OK. So these are the kinds of things your mother doesn’t warn you about when you grow up in the city. I was warned about not talking to strangers, checking the back seat before opening the car when in underground parking, and not walking alone down deserted streets after dark. I was not warned about what I might be offered for dinner at a cattle branding party!
“Testicles anyone?” was not something I ever imagined I’d hear over the dinner table. Now I will admit to being a pretty finicky eater. In fact, what I might have to eat is something that helped me choose where I would (and would not) do my fieldwork for my Anthropology Degree. Knowing I would never be able to choke down insects limited the scope of possibilities substantially. My mother will confirm this and bore anyone who will listen with stories of how for the first few years of my life she thought I would starve to death because there was very little I would eat!
Now, here I am in the middle of Alberta being offered a ‘delicacy’, the thought of which turns my stomach. “Prairie Oyster Kristeva?” asks Dennis, who has changed out of his chaps and into a clean pair of jeans, but is now shirtless and being affectionately referred to as ‘The Naked Chef’. When I politely try to decline Jeff’s ears ring from across the lawn. He leaps to his feet and charges over, “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding! I tried your goat.”
Somehow, I think that is different.
Desperate to get out of this, I turn to ‘Grandma Ella’. Now in her mid-eighties, she is matriarch of this ranching family. She doesn’t eat prairie oysters, never has, never will. But I quickly realize it’s a battle I’m not going to win. Not even ‘Grandma Ella’ will come to my rescue!
By this stage in the proceedings several sets of expectant eyes are on me, and I cave. “OK, I’ll try one. Just one!” With a healthy dose of trepidation, I peer over the plate in front of me. I am shocked to see they look quite appetizing–that is, if you don’t consider from whence they came. The tender little morsels are glistening with fat and spread out neatly on the plate amidst fried onions. A waft of warm air heavy with garlic and spices rises up before me. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I’m being offered testicles on a plate.
To help muster some courage I think about the politics of food, the ultimate sacrifice those poor little calves made only a few hours ago, and the starving millions around the world. “At least I know they are fresh!” I say as I reach for my first prairie oyster. There is an unconscious little whimper emitted as I bite down on the testicle (it’s what you don’t see in the photos).
I’m still whimpering as I chew and try not to think about what it is I am eating.
The look on my face betrays the fact that I’m losing the battle of keeping the flashes of the morning’s activities at bay as I ponder the texture with my tongue. Texture is big for me when it comes to food. The prairie oyster reminds me of small breakfast sausages, of which I’m not all that fond.
“I see you’ve got the emergency water bottle handy just in case,” Dennis laughs while watching me eat. “Not to mention the ‘whiskey back’,” I reply, raising my red cup up to toast the occasion (I’ve had a few shots to bolster my courage). As I chew, the delicate flavour mingles in my mouth and over-shadows my misgivings. Much to my chagrin, I have to admit that they actually taste pretty darn good and–although it may have been the whiskey talking–I actually reach for seconds. I don’t, however, let go of my whiskey!
Besides the prairie oysters, we do have roast beef. These folks have a grand facility replete with butchering shop that will hold about 25 cattle beasts at one time for aging. We head on in to do the de-boning. Actually, Jeff did all the work while the rest of us onlookers ensured a suitable level of general harassment was kept up.
“It was a plan that was hatched at about 3:30 am one night in a state of utter debauchery,” Dennis tells me shaking his head. Then looking up, he swept his arm around the facility, “But we were all here the next day working on it!” The fellows are proud of this establishment, and who wouldn’t be. “You know, we can have an elk on the ground, then butchered, cut, and wrapped in a matter of hours,” Dennis continues, highlighting the various merits of the facility. “For example, this leg has been aged in the back cooler for 25 days,” he says, pointing to the leg Jeff is working on.
Suddenly Jeff looked up, “What, here? In this facility…. oh, we’re taking our chances,” he says, then winks at me. He’s already elbow deep in the work of de-boning yet manages to participate in the camaraderie around the room.
There are recipes and tall stories shared in order to work up an appetite:
“Hey Doug, can I get some of your special brine while I’m here?” someone asks.
“Sure, I’ll make you some right now.”
“Oh. Can I get the actual recipe off you, or is it a family secret?”
“Yep, but you can’t tell Jeff I gave it to you.”
“Cuz it’s actually his family’s recipe and he doesn’t know I have it!”
Thanks to the people at the ranch and their generous, inclusive spirit, the weekend was not only enlightening but also a lot of fun. The weather was fantastic, the ranch was beautiful, the jobs were turned into entertainment. A good time was had by this little cowgirl. I got to experience some real Canadian ranch life–I even got to sleep in a horse trailer. Now how is that for an authentic cowhand experience!