind and heading into the desert to party and more than once I attended a large barbeque at the ranch featuring local beef. It was at once such party that I was introduced to, and consumed for the first time, a rather large plate of rocky mountain oysters served with homemade hot sauce. Funny what tequila will do to such a young and impressionable mind. All kidding aside, I actually liked them; I liked them very much. Now don’t turn your nose up until you have tried them. They taste a lot like chicken. No they don’t. They taste exactly like what they are. After we left Tucson for Maryland, my tastes turned toward Chesapeake oysters (again, real oysters) and crabs, and I had little opportunity to remain a gonad gourmand.

More recently my wife and I took an extensive road trip through the Great Plains from Nebraska to Montana and back. I was not surprised to frequently find RMOs on the menu. Finally, on a snowy afternoon in Deadwood, South Dakota, sitting in the same saloon where Wild Bill Hitchcock was shot in the back and killed, my wife and I sat at the bar and I order a large plate. Sally Ann had never tried them, had never even seen them cooked. When the bartender brought them out and placed them before me along with a mug of cold beer, Sally Ann commented that they looked a lot like popcorn shrimp (they do a little) and asked why they weren’t round. “So they won’t roll off the plate,” the bartender and I answered in unison. They were as good as I remembered while dipping them in a tasty ranch dressing. Lloyd Gerber was correct. “It is a matter of taste.” I think they taste just fine.

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