Last week, I posted a photo on Facebook of a plate of conch fritters and tagged a friend, Jill Herrlein, who also likes them. They’re almost impossible to get in Oklahoma. I had these last week in Orlando at Margaritaville; unfortunately, the Tulsa branch at River Spirit Casino does not serve them.
I was a little surprised by the reactions, but perhaps I shouldn't have been, since I did not identify the cuisine in the photo. Apparently, many Okies don’t know what a conch is. I explained it's a sort of giant sea snail. The notion seem to repulse some friends; I doubt they would eat escargot, either. More surprising, though, was the misidentification by several who assumed those things were calf fries, or lamb fries. I have to wonder about people who savor the testicles of a mammal and reject a ball of shellfish. I do respect the philosophy that every part of a butchered animal should be used, though. I would never order oysters and then leave a couple on the plate, because an animal gave its life so a single human could enjoy a moment of culinary delight.
When my siblings and I were growing up, my dad took great care to emphasize that we were poor. When one of us timidly asked for a toy or clothing like one of our friends had, we would first get the question with which everyone is familiar — the hypothetical situation wherein someone else jumps off a bridge and whether we would follow. We would then be reminded of our abject poverty. We were frequently warned that if our family engaged in the expenditures we kids suggested, we would be destined for the “poorhouse.”
I always imagined the poorhouse to be a three- or four-story, stark, white clapboard building with peeling paint. Inside would be rough plank floors, along which were arranged rows of metal cots. The luckier occupants might have plastic bedside tables with cheap lamps, for reading. Poor though we were, my dad always managed to have money for books, and time to insist that we read them. I confirmed my mind's-eye view of the poorhouse many summers ago, when I dropped my husband off at Fort Chaffee for his annual two-week National Guard camp. There were several rows of buildings exactly like the one I described. I’m sure my husband was bemused when I screamed, “There it is! That’s the poorhouse!
Being poor not only meant you didn’t get a new car when you turned 16 and that eating out at a fast food joint was a rare privilege. It also meant you had your own garden and raised your own livestock for consumption. And true to form, once an animal went to the slaughterhouse, my dad brought back every part of the creature, wrapped in white butcher paper, and put it in the freezer. At some point, my mother was expected to cook every edible part. I think I even remember my dad tanning some hides — besides those that colloquially equate to children's backsides, which we also received in abundance.
My mother decided early on that honesty was not always the best policy. Every afternoon, upon our return from school, or earlier during the summer, we would ask another eternal question posed regularly by kids and old-fashioned husbands ill-equipped to feed themselves: “What’s for dinner?” It would often be something like catfish, rabbit, pheasant, duck, or squirrel; we ate lots of game, and it was usually fried. But we also enjoyed the fruits of my dad’s labors in the pasture and the pigsty.
One day, when I was about 10, I asked my mother about the impending fare, and her response was, “mountain oysters.” When I asked for a further description, she was vague, saying only that it was part of a cow. That turned out to be half true.
I went to our library – an anteroom that contained a completely full bookshelf, hand-crafted by my father – and grabbed the 6-inch-thick Merriam Webster to look up the term “mountain oyster.” I was repulsed, and I stomped into the kitchen to confront my mother about her deception. There, on the cutting board that doubled as an instrument for tanning Poindexter progeny posteriors, were two wobbly, oval objects, pale in color, and riddled with purple veins. My mother was trying to chop them or slice them or something, but they kept jiggling like gelatin and slipping from her grasp. Mortified, I found my brother and sister and informed them what we were expected to consume at the dinner table. I can assure you the only ones who partook were my parents.
Not long afterward, we were served beef tongue, and the taste wasn’t too bad. However, as all my long-time friends know, I have a thing about texture. The sensation of other, much larger tastebuds rubbing against my own was decidedly unpleasant. (This was well before I learned what "French kissing" was.)
Since those early days, I have tried other body parts of various animals. I have not eaten turtle soup, but I don’t have a particular aversion to reptiles, since I do like alligator tail. Despite their sliminess, I enjoy oysters, and I could probably eat sushi every day. I realize many edible items disdained by children in poor families are now considered delicacies that some people will pay out the nose for. In fact, pig nose is one of them. Perhaps I should be grateful at my early opportunities.
Speaking of pigs, how come no one ever talks about eating their testicles?