Unmistakable signs of spring are popping up and out in our central Oregon coastal village. My favorite, besides the geese returning, would be the bazillion frogs that live at the lake a few blocks from our house. They are emerging from their hibernation, and croaking fills the evenings with a raucous, yet undisturbing, chorus of amphibian song. It is a mating call to female frogs, plus a warning to other males to stay clear; quite a busy time down at the old lily pads they call home.
I always have had a fondness for frogs, and as a child it was not just because I liked their croaking. I liked eating frog legs. That’s right. Frog legs. One of my dad’s and grandfather’s favorite activities on warm spring and early summer nights was to go frog gigging, and I recall plates full of fried, meaty, little legs as a reward for their efforts. I know for families raised on McDonalds and Burger King fast food, or cut and wrapped meat from the super market, the idea of actually eating frog legs can be less than appetizing; and it is cliché to say, but they did taste like chicken, and I remember, as a child, thinking they were delicious.
A great deal of the appreciation for the frog legs was due in large part to the anticipation that built up, and surrounded us kids as we watched my dad and grandfather prepare for their gigging trips to the local rivers. In our house, it was a ritual that had been passed down through the family; a rustic, rural activity used by generations of my pioneer ancestors to provide food for hungry families, and I thought they looked awesome as they set off on their frogging expeditions.
The gear? Not too much required outside of water-proof boots, a gig and a headlamp. The gig was merely a sharpened trident stuck on the end of a pole. Both my dad and granddad had made their own gigs, and were proud of them. The headlamp, as I think back, is a bit of a mystery to me. I know they had caps, and there was a battery operated lamp attached to the front of each; but because my family was more into function than style, I have wondered exactly how they made this part of their equipment. I suspect the headlight from my brother’s bicycle may have doubled as a frogging light, and there is the possibility flashlights were just taped or tied on in some way. I do know they did not care how something looked if it performed well. The final piece of equipment was a big burlap bag for each man in which to deposit and bring home all their frogs. Still alive. Yes, two burlap bags filled with croaking, hopping frogs brought to our house, and deposited into one of the laundry tubs in the garage, and covered with a framed screen where they awaited preparation, a task which was turned over to my mother.
When she went into the garage to take care of the frogs, we three kids were banished to anywhere except where she was. She was loath to do this job, and did not want to be distracted by anyone, especially a child. Since I never witnessed the actual dispatching and cleaning of the frogs, I can only testify to what I heard outside the garage door, which is precisely where we headed when she told us to go away and not come back until we were called. What transpired in there can only be imagined, but I do know when she stepped into the garage, she took her kitchen shears, her butcher knife, and every swear word she knew. Her expletives deleted pale in comparison to how people swear today, but for the 1950’s, she could turn a blue phrase like any man I ever heard cuss. And those poor frogs fell victim to not only her knife, but a very descriptive rant about how much she hated them and their nasty little legs.
There was one aspect of my mother’s job that sent us into gales of laughter when she prepared them, because she had the very same reaction and response every single time she cooked the legs. I never understood her behavior, and found asking only exacerbated the situation, so I learned to just crouch down below the pass-through in the dining room, grab my sides, and try as hard as I could not to be heard as I laughed at her efforts to cook our froggy dinner.
It seems my mother never heard of Luigi Galvani, and his accidental discovery that legs dismembered from a frog’s body, and stimulated by electricity will move as though they are still alive. And, turns out, salt on frog legs produces exactly the same response. So there she was each time the legs were being prepared for frying, sprinkling salt all over them, only to have her counter full of cut and cleaned legs begin to twitch and jiggle. She would shriek at the top of her voice, and whack them with a spatula; I can only guess thinking there was some life still in them that she could beat out prior to tossing into the frying pan. They eventually made it to the table, and even though I have not eaten frog legs in years, I always thought of them as a food that was accompanied by a comedic floor show.
I am grateful I grew up in a home and a time where things we ate were mostly prepared from scratch, because it left me with an appreciation for simple dishes; flavorful, yet uncomplicated. I learned to grow and harvest many of the things my family loves to eat today, and I still get excited when we can eat fish we have caught, or clams we have dug. Simple pleasures provide me today, as they did then, my most enduring memories; and as I listen to the frogs in our lake this evening, I recall those intrepid frog giggers off on another adventure, tridents in hand, headlamps on their caps, and burlap bags ready for the evening’s haul.
“Hey, I just got another one! This is a good night for froggin’, isn’t it?”