Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
“… Well they stretched him out and they tailed him down
While the irons were growing hot,
And he got his old hide sizzled and his
Long horns chiseled in the most artistic way.
Well they swallow-forked his ears,
Tied knots in his tail for a joke,
Then they went off and left him there
Necked up to a blackjack oak.
Now when you’re high in the Sierry Petes
And you hear one hell of a wail,
You know it ain’t nothin but the Devil himself
With the knots tied in his tail.”
The above approximation comes from the poem “The Sierry Petes” by Gail Gardner, and takes place in the Sierra Prieta Mountains near Prescott, Ariz. A couple of drunken cowboys, on their way home from Whiskey Row, roped the Devil and gave him his due, what with the branding, the earmarks, the dehorning and the knots tied in his tail.
But, as any good cowpoke can tell you, they forgot to castrate him. Oops. Cut the nuts off that Prince of Darkness prima donna and maybe he wouldn’t whine so much about the knots in his tail. Now, if your stomach is tough, bear with me, for edible offal of the testicular sort is where I’m headed with this, but it’s a challenging segue.
Rocky Mountain Oysters some call them, the removed testicles of bull calves, prepared as a delicacy of the West. Kind of like cooking up breaded venison or fried chicken: The recipes aren’t too complex, although more than a few world-renowned chefs have lent their stamp to several appetizing creations.
You can get them fresh off the calves at branding, usually immediately fried over the fire that heats the branding irons, or they might be saved and cooked up later as part of the thank-you feast for all the folks who helped get the young beef branded. Slaughterhouses the world over save mature bull gonads for sale to supermarkets or specialty shops. If you don’t see them on the butcher’s shelves, just ask – he’ll order them for you.
Huevos de Toro, cowboy caviar, Colorado tender groins, dusted nuts, swinging beef, bull fries, calf fries, prairie oysters, it’s all the same body part served at what is generally called a “nut fry,” replete with plenty of beer and whiskey. In Japan, such testicular treats are thought to be aphrodisiacs, and the Spanish believe they confer bravery and masculinity on those who eat them.
If you find this menu item a bit distasteful, know that I concur. On the Vagneur Ranch in Woody Creek, the man with the knife would toss them, two at a time, to a row of waiting cow dogs who eventually wandered away, eyes drowsy and stomachs full. I wasn’t offered calf fries fresh off the fire until, in my 20s, I helped the Stapleton bunch up Owl Creek with their branding. Coincidentally, I was suffering with a stressed groin cord at the time, and every chew made me feel somewhat like a dog vociferously biting his own tail. I just never got over that.
The castration event is much more civilized today, with a synthetic band placed around the testicles shortly after a calf is born. This is painless, bloodless and unobtrusive to the calf, and it speeds up the branding process when the time comes. And it’s odd, but I don’t recall hearing anyone complain about the lack of calf fries.
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