The Gelded Age: Eating Mountain Oysters by Necessity

How ecstatic am I that another opportunity to discuss Basque shepherds has presented itself? The New York Times reported this week on one of the hottest occurrences in Virginia City, Nev. -- an annual mountain oyster fryfest that locals have dubbed "the testicle festival."

I'm sure you've heard of mountain oysters before. They're testicles from freshly gelded livestock, particularly young sheep and cows. At the testicle festival (formally named the International Comstock Mountain Oyster Fry), the specialty is served up several different ways. Writer Patricia Leigh Brown relates that they're usually fried in cornmeal but can also be served in eggs and sushi or topped with bordelaise sauce.

Before you gag and click the back button or dismiss this as a joke, consider this. The dish that's a tradition now used to be an absolute necessity. In the 19th century, Basque shepherds flooded parts of the American West and subsisted on what was available. Usually, that meant sheep and cows...and hungry ranchers utilized every bit of those animals. What's more, castrating male animals renders them more docile and their flesh more palatable. Brown cites longtime Nevada resident Liz Chabot, who's been a part of the mountain oyster-eating culture for years. Chabot explains, "Generally, after a mountain oyster feed, there were no leftovers. It was a celebration...Of course, it wasn't a social event for the calves."

If you're thinking of trying a mountain oyster, heed this pearl of wisdom from another Nevada native: They don't taste like chicken. Still hungry? A cursory glance at a list of strange mammalian dishes on reveals that our far-flung friends around the world enjoy monkey toes, calf's head, blood dumplings, bats and even placenta.

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