Exploring the Edible Frog Back in the Saddle

by Bill Crawford Awhile back, I was munch- ing out at a lawyer-filled barbecue when I chomped into a batter-fried item that caught my taste buds by surprise. The bones were thin and long, kind of like a chicken wing stretched out. The meat was soft and delicate, a cross between catfish and pork. I poured myself a beer and helped myself to two more.

I poured myself another beer (for investigative purposes) and reflected on the nature of the critter I had just inhaled. Could it have been the famous and elusive Arizona Gulf javelina, whose long boney fingers are served with fried bread during the kachina dances in the land of the Hopi? Perhaps it was the nine-inch tall Oklahoma flamingo, from whose brightly colored fall plumage the Red River got its name. No, no, no. It had to be the Houston chinchilla, who thrives on the reedy banks of Buffalo Bayou and in the air conditioning ducts of the Galleria.

After another beer (for digestive purposes) I decided to put an end to my speculation. "What is this stuff?" I asked the gal serving up the delicate morsels. "Frog legs," she answered.

Frog legs. Images of voodoo, spanish moss, pirogues, alligators, bad horror films, and Doug Kershaw immediately appeared before my eyes. "Oh, they must be from Louisiana, right?" I asked. To my surprise the girl responded, "No. These frog legs are from Bangladesh."

Bangladesh. It only makes sense. The country is one big swamp, a vast delta formed by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra Rivers, two of the biggest rivers in Asia. Judging from the humongous size of the frog legs, which must have weighed an eighth of a pound apiece, the monsoon floods and typhoons that are so bad for the people of Bangladesh must be great for the frogs.

After my amphibious enlightenment, I spent many pleasant hours reflecting on the Texas-Bangladesh connection. Huge frog ranches, spread out along the banks of the Ganges. Frog hands sitting around a swampy campfire, eating rice and singing "Get Along Little Froggies", "Frog River Valley," and "Froggy Went a-Courtin." Little tiny lariats for round-up time, and little tiny branding irons with Bengali letters. A frog rodeo, complete with frog dogging, bareback frog riding, and the ever-popular frog scramble.

A few days ago, I tried to get in contact with some of the frog wranglers in Bangladesh. I called Mr. Rahman, the Commercial Officer at the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington. "No, no. You are mistaken. Bangladesh does not export frog legs. They are a banned item."

A seafood wholesaler in Boston confirmed the sad news from the Embassy. It turns out that the Bangladeshi frog boys were too good at their jobs. They killed so many frogs that the mosquito population mushroomed. Itchy environmentalists waged a campaign against the frog industry. They even convinced George Harrison to perform a Concert for Bangladesh Frogs. Well, not really. But the environmentalists did succeed in shutting down the frog ranching operations in the Ganges delta.

Shaken by the news, I recalled that frog legs seemed to be a popular item in the fancy restaurants just south of the border. I called McAllen and tracked down "Mexico" Mike Nelson, who logs 30,000 road miles a year checking out Mexico for Sanborn's Insurance and is the author of More Than a Dozen of Mexico's Hidden Jewels.

"I've eaten at Sam's in Reynosa for years," said Mexico Mike, after clearing a frog in his throat. "And I've always found they had the best frog legs on the border." According to Mexico Mike, the secret to Sam's superior frog legs is freshness. Every day, hundreds of frogs hop along route 138 through the blistering heat of the Chihuahan desert to reach Reynosa. Well, not exactly. Sam's gets its fresh frogs from suppliers in Guasave, Sinoloa. But they arrive by truck and plane, not by frog foot.

I still wondered why frog legs were a popular delicacy along the border. One frog-savvy food broker in Austin suggested that folks like to catch or spade frogs at Lake Falcon and other soggy spots. My own personal theory is that frog legs are as much a part of Mexico's heritage as Cinco de Mayo, the big Mexican holiday commemorating a victory of Mexican troops over the French army. The frog-leg-loving French army went on to conquer Mexico anyway. What more fitting reminder of the French heritage in Mexico than the continued popularity of frog legs?

I hopped on the Internet to check out my anthropological theory. I didn't find any definite answers, but I did come across the Virtual Frog Dissection Kit, at http://george.ibl.gov/itg.hm.pg.docs/disscet/info.html. This sight offered a cool frog builder game, but nothing about the cultural or culinary attributes of the frog.

Back on the ground, I discovered that our Austin frog legs may not come from Bangladesh any more, but they continue to be exotic. "Most of our frog legs come from Asia - Indonesia or Taiwan," explained Bill Crews of Groomer's, a wholesale seafood outlet located at 1151 Airport. Groomer's sells frozen frog legs in five-pound boxes for about $7 a pound. "You get about four to six saddles per pound." Saddles? "That's what you call a pair of frog legs. They're connected at the top, kind of like a saddle."

Eager to jump back in the frog legs saddle, I headed out to Gator's on Bull Creek, one of the places in town that regularly features frog legs on the menu. The word is they don't sell too many, but I had the lemon pepper frog legs. They were tender and distinctly swampy little muscle morsels, like eating an exotic bird on steroids.

Nancy Hanlan at Catfish Catering told me that the real frog fanciers of Austin gather every other year for a frog legs party west of town. Turns out Nancy's frog legs were the ones that introduced me onto the world of frogs in the first place. "We serve frog legs for 500 at that big party," says Hanlan, who fries her frog legs double-dipped in batter. "That's a lot of people eating frog legs at one time." And how do the guests react? "Frog legs are a funny commodity. People either love 'em or hate 'em."

To paraphrase a timeless adage, "There's no accounting for taste," said the old cowhand as he kissed his frog. n

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