Billy Holliday sang a very serious song about the South called “Strange Fruit.” Let me offer you silly prose about strange meat. Put away your copy of Julia Child — she didn’t write a recipe for this stuff. In Mississippi, these venerable customs persist among sportsmen, and the resultant cuisine is astonishing.
The principal at my step-daughter’s school told me that gator hunting season has commenced. To Yankees, the idea doesn’t cross our minds of looking at an alligator and not thinking so much that it toothsomely wants to eat us, but instead to say, “That thang shore would taste nice in a jambalaya tonight!”
For two weeks in Mississippi, particularly, I am told, at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, it’s open season on alligators. Men go out with rifles in boats and shoot the superabundant alligators that lurk in the marshy waters. To my knowledge, no one in Mississippi has ever bagged a gator with a ticking stomach, like Captain Hook‘s nemesis gator had in Peter Pan. It is rather the ticking in the hunters’ stomach, or perhaps the growling, that motivates this hunt, at least in part. They drag the body of these big gators one at a time into small row boats and paddle back to shore to skin and cook.
I imagine the shoes, the bags, but steaks? Gumbo?
They say it tastes just like chicken. No thank you. I’ll stick to chicken.
No, this does not mean a French band is playing somewhere. Frog gigging is a local custom along the Mississippi River. It hardly seems fair.
Let me say first that Mississippi has no shortage of frogs and toads. These are not rare Costa Rican tree frogs we’re talking about, with delicate sensitivity to the environment. One day, I was picking up a shirt my husband had discarded outside so that I could wash it, and a giant bull frog leapt out of it into my face. I screamed, and it hopped into the large irrigation ditch that runs through our property. My dog often catches them and eats them. Frogs are everywhere, under cars, leaping out of laundry, right by your big toe wherever you walk.
However, I have mixed feelings about something that local men here do (I know of no women) called frog gigging. They go out at about 4 am on the river (again, in the same gator-hunting row boat) shine a bright light in the face of these many frogs, who remain motionless because they are stunned by the bright light, and the frog giggers stab them with pitch forks. They eat the frogs’ legs, usually barbecuing them.
It may not mean that a French band is playing somewhere, but I nonetheless blame the French for frog gigging. This is a Cajun custom — I live on the edge of Cajun country here. I have never been so fond of cuisses de grenouille that I would consider them a delicacy.
Again, give me cuisses de poule a la Lyonnaise. If it tastes anything at all like chicken, just give me chicken.
Catfish is a staple food along the Mississippi. Catfish is not really exotic at all. However, when the catfish is not, say, ten inches long but a good yard or more — that’s exotic.
I am told, again by my step-daughter’s high school principal, that such a beast — a 50-pound catfish, can’t be caught with a line. The waters where catfish can be found, unlike deep sea fishing, are too shallow for the physics to work in the fisherman’s favor. There’s only one way to get one of those hefty muthahs — you need to get into the muck yourself with the bottom feeders and yank them squirming into that gator-hunting-frog-gigging-stank rowboat. You need to stick your fingers into the dark silt of the river, in the shallows, and draw them through the dirt until you feel something animate. It might be a catfish — it might be something far less edible, and you have to grab onto it and wrestle with it until it becomes yours.
This, by the way, is how my whole life feels in Mississippi — like my fingers are down in the muck, and I’m trying to wrestle with something that might be wonderful, might be horrible, but I still can’t see it. It’s trying to get away from me, whatever it is, but I’m hanging on as well as I can in the slick filth. I’m covered with mud. I’ll never get this shirt the way it was in New York. I’m fighting in the dark, but I might just be winning.
That catfish you wrestled with, neighbor, I would gladly eat a slice of that, once it’s cleaned. I recommend hosing the rowboat down daily, though, maybe with with bleach as well as water. It has held some strange quarry in its belly.
If I eat the catch of the day here, I suppose it’s bound to be strange, just like my life down South is strange. There is a clock ticking in my stomach. There is surely a clock ticking somewhere — I thought I heard it just now.