Snakes on a Plate
Reconsidering the reptile
It's no secret that snakes have a seriously bad rap. From the apple-obsessed serpent in the Bible to the forked-tongued mascot of Slytherin, they aren't exactly celebrated. My own Texas-bred, debilitating ophidiophobia always meant avoiding them at all costs – that is until I saw a heart-stopping picture on Facebook that gave me pause. Gabe Hernandez, sous chef at Sway, posted a photo of a skinned, coiled rattler on a plate, ready for the grill, with some vibrant accoutrements. Could this scaly nightmare actually be useful, sustainable, and tasty?
"People have a very visceral reaction to certain critters here, snakes being one of them," says Hernandez. "If you can present it to them in a format that's a little more familiar, I feel like people are more receptive, more adventurous, and willing to try something new and different." It's a little more of a hard sell when culture portrays serpents as slimy, cold-eyed, even evil. While herpetological societies have built community around snakes and some brave souls keep them as pets, they have had little culinary reputation outside of redneck novelty. Now a slow-growing number of restaurants and online vendors are reconsidering the reptile, giving a whole new meaning to farm-fresh and free-range.
In Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, Gus McCrae's camp cook serves up a memorable rattlesnake stew, but cowboys certainly didn't invent the idea. Snakes have been a food and medicinal source for thousands of years. Chinese culture believes that consuming snake – different parts, different ways – promotes immunity, energy, eyesight, and sexual vitality. In South America, powdered snake meat promises a range of health benefits, and in Vietnam, drinking an angry cobra's blood is said to promote virility. Globally, there are snake bile liquors (rattlesnake venom, stored in cranial glands, is hemotoxic, or toxic to the blood, which means the venom does not affect the human body through digestion), snake-penis wines, venomous soups, snakeskin salads, fried snake nuggets, and more.
Of course, as with any meat, ethics are essential, and some overseas tourist industries have exploited the novelty of cobra blood, for example, resulting in animal rights and quality control issues, creating obstacles for the slithering movement of snake cuisine to the West. Large-scale animal agriculture stays perched on a crossroads of public perception, and responsible education on sustainable protein includes multiple options – even reptiles. With about half the calories of beef, a boatload of other nutritional benefits, plus a pleasant, malleable flavor, the aversion to eating snake is really just a comfort zone thing.
A growing appreciation of game meat harvested from thriving or overpopulated species makes exotic meats like rattlesnake a viable option in our region. "There are a lot of animals out there, proteins out there, that we don't touch," says Hernandez. "If we start to look at these as potential for protein on our plates, we can alleviate some of the problems with overfarming tension with our more traditional farm situation." Hernandez's fascination with wild game started early. "Growing up, my best friend and I used to hunt on a fairly regular basis. When we came across rattlesnakes, they just ended up on our grill that night." His prep was simple then: salt, pepper, and a little oil, straight onto the grill. "It's really tasty, somewhere between a really gamy chicken and [wild-caught] fish, with a lot more bones. If you've ever had a proper farm chicken that scratches for its meals and runs around outside doing exercise and just being a chicken, it tastes very different than a factory farm or commercial farm chicken. You get more complexity of flavor."
A very lean protein, with a remarkable number of bones similar to the pin bones of a fish, its ideal preparation requires slow cooking at a low heat to tenderize the meat and reduce the eater's, ahem, leg work. Modern Thai restaurant Sway isn't new to quirky proteins. In addition to lovely, more traditional fare, they offer high-caliber specials including stingray, grilled cobia collar, fried chicken hearts, and alligator. "Sway is a great platform for this kind of stuff. The Australian-inspired Thai food that we have here is pretty forgiving of whatever we want to do, and our guests are really receptive to our specials," says Scotty Szekretar, Sway's acting executive chef, and also the director of culinary development for the New Waterloo hospitality group.
On a creative whim, the Sway crew recently acquired Texas western diamondback rattlesnake at a whopping $57 per pound through US Foods. They grilled it in sections, glazed with green Nanjing chile sauce – citrus based with lots of cilantro and some palm sugar – and served over green mango salad with microgreens, green coriander seeds, and African buzz buttons from their garden. The reaction? "We thought the experience of eating rattlesnake would make them more open to working harder to get their food. Not the case," Szekretar laughs. "The action of eating it was a little more involved than they were willing to put up with for not that much meat. It's a high ratio of bone to muscle." Hernandez said they had expected the feedback and prepped the servers.
The next iteration – rattlesnake cakes – was much more successful. Szekretar decided on a spin-off from his land o' crab cakes background. They poached the snake "low and slow" with lemongrass and other Thai aromatics, until fork-tender for shredding, and used a Fresno chile base and some Panko. Szekretar explains, "I don't want to mask the flavor of the snake. There are large chunks in there, so you can see it and taste it. It's kind of like a steamed or fried clam – a little chewier, a little more toothsome – and definitely good flavor." Of the second go-round reaction, Hernandez said, "People were really excited about them. They had a nice crunch and they were served in a manner that wasn't quite as daunting. A little more approachable than a section of snake."
Sway isn't the only restaurant experimenting with the nontraditional protein, but it's still not exactly commonplace. Turns out, for a progressive foodie city, Austin is still pretty reticent to serve reptiles. Aside from Sway, there are only two choices I could find with staple snake dishes. Hudson's on the Bend, with 30 years of wild game-focused fine dining, was an obvious choice. Currently, they have an appetizer of smoked rattlesnake sausage, served with jalapeño sauerkraut and horseradish honey mustard. With impeccable presentation on a triangular black granite slab, the dish is impressive. Another snake-savvy spot is the new Austin location of Fort Worth's Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. Chef/owner Tim Love's "urban Western cuisine" menu features rabbit-rattlesnake sausage with spicy Manchego rosti and crème fraîche. As the home to such delicacies as the yak cheeseburger, we thought Wild Bubba's Wild Game Grill in Elroy would be game. Owner Wyman "Wild Bubba" Gilliam says, "Sometimes for parties I'll sell a mix of rattlesnake and rabbit sausage. It's got a nice bite to it," but went on to explain that because of cost and USDA inspection for restaurant sales, they don't feature it on the menu. "That's too bad, because on our ranch you never can know when you might trip over one," he added. Snakes, snakes everywhere, and not a one to eat.
Sourcing and access are big parts of this equation. Despite necessity, U.S. regulations result in problems with cost, making commercial snake meat a hard sell for smaller restaurants or home cooks. Broken Arrow Ranch is a local, fully inspected, year-round source of wild game meat, but their website did not have snake listed at press time. Hunting is an option, but obviously that's tricky business with venomous snakes. The wild western diamondback rattlesnake is native, and not a protected species in Texas, meaning it can be legally harvested with a proper hunting license, but cannot be sold in restaurants because it's not inspected. Like most commercially popular meats, snake carries potential for bacterial issues like salmonella, or remnant poison from its wild-caught dinner.
Risks aside, Americans may take some convincing to get down with eating snake. But wild boar was once a restaurant anomaly too. With enough open-minded diners, access will improve. Hernandez explains, "A lot of people eat snake, even if it's not on the big radar. They grew up around it and know it tastes good. They learned from family and friends, so it's definitely part of food culture that was passed on from one generation to the next. I think at this point it's about allowing those things to spread in [American] culture in a bigger way. That's what will create awareness in the long run. Trying to reach as many people as you can, and make them aware that there are other sources of protein that are perfectly edible. Not only edible, but also delicious."