Thursday, April 03, 2014

A Rattlesnake Dinner.

I have a most interesting dinner menu for you today. I have previously written about a number of meals in which a single ingredient figured in all dishes, but none as unusual as one reported in a number of newspapers in the United States in mid-1905.

The Newark Advocate of August 17, 1905 reported:

Rattlesnake soup in buffalo horns, boiled rattlesnake, rattlesnake fritters, fried scrambled rattlesnake, breaded rattlesnake, rattlesnake pudding. This is the menu recently served to a Lincoln, Neb., man, W.J. Smith, and he declares that he enjoyed it, says a Lincoln special dispatch to the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune.
The occasion was a dinner in celebration of the wedding anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. L.B. Ostrander of Billings, Mont., given by Mr. and Mrs. L. A. Morrison, who were chaperoning a camping party on Bridger mountain, several miles northwest of Caspar, Wyo. The dinner is considered the most unique of any served in the United States for many years.
The meat was prepared over a greasewood fire, part of the cooking being done Indian fashion by means of hot stones. The snakes for the spread were secured by Mr. and Mrs. Morrison, who live on Bridger mountain. Mr. and Mrs. Ostrander, the guests of honor, kept the skin of the largest serpent, which was over three feet long, as a souvenir of the memorable occasion.
The last course, rattlesnake pudding, was pronounced especially delicious by the guests. It was composed of two parts of gelatin in one part of the flesh taken from the tail of the snake next the rattles. This was crushed through a sieve and was of about the consistency of sugar sirup. It was then boiled gently over the campfire until thick.

I did consider rattlesnake in a previous post a few years ago – but it was the canned variety.  Actual recipes for rattlesnake meat are few and far between, but a snake is a snake, right? In lieu of a more orthodox recipe, I give you an extract from Among Cannibals: An Account of Four Years' Travels in Australia and of Camp Life with the Aborigines of Queensland, by Carl Lumholtz (Member of the Royal Society of Sciences, Norway) published in London in 1889, in which the native manner of cooking an Australian python (Morelia variegata) is described:-

As quickly as possible the camp fire was made and stones were heated; for snakes are one of those delicacies which are prepared in the most recherché manner. The snakes were first laid carefully in circular form, in order that they might occupy as small a space as possible ; each forming a disc fastened together with a reed, they looked like the rope-coils made by sailors on the deck of a ship. Large serpents, and the flesh of fish, cattle, and men, are all prepared in the following interesting manner. First a hole is made in the ground about a foot deep, and in it a great fire is built. Over the fire a few stones about twice the size of a man's fist are placed. When the stones have become red-hot, they are laid aside and the rest of the fire is cleared away. Then a
number of the stones are put down into the hole, and over them are laid fresh green leaves, especially of the so-called native ginger (Alpinia cerulea), Upon these the meat is placed, and is covered with leaves and with the rest of the hot stones ; the dug-out earth is then spread over the whole, which has the appearance of an ant-hill. If an opening is discovered letting out steam, it is immediately covered so as to keep the heat within the hill.
When the serpents were done and were taken out of the hot leaves, they were perfectly whole as before. The bands were loosened, and the snakes stretched out to their full length and cut open along one side with one of their own jaw-bones. First the fat is taken and handed in long strings to the greedy mouths; then the heart, liver, and lungs; finally the body itself is to be divided. As the jaw-bone is not a sufficiently sharp tool for this purpose, they bite the serpent into pieces with their teeth. Nothing is wasted, for even the back -bone is crushed between the stones and eaten, and the blacks lick and suck the small amount of juice which drops from the meat, and enjoy themselves hugely. But the greatest delicacy is the fat. What cannot be eaten on the spot is put away in the hut, and in this instance they ate the leavings for four whole days, until the meat finally became putrid. When we left the camp I observed that they, strange to say, did not burn these remains of the serpents, which is their usual custom with uneaten food, in order to prevent the witchcraft of strangers.
Snake -flesh has a white colour, and does not look unappetising, but it is dry and almost tasteless. The liver, which I found excellent, tastes remarkably like game, and reminds one of the best parts of the ptarmigan. While they were being carved the serpents diffused an agreeable fragrance like that of fresh beef, and the large liver, which I obtained in exchange for tobacco, supplied me for several days with a welcome change of my monotonous fare.

But “what does rattlesnake meat actually taste like?” you may ask. I have no personal experience to impart, but clearly, opinions vary. The writer above thought it was tasteless, but not everyone agrees:-

To the goggling unbeliever [Texans] say - as people always say about their mangier dishes - "but it's just like chicken, only tenderer." Rattlesnake is, in fact, just like chicken, only tougher. Alistair Cooke.


Pieter B said...

My father, who did not come form Texas, was an appreciater of rattlesnake meat and he did tell the rest of us that it tasted just like chicken. When pressed, he admitted that it tasted like a rather dry breast, warmed over. I was never interested in verifying his testament, so I can't back it up with personal experience.

Martin Langeland said...

Thank you for your blog.
The current post reminded me of a meme I answered a few years back regarding "Exotic" food experiences. This is my answer to the last item on the list:
100. Snake. Rattler. Fresh caught in the San Bernardino Mountains on a sultry spring day. Sautèd in rancid safflower oil. Can't say about the snake but definitely do not recommend the oil.
It is always difficult to describe an indescribable experience. A Tokyo restaurant served a delightful dish of raw, shredded, chicken breast complimented by a mild herb which looked like a tender green stem with radial leaves in tiers. The taste was not nebbishy the way curly parsley tastes, nor as assertive as Italian parsley. I have never positively identified the herb so I can't refer to a known lexicon. I suspect, in much the same way, the taste of snake eludes definition to all who have not experienced it.

Lady Anne said...

At one time, my dad had a parish in North Carolina. Someone gave him some fresh snake meat - I believe it was rattlesnake, as they are native to that area. My mother refused to go near it, so Daddy cooked it and ate it himself. She wouldn't even kiss him until he had brushed his teeth!