Posts Tagged ‘frogs’

My Uncle Jarzey (for James Harvey) had three thumbs.

His right hand bore the brunt of his affliction. It wasn’t like two separate digits that he could wiggle around. It was more like one big Siamese thumb with two thumbnails. It looked kind of like a fat, stubby wing.

You mostly noticed it when you sat to his right at the dinner table and he passed you the lima beans. That big old thumb would be plopped there on the edge of the bowl, right in your face. As far as deformed digits go, it was relatively attractive.

He was the youngest in my Mom’s family, and was the last one to make a go at farming. Growing up with that chicken leg on his hand probably brought him a lot of grief as a kid, and I think he developed his pre-emptive conversational technique has a way to avoid unwanted attention.

“You got an ass like a nigger washwoman.” This was one of the trademark witticisms he slid my way more than a few times during my sensitive pre-pube (and obviously, pre-PC) years. “Moptop,” he called me in my long-haired days. I didn’t feel singled out, though, because he always had a wise-ass attack for everyone. He was taller than anyone in the family, with an acne-scarred face, wispy black hair and a perpetual layer of agriculture under his fingernails. We shared a birthday and he had a semi-wild quality that I loved.

Surprises were the name of the game at Uncle Jarzey’s place in Southeastern Missouri, and nowhere more than at the kitchen table.

Fried squirrel, for one. He loved to hunt squirrel. We arrived for a visit once, and there were three of the arboreal rodents spread out on his cleaning table, stiff as boards. I picked one up and the blood ran all up my arm. I liked squirrels, was a huge Rocky and Bullwinkle fan at the time, and was moderately freaked out. I can still see those crispy little fried legs pointing up at me from my dinner plate. I filled up on the potato salad that night.

Rodent dinner was child’s play compared to the Great Illinois Frog expedition.

In the summer of 1969 (sounds like a song title,) I came down and spent a month on his farm. I was fifteen. It was one of the most memorable times of my life. Lot of the usual farm stuff, he worked me pretty hard. One night, I joined him and a couple of his buddies on a midnight foray across state lines to hunt frogs. This was not a lawful expedition, although I don’t remember what law exactly we were breaking. Escorting amphibians across state lines?

We were armed with flashlights, buckets, gigs — big forks on long wooden poles — and a .22 rifle. I never expressed an interest in harpooning frogs. As a kid, I was the family critter collector, a hunter of amphibians and reptiles, and although they usually died while in my care, I never had any desire to kill them outright. But my Uncle was old school: you couldn’t truly love an animal unless you’d eaten it.

We arrived at a farm and headed out to the pond. The pond was an enormous croak generator. The sound was otherworldly, and by the time we were in the cattails it was deafening.

Supposedly, if you shined the light in the frog’s eye, they wouldn’t move, so the challenge was to “fix” the frog with the light, move within gigging range, and then jab the sucker. My strategy was to stay close to whoever was shooting the .22, thinking it was the best way to not get shot in the dark.

I didn’t have much luck, and after seeing a few fat bullfrogs twitching on the end of a fork, I didn’t try very hard. I mostly just held the light for the others and watched the guy with the .22.

We must have bagged 60 or more, tossed, in every possible stage of disembowelment, into a big gunnysack. I remember lifting the heavy pulsing bag into the trunk. “Make sure to put a good knot on it, Moptop. I don’t want Marion to bitch about frog guts in the trunk when she goes to the grocery store tomorrow.”

The conspirators split up the treasure, and then the real fun began.

Even in death, frogs do not easily give up their legs.

I went with my uncle to the garage, aka frog processing plant. He brought a knife, a pair of lineman’s pliers, a pot, and a carton of Morton’s salt. I brought the bag of frogs.

We sat on the garage floor. I’d give him a frog. The process was something like this:

  1. make cut across frog’s back
  2. grab skin with pliers
  3. pull skin down like pair of pants
  4. sever spinal cord above pelvis
  5. remove feet
  6. toss legs in pot
  7. repeat

There was one complication with the technique: the frog was still alive. Or, they were dead, but not all of its parts had yet gotten the message. News travels slowly in the amphibian nervous system.

I don’t remember if I made it through the whole bag with him. It’s all a blur of blood, bulging eyeballs and the unique sshlipf-ing sound of skin removal. There was one more step in the preparation process I do remember, however.

He had laid the little leg pairs on a baking sheet, and salted them. They started to kick.

I think that ended of it for me. At dinner, I took a few bites, made the standard comment about them tasting like chicken and my digestive system shut down until breakfast. I think he had the leftovers for lunch the next day. He offered me one off his plate. “You might like ’em better without the kick.”

“No, you go ahead. You did all the work, you deserve ’em.”

Next episode: Brains and Eggs