Monday, October 02, 2006

Mountain oysters

The clinic kitchen is where we, the clinic staff, often have our morning tea and eat our lunch. It is a nice place to sit and get to know your co-workers better.

Last week, there were a couple of translators having pumpkin with their lunch.

Pumpkin flesh, for those who have not tried it, is very tasty, sort of yam-like in flavor and color, but less sweet and more meaty.

I explained to the two pumpkin-eaters that pumpkin was not part of a typical U.S. diet.

“Really?” they said, not quite in unison, with eyebrows raised.

Then I explained that we only ate the pumpkin seeds, baked and salted, and that we usually did this after carving out the pumpkin so that we can put a candle in it to make it look scary for our holiday where children dress up in costumes and ask for candy.

“I have seen Halloween in the movies,” one translator said.

I continued. “We do not eat the pumpkin flesh itself, unless baked into a sweet pie.”

“A sweet pie?”

Most pies here are savory, and none contain gourds, as far as I know.

“Do you eat grasshoppers?” one of the ladies asked in a thinly-veiled attempt to one-up sweet pumpkin pie.


“Me either, but they do in the country. Very good protein. We should include it in our nutrition counseling.”

Not to be outdone, I told them about the “turducken”.

“You eat a duck stuffed inside a turkey stuffed inside a chicken?”

“Not exactly in that order,” I said. I told them it was a nice treat for anyone who likes to eat meat. Swazi’s, in general, love meat, though it is expensive and often hard to get.

I told them it would probably work with ostrich and they should start an osturducken business.

“Do you eat caterpillars?”

I was not sure that caterpillars one-upped turducken, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt, especially when she reached into her bag and showed me what looked like pimpled fava beans.

On closer examination, I could see that they were indeed caterpillars. They smelled like caramel-coated almonds with a hint of summertime St. Augustine grass a few hours after mowing.

“I have never eaten caterpillars,” I responded.

"Me either, but they do in the country. This bag was given to me by a patient. Good protein. I am going to show the nutritionist."

And so the dialogue continued. We covered tripe, giblets, wild dove, oxtail, squirrel, snails, frogs, impala, sushi, warthog, chicken heart and other animal products. (Swazi’s, on the whole, love meat.) For you vegetarian readers, vanilla coke, sour mealy meal, and tofu were also mentioned.

The discussion had become a bit more competitive, with other Swazis joining in. The kitchen was getting crowded.

I was outnumbered and outwitted, but still determined to win. This determination was partially inspired by my innate competitive spirit, but there was more than pride at stake here.

You see, over the years, I have grown tired of “Westerners” tendency to sensationalize the dietary habits of the rest of the world, and I wanted to prove that our foods are at least as bizarre and grotesque as the next guy’s.

If we were keeping actual score, I would have been down by at least a few points, and time was running out. So, as my dining companions finished the last of their pumpkin, I threw the Hail Mary.

“Have you ever eaten a mountain oyster?” I asked.

“A mountain oyster? What is that?”

“It is the one with a shell that grows in the mud,” another said.

“Nope,” I said.

I thought briefly of an evening spent shucking and eating oysters directly out of Tomales Bay while camping with my family on the northern California coast. I did the same with my good friend Heath a month later, with a side of a couple Sierra Nevada beers.

Beers and oysters. Family and friends. How far away they sometimes seem.

“A mountain oyster is also called a calf fry.”

“A what?”

“A calf fry.”

“Fried calf?”

“Not exactly.” I paused until the anticipation grew more palpable, then told them a story about how these were my father’s favorite delicacy, if not a close second behind fresh oysters with Tabasco. (They do have Tabasco here, thank the heavens.) I told them how he fed mountain oysters to my in-laws without telling them what they were.

“Well, what are they?” “Yeah, what are oysters from the mountains?”

I told them that the mountains of Swaziland was home to many of these oysters.

The tension mounted.

Finally, I told them.

“Fried bull testicles?”

The group giggled, exchanging knowing glances.

“Dr. Ryan, Swazi’s prefer them roasted or stewed.”


“Well, I’ll have to tell my dad that I am not as far from home as I thought.”

My nostalgia lifted slightly, though from now on I plan to carefully identify all roasted and stewed meats prior to consumption.

I learned this the hard way. I was in grade school. My father served me a fried morsel, and told me it was fish. Posted by Picasa



At 8:33 PM, Blogger MedBlog said...

Love this entry, Ryan! Great dialogue.


Post a Comment

<< Home