by Newt Harlan
I wonder why it is when we are trying to describe the taste of something unfamiliar or even exotic, that more often than not the taste is described as "a lot like chicken"? As a result of my East Texas oilfield trash and Cajun heritage plus my many travels, there aren't very many things I haven't eaten or at least sampled, especially if it's meat. I recall many times when talking with folks prior to tasting something I'd curiously inquire, "What's it taste like?" The answer, usually after a pause for thought, invariably was, "It tastes like chicken . . ." or "You know, the closest thing I can think of is chicken." Perhaps the fact that many of the more exotic things that we eat in the South are prepared by "chicken frying" gives rise to a lot of the "tastes like chicken" comparisons.
Some of the things that were described to me as tasting like chicken, and what they actually tasted like:
* Rattlesnake - Lots of bone and little meat, and what little meat there was tasted like cotton that had been seasoned, battered and fried. When I chewed it, it seemed to get bigger and bigger, just like a ball of cotton.
* Rabbit and squirrel - These taste like what they are, rabbit tastes like rabbit and squirrel like squirrel, and if you haven't tasted them by this point in your life, there's not a lot of hope for you in the "exotic" food department. I will say that neither taste remotely like chicken.
* Frog legs - These delicacies are excellent fried, broiled or grilled. I suppose that with a big stretch of imagination they could be described as slightly fishy chicken, only sweeter and juicier.
* Armadillo - Tastes exactly like armadillo. The only way I've ever had it is barbecued, and if I can't use the armadillo description, I suppose it is closest to pork, hence the name from the depression era, "Hoover hog."
* Alligator - If you can imagine a slightly muddy, fishy venison or beef . . . I've eaten some fried pieces that did taste like chicken gizzards.
* Turtle - A turtle supposedly has something like seven distinctively different kinds of meat. I've eaten it in turtle soup and sauce piquant and my taste buds identified several of them . . . fish, pork, shrimp, kind of like frog legs and yes, even chicken.
* Jackrabbit - Tastes like I imagine a three-year-old boot sole cooked with fresh cowsh** still on it would taste.
* Coon - Best I can do is gamey, wild, fatty, somewhat chewy pork.
* Monkey - Real similar to squirrel and rabbit, but with bigger pieces of meat. I've only eaten it in a stew and that was at a survival school where I can't vouch for what my taste buds thought.
* Mountain oysters, calf fries, turkey fries - These all taste a little like fried oysters, and a little like something else, but absolutely nothing like chicken.
Recalling these "tastes like chicken" things brings to mind a couple of stories where this or a similar description came into play.
Many years ago, while on a sales trip to Louisiana, a friend and customer, knowing how much I liked frog legs, gave me two 10 lb. bags that were cleaned and frozen, just waiting to be thawed, seasoned up, battered and fried.
Since nobody could cook frog legs better than my mama, I headed straight for her house when I got back to town. We put the bags in her freezer and she said that she'd cook up one of them the following Sunday for daddy, Miss Edie, our three daughters and me.
The girls at that time were elementary and pre-teens and were pretty selective about what they ate (still are for that matter). Their tastes ran primarily to meat and potatoes and junk food, however all three of them liked fried chicken. Knowing full well that I could never convince them to even try frog legs, I concocted a story that Neno (kid's name for grandma) was fixing some "special chicken" that was only legs, but was white and juicy just the way they liked it.
Well, they bought into my story and on Sunday we polished off 10 lbs. of frog legs with all the trimmings. The girls loved them and even had seconds and thirds which was highly unusual for them on anything except dessert. When we finished, there was nothing left of the frog legs except a pile of bones.
Since the girls had enjoyed the "special chicken" so much, about three weeks later we decided to do it again, only this time I made a big mistake. On the trip out to Mama's house my conscience started bothering me about the "special chicken" white lie I'd told my daughters. Since they'd gobbled up the frog legs so much the first time, I figured it wouldn't matter if I told them the truth about what they were actually eating. Wrong!
Their only reaction upon finding out the truth was a chorus of "YUCK" in young female voices. I tried explaining that where something came from or what it was called, made no difference; if you liked it, you liked it. Didn't work.
They did agree to at least try the frog legs, and they did, about one small bite each. The consensus was that they were yucky. Their Sunday dinner that day was French fries and salad and whatever Mama had cooked for dessert. There were plenty of leftover frog legs for me to eat on for the rest of the week and I don't think any of my daughters have even tried frog legs since.
Apparently frog legs definitely don't taste like chicken, although in spite of all I've said thus far, there is a certain damnyankee woman who probably still thinks that alligator does, well sort of --
Several years ago I had a client whose home office was up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They had a field office over in Beaumont, and about three or four times a year the purchasing manager would come down to check out things in that office. Jake and I had grown to be pretty good business friends over the years, and I always made it a point to take him to lunch or dinner when he was in town.
On one trip Jake's wife Hilda accompanied him, and I invited them to join me for dinner that evening at the Boondocks, which I knew was one of Jake's favorite places to eat in the area. The Boondocks was out in the boondocks on Hildebrand Bayou, just off Jap Road, about twenty miles southwest of Beaumont. It was an excellent place to eat, famous for its fried catfish and chicken fried steak.
I picked them up at the appointed time, and we made an uneventful trip out of town to the restaurant. When we arrived, the parking lot was full, and there was a ten-minute wait to be seated. Jake and Hilda enjoyed the wait by feeding dry dog food to the alligators waiting in the bayou below the deck and seeing the "wild" raccoons and other animals that congregated on the banks under the lights for their handout.
Soon we were seated and ordered a round of cocktails. The waitress inquired if we wanted any appetizers, and I ordered a large sampler platter of gator toes, armadillo eggs and cowboy caviar. Hilda seemed puzzled at my choices and after the waitress left said, "I know what alligator toes are, but I didn't know that armadillos laid eggs, and what the hell is cowboy caviar?" I suppressed my natural urge to make up some BS and truthfully told her that armadillo eggs were deep-fried stuffed and battered jalapeno peppers and that cowboy caviar was a kind of relish-like dish made with black-eyed peas, chopped onions, jalapenos and several other ingredients. Since she hadn't asked about the gator toes, I didnít bother to describe how they were made.
We sipped our drinks and made small talk until Hilda asked me, "Just what does alligator taste like?" Before I could answer, she said smugly, "I suppose you're going to tell me it tastes just like chicken." I told her she could just taste for herself, since the waitress had arrived with the platter of appetizers.
Hilda tried the cowboy caviar on a cracker and declared that although she didn't normally eat peas in any form, that this was pretty good, but very spicy. Then she tried the armadillo eggs and marveled at the cream cheese, crab and shrimp mixture stuffed in the jalapeno, although this too was very spicy. Luckily, the jalapenos were pretty mild that night. She took a long drink from her cocktail and seemed hesitant to try the gator toes until Jake finally asked her if she was going to try them and see what alligator tastes like. She said she was, but had to get up her nerve since it just didn't seem right to eat something like alligator. Finally, she picked one up with her fork and tasted it thoughtfully. Then she tried another and another and another, until she'd eaten about all the pieces on the platter. I asked her if she'd like me to order more, but she grinned and said that she'd better save some room for her fish.
I took a drink of Scotch and asked her, "Well, Hilda, what does alligator taste like?" She thought for a long minute, and then smiled and said, "It tastes a lot like chicken, but it was very spicy."
Jake's company was bought out soon after that and he retired and never came back down here, so I never had to tell him or Hilda that "gator toes" as served at the Boondocks were actually chicken breast strips seasoned with Cajun spices, battered and deep-fried.
Newt tells us about himself:
I was born, raised and educated in Texas. With the exception of a few brief sojourns and the 4 years during the Vietnam Era that I spent riding around on airplanes courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, I've spent the more than 65 years of my life within spittin' distance of the place where I grew up. I managed to cram a four-year college degree into nine years and by virtue of that remarkable feat, I am a former student of six different schools, which sure helps the odds of rooting for a winner in sporting events. The academic standards committee had a moment of weakness and I was the fortunate recipient of a degree from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
I'm Southern to the bone. The sound of ďDixieĒ being played gives me goose bumps and I stand and remove my hat. My yard dog, B.J., controls the squirrels, cats, meter readers and peddlers around my place. Iíve picked cotton by hand, plowed behind a mule, churned butter, shelled back-eyed peas, and for the first 12 years of my life, went without shoes from April until October. Several of my friends regularly hold conversations with mules, but as of yet I canít get the danged mules to answer me. I think grits are as much a part of breakfast as bacon, eggs and cathead biscuits. I think ainít is a perfectly good word and donít plan to quit using it just because some damnyankee dictionary writer arbitrarily thinks it ainít.
I've been married for 30-some odd years and have beaucoup kids and grandkids. I'm now retired after having spent the better part of the past 37 years traveling around Texas, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Alabama, trying to sell steel products. My hobbies, in no particular order, include writing, grandkids, hunting, fishing and visiting the local watering hole to swap honest lies and research material for stories.
Want to read more of Newtís stories at USADEEPSOUTH? Click these links:
Olí Red and the Armadillo
Telephones and memories
Belly Waddin' Lunch
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