My mom and I are standing in her driveway, staring into the back of her new boyfriend’s pickup truck.
“Yup, them’s gonna make a good mountain oyster feed,” the new boyfriend, Loren, says with obvious pride.
In the bed of his truck, a mound of raw, frozen bull testicles lay bundled in gallon-sized freezer bags. Each freezer bag holds about four pounds of mountain oysters, which amounts to about eight testicles per bag, all in all several hundred pounds of testicles. I’m not sure if I’m more disgusted by the magnitude of meat or by the fact that calling bull testicles “meat” might not be the right term.
It’s August, so it’s hot, and the testicles are thawing. Loren pokes a bag. “Them are about perfect. You don’t want ‘em to defrost all the way before you skin ‘em.”
Most of the bags ooze a little blood. The testicles themselves look prehistoric, egg-like, perhaps something a pterodactyl might have laid, spidered with reddish-purple veins. They are huge and round and oval like a baked potato with an overactive pituitary gland.
It’s hard to imagine anyone eating just one, let alone the whole truckload.
“How many people will be there?” I ask.
“Oh, ‘bout a hundred,” Loren replies. Loren possesses the pièce de résistance of the Sherman County Sale Barn’s Annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Feed. This is a free event, mostly I think, because no one would actually pay to eat bull balls. But actually, it’s a popular event, a place for the men and women who buy and sell livestock to see and be seen.
“I better get going. We’ve gotta clean ‘em yet. Get all the shit and hair off. When we start frying ‘em up, people will eat ‘em as fast as we can make ‘em.”
* * *
I’d like to think I’m open-minded, but on this particular visit to central Nebraska to see my mom, my limits are being tested. When your parents divorce when you’re an adult, the most traumatic part of the aftermath is when they begin dating again. It’s hard enough to accept that my mother is going out to bars to meet men, let alone to accept that some of these men are creepy enough to glorify the virtues of cattle gonads.
Loren is probably the closest thing I’ll meet to an America cowboy. If you ask him what he does for a living, he’ll tell you he feeds cattle, which means he works in a feedlot. While most cows are born on pastured ranches, they spend their last few months of their lives confined to a feedlot, eating an intensely rich, corn-based diet. They put on weight (and fat) fast, which produces the heavily marbled beef most Americans love so much.
When the young bulls get to the feed lot, many of them haven’t been castrated yet. It’s important to castrate them because a castrated bull, or steer, not only gains weight quicker, but is more docile in crowded feedlot conditions than if he still had his huevos.
When Loren castrates a new bunch of cattle, he keeps the testicles and freezes them. In a year, he’ll have hundreds, enough to feed the whole sale barn community. Testicles are scraps. They aren’t marketable. No one at the feed lot cares about this part of the beef. No one except Loren.
Rocky Mountain Oysters, which are also known under the pseudonyms of prairie oysters, mountain tendergroins, cowboy caviar, swinging beef, or calf fries, are offal. The term offal descended from a Germanic word “abfall,” which means “garbage” or literally “fall-off,” which neatly describes all variety meats, the stuff that falls off the butcher’s table unwanted and unloved.
* * *
When I go back home to Idaho where I’m a grad student, I resolve not to worry about my mother and Loren. Mom’s an adult. She seems to be happy. I live thousands of miles away, and if she and Loren want to eat bull testicles, then so be it. I never have to take a bite, if I don’t want to.
In the next year, though, things change. Sometimes, people and ideas just stick around. Loren has staying power in my mom’s life, and the mountain oysters, and other offal, have stayed in mine. It’s rather like refusing recreational drugs. Unquenched curiosity turns to regret. It’s like asking yourself over and over, “What if I would have taken that hit of acid? That tab of ecstasy?”
So I begin working offal, like chicken liver pâté, into my cooking repertoire.
For class projects, I learn how to cook a hog’s head, which is delicious, and kidney stew, which is not. Eating offal is a mind-opening experience. Each of these cooking projects gives me a little rush. I can’t believe I’m eating this. I should be grossed out, but this is yummy, I think as I tear a piece of pork cheek off the hog’s skull.
By the time I visit Nebraska again, I call ahead, asking my mom if Loren can get me some mountain oysters. I must try them. I must learn to cook cattle testicles, if only to say that I’ve done it.
On the phone Loren asks, “How many you want? 10 pounds be enough?”
“Yes, that will be more than plenty.”
The first thing to keep in mind when cooking and eating mountain oysters is that beef testicles taste nothing like beef. To say testicles “taste like chicken,” doesn’t do them justice either even though fried beef testicles are chewy like a good chicken nugget and have a slight undertone of chicken liver. The most difficult part of preparing rocky mountain oysters is procuring them. Check with a reputable butcher, or buy online. However, buying online may be pricey; expect to pay about $12/lb. Also, depending on where you live, you might consider putting an ad on Craigslist. I’ve had great success finding fresh offal from hobby farmers and amateur butchers I found on Craigslist, and many will give you the offal “garbage” for free.
Herb-Marinated Rocky Mountain Oysters
serves 4 people as a main dish or 8 people as an appetizer
2 lbs. beef testicles
1 cup white wine vinegar
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup Italian parsley, minced
¼ cup fresh tarragon, minced
¼ cup fresh thyme, minced
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 small onion, sliced
1 teaspoon salt
fresh ground pepper to taste
1 egg, beaten
flour for dredging
To prepare testicles:
Most likely when you get bull testicles they will still be attached to the scrotum. It is best to work with the testicles while they are still frozen, as the meat is very delicate and likely to tear if thawed. To remove the testicles from the scrotum, slit the tough, membrane from top to bottom lengthwise with a sharp knife. Take care not to cut too deeply, or you will slice into the testicle. Then, working your thumbs underneath the skin, pull the membrane completely away from the testicle. Cut the peeled testicles crosswise, into slices about ¼ inch thick.
To prepare the marinade:
Combine vinegar, olive oil, herbs, garlic, onion, salt and pepper in a shallow dish. Add sliced testicles, and let marinate, refrigerated, for 8 to 16 hours.
Add vegetable oil to a skillet until it is about 1 inch deep. Heat over high heat.
Remove testicles from marinade. (It’s okay if bits of minced herb cling to the testicles.) Dip in beaten egg. And dredge in flour. Fry for about 5 minutes, or until breading is a deep golden color, turning once.
Drain on paper towels.
Serve hot with Dijon mustard and mayonnaise.
Sarah Lenz holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and a MA in Literature from Boise State University. She teaches English at the University of Findlay in Ohio. When not cooking offal, she spends her time blogging at Prose and Potatoes (www.proseandpotatoes.blogspot.com) and raising backyard chickens.