The Roman emperor Vitellius (15–69 A.D.) was famous for dinners that strained both the imperial budget and the palates of his guests: one menu, which doubtlessly sent his Navy scrambling far and wide, featured pike livers, flamingo tongues, lamprey roe, and pheasant brains. Imagine the reactions of the chefs faced with preparing such exotic fare for their Gluttonous Lordship, bouncing their knives nervously in calloused hands, murmuring, “What the heck is this?” (Quis heck est?), and, “If we mess up, we’ll be crucified at dawn” (very roughly: Si nos nuntius sursum, nos ero iuguolo prima luce).
Today’s chefs can experiment with all manner of curious foodstuffs without fear of gruesomely inventive execution (middling reviews in influential newspapers and websites are another story, of course). Experimentation on the eater’s part, however, can sometimes take a little courage. How else to explain my hesitation several years back, at the First Annual Unique and Unusual Food and Wine Festival in Washington DC, as I held aloft a fried calf testicle hot out of the oil?
“They’ve been eating animal testicles for centuries,” Russel Cunningham, executive chef of the then-extant Dupont Grille and preparer of that crispy morsel, told me as I considered the nugget in my hand. “When you peel the membrane off, actually, they look just like foie gras.”
To swallow or not to swallow: that is sometimes the question. Television is filled with shows where the intrepid culinary adventurer, comically outdated guide-book in hand, ventures into the Heart of Darkness in order to taste something far outside their experience, be it marinated kangaroo or yak meat. They grimace for the camera as they chew down a fragrant morsel, making you laugh. But how hard can it really be, you may wonder at those moments, to simply open wide and guzzle down?
Very hard, sometimes. Think of it as the difference between watching someone run across hot coals, and having to put your own soles to the test; as a famous poet once wrote, a shadow can exist between the idea and the reality, the emotion and the response. Sometimes that shadow is as wide as the four inches between your mouth and whatever’s in your hand.
Anyway, back to the testicles. “They’re about this big to start,” Cunningham added, cupping an imaginary lump in his palm. “Then you poach, and peel the membrane, cut in half and slice. It shrinks when you cook it.” He had readied ten pounds’ worth for that night’s event.
Fried calf testicles have earned a number of nicknames over the years, of course: rocky mountain oysters, calf fries, dusted nuts, cowboy caviar, Montana tendergroins, swinging beef, and, in Spanish, huevos de toro,which translates to “bull’s eggs.” The proliferation of euphemisms, well, it’s pretty nutty. And so are some of the festivals, with names like Testy Festy, that have sprung up over the decades, drawing in hundreds of people who want to try out some of that “cowboy caviar” for themselves.
Not all chefs opt to deep-fry testicles; other recipes allow for broiling, poaching, grilling, and even mixing with stir-fry. As Cunningham mentioned, Cultures across the world have eaten testicles for centuries—our good friend Vitellius probably chowed down on several—and it’s a protein-rich way to dispose of a necessary byproduct of the castration process (which itself is done for a variety of reasons, including herd control). Picture some ancient farmer standing there with a freshly harvested lump in his hand, thinking: “Hey, maybe we should try eating this.”
Regard it as an oyster, went my thinking as I paused… paused… paused— and then popped that testicle onto my tongue.
Chew, my brain ordered my jaw.
No, really chew.
Good. Now chew some more.
It actually does taste a little like an oyster, I realized, as my brain negotiated with my taste buds for some point of flavor reference. Not nearly as briny or juicy, but certainly reminiscent of seafood —especially calamari, in terms of texture as well as taste. And like calamari, it goes well with various dipping sauces.
My broader epiphany was that fried calf testicles were actually quite good. I’ll paraphrase Anthony Bourdain’s own comment on gonad-eating: If said fare were available on a typical menu under a totally innocuous name, they would be a hit anywhere. (Bourdain is also an Olympic finalist when it comes to unusual foods: he’s sampled everything from maggot-fried rice to raw seal eyeballs.)
In subsequent years, at other festivals and events, I’ve had the opportunity to sample rocky mountain oysters again, which has just reconfirmed my initial impressions. And virtually every time I‘ve had one, at a table with other dishes available, an eater beside me has inevitably opted to eat something like the smoked duck or the fried squash blossom instead.
As the old saying goes, do something once, and you find it easier the next time. My experience with fried calf testicles made me more interested in trying other unusual foods, although some of these experiments have gone better than others (my attempt at digesting “terrine de tête de veau,” which involves a calf’s head, was not a success, despite its excellent preparation). There’s been rattlesnake gumbo; ostrich leg; Caribbean tripe stew with grilled bananas; veal cheek; crocodile tail (slightly tough in texture yet succulent and smoky in its poultry-like taste); fried grasshoppers in a taco; and llama burgers (light and airy in texture, yet strongly reminiscent of beef).
You might view this kind of eating as the culinary equivalent of that hot-coal walk, or leaping off a high bridge with a bungee cord wrapped around your ankles: the sudden exposure to the new and unknown that sets the brain’s nucleus accumbens crackling like a lightning rod in a thunderstorm, freeing dopamine and endorphins to speak in their rough, bubbling poetry. It can become addictive: Vitellius, drowned continually in the pleasures of the known world, needing to push his gastronomic horizons in order to keep those brain chemicals flowing. Not that the typical person will ever reach such heights (or depths); but eating every what-the-heck-is-this that arrives on your plate is often a quest worth pursuing.
Your nucleus accumbens, and its thirst for adventure,demands nothing less.