Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Dancing Frogs on a Hot Skillet

When I think about my weekly menu at home these days, counting calories (as if), trying to keep it interesting for the grandson, and trying to follow the latest FDA food pyramid, buying a lot of frozen foods and veggies in bags ready to toss in the microwave, done in 15 minutes, I always travel back to when I was a kid and some of the adventures I had in  helping with meals. For some reason, frog legs have been on my mind. When I think of this meal, I can't help but see how those legs would kick once they were dropped on a hot skillet. 

Picture an old fashioned wagon wheel, one with a large wooden center and huge spokes like on Western movies. Now picture a neighborhood of homes built in the same pattern, all two bedroom, one bath, small concrete front porch and maybe 800 square feet, side by side on this spoke and circle pattern. I lived on one of the spokes. My grandparents lived on a wheel through these spokes. My Uncle Bill, Aunt Tiny, and cousins lived next door to my grandparents. My cousins were also my best friends, Joyce and Tony. It would take five minutes to walk to my grandparents. I was allowed to walk there as young as six years old so I spent a lot of time at my grandparents. They never locked the door, as most of us didn't back then, and I could just go right in if they weren't home. I also ate a lot of my meals there. I guess you could say my eating pattern was established by my grandparent's side.

One amazing day, while it was still pitch black outside, I had the rare privilege to go with my grandfather "frog gigging". I got to wear a helmet that had a light that actually had to be lit with a match and burned with a sulfur smell, wear huge waders and carry a spear. This wasn't just any spear carved from bamboo. This was a real spear with metal spikes that could also clamp like a tiny bear trap once the spikes hit a toad and tripped the clamp, like a mouse trap spring. Other spears had spikes that didn't clamp, but I got the bear trap kind, maybe because it was my first time to hunt toads.

The most exciting part of this may have been that I was a kid with a weapon in the dark! We loaded in the truck and drove for what seemed like hours! I was too excited to fall asleep again, trying to practice my stabbing motion and listening to the millions of rules I had to follow. I thought, "Yeah, sure. Let's get to the frogs."  Then I heard the word, snakes and paid closer attention to the rules. Snakes would be in the marsh but could not bite through the waders, don't move too fast, they will swim away, and don't let water get into the waders, a snake could slitter in with the water. I wasn't really afraid of snakes, I was the snake catcher and tosser if us kids ran across any while we played in the woods. They didn't bother me at all and I didn't think much about why they scared my friends, except my big brother. I always wondered why he was afraid of snakes, he wasn't afraid of anything! But I heard my Papaw say something about poison and trapped in waders, so I listened to all the rules again.

Finally, we were at the marsh. My Papaw parked his truck, pulled out that old potato sack that he used for squirrels and hung it on his back as he grabbed our gear. It was still very dark, muggy and the marsh reeds were illuminated by the moon. Mosquitoes attacked as soon as I stepped out the truck but the pests were quickly forgotten as I was handed my weapon and waders tightened. Papaw lit my helmet light and warned me to keep it on my head and to stay close. He went over the rules for hunting toads again; listen for the croak of the toads, move as slowly as possible, don't throw my gigging spear, I had to hang onto it, even though it had a rope around my wrist from a hole he had bore into the top of the handle. He said it was kinder to the frogs to stab hard and have a clean kill, "Don't want to have to kill 'em twice Terri Lynn," he cautioned me.

My waders were tied over my shoulders, borrowed from a person unknown to me or an extra from my Papaw, but they kept the swamp, and snakes, away from my cloths. There were more than the just the two of us. We traveled in a tight pack but had our spears pointed in different directions. I heard the others stabbing the water, but no whoops of joy if they hit their mark, we were trying not to spook the toads. It was like wall to wall toads, there were so many it was impossible to not gig a toad.

When I hit a toad and my spear clamped the fat green critter in the jaws of death, I passed my spear wordlessly to my Papaw who took it and dropped it in his bag, without any eye contact, we kept moving. Very serious business, this frog gigging.

We were in the swamp for what seemed like a very short time before our bags were full and I could see the tree line, invisible when we arrived. Once we started back to the truck, we didn't need to stay quiet and moved more swiftly. The marsh only hit my Papaw's knees, it was up to my waist, also invisible until now. The sun was peeking over the pines and I looked back to where we had been hunting. It was beautiful. There were tight patterns of lilly pads, some with flowers barely opened, surrounded by the reeds. Smells even seemed to change with the rising sun. We loaded our gear in the truck beds, dumped the toads in ice chests then headed home.

By late afternoon, the frogs were cleaned and legs prepared for cooking, I stood on a kitchen chair next to the stove. My Mamaw had to walk around me, complaining the whole time but she  never told me to move. I watched her pour the bacon fat from the metal pot that looked like a smaller version of my grandfather's coffee percolator, into the hot cast iron skillet. She waited a second then sprinkled in a little flour, it sizzled and she told me to move my chair back, sometimes those frog legs would jump right outta the pan. I thought she was making a joke until she gave me that look of "move it now!" I moved back my chair but quickly climbed back up and leaned forward. I had never really been interested in watching her cook frog legs until I took part in the hunt.

As she placed the breaded frog legs into the pan, I shouted, "Oh MY Gosh!!" It was all I could do to not put my hands in the hot fat and rescue the things I thought I killed earlier that day. I yelled, "the toads are still alive! I was panicked and didn't understand my Mamaw's calm. Those legs were alive! They were dancing around the skillet, kicking each other, fighting to escape. I called out to Mamaw again, "You gotta kill 'em before you cook 'em!" She no patience for what she saw as nonsense. She told me in her stern voice but never looked up, never stopped poking at the legs, scooting them around in the pan, "Hush now, Terri Lynn! That's just what frog legs do when they get cooked. They are not alive and will stop moving soon."  I got quiet, knowing the consequence if I didn't and watched a bit longer. She was right, they stopped, the aroma of fresh fried frog legs filled the room. I went from feeling terror to feeling extremely hungry.

My Aunt Tiny walked in the front door with Joyce. She brought over some covered side dish. I lost interest in the frying, hopped down and ran out back to an open field, destined to become more homes, with Joyce to look for crawdads in mud puddles. I tried to tell her about frog gigging but she made me stop, saying it made her sick. She said she just wanted to watch me poke around in the mud for pinch bugs. I don't think Joyce ever touched them. I didn't think she was afraid of them them, she was just.... well, prissy. I couldn't ever picture myself as prissy as she was but envied how pretty she always looked in nice dresses, always clean and her hair always brushed. I guess I could see why she would never gig a frog or get her hands dirty in mud playing with crawdads. As we searched the mud puddles, I told her about how the frogs danced in the skillet and tried to convince her they stood up and actually danced like a chorus line. She called me a liar. She was a couple years older than me but I could see she wasn't sure if I was lying.  I told her Mamaw had the frogs dance in the hot cast iron skillet before being cooked. She didn't like to argue so I always won. To this day, I don't know if she believed me. I would call her and ask but she died almost a decade ago. I want to think I fooled her as I described the graceful dance of the frog legs which actually just jerked around. 

When dinner was on, I was first in line to grab a bunch of fat frog legs and recalled my long day with anyone who would listen to me talk about such a gross subject while eating. I think they tasted like shrimp. I never ate frog legs again after we stopped going to the marches.  I have heard folks say they taste like chicken. These are folks that pay for them in restaurants. Maybe farmed toads are fed differently than toads from the swamps in the 1950's. I can't imagine any frog legs on any menu of any four star restaurant in the world that tasted better that those legs gigged in the foothills of the Ozarks that early morning.

1 comment:

  1. Terri,

    I love your Blog, your stories warm my heart, they are so vivid I can visualize everything you write about. Keep writing these stories, that life will only be known by your keen memory of the colorful innocence and simplicity of the Ozark ways!

    I look forward to your future postings. Great job!