Collecting semen from tom turkeys that would be used to impregnate hens was among the most challenging work that I’ve ever done.
What made it so was the toms’ unwillingness to be restrained. A 60-pound bird has great strength in its wings. Tired hands and arms often lost their grip and when it happened a wing slap stung sharply and sent glasses flying.
A nephew, who worked on a corn-shelling crew, said his job was much more demanding. Some cribs kept corn better than others, and blue and other molds caused sickness when breathed.
Rats and mice were often added to the mix. A veteran member of the corn shelling crew knew enough to use twine to tie pant legs shut, but my nephew was just starting out when a mouse sought shelter in his blue jeans. A good dancer, he nevertheless added new moves to his repertoire while the rest of the crew belly laughed until the rodent made a mad dash to a new shelter.
Castrating pigs was worse than that, claimed another nephew.
Some hog producers castrated piglets when they were young and easily held and cutting was swift, and iodine easily applied. Other producers waited until boars weighed 100 pounds and beyond. It was miserable then and produced aching shoulders and blisters in the soft tissue between the thumb and index finger.
Some producers collected the remains, which was the raw material for the deep-fried delicacy called Rocky Mountain oysters. Some thought the oysters were a treat on the same level as chicken gizzards and liver. Few hog holders thought the same when the chore was completed.
However, Rocky Mountain oysters retain popularity – some cities in Minnesota celebrate with them as a main attraction. Billed as "testicle festivals,’’ some have gone so far as to call oysters the "Minnesota tenderloin.’’
Some health experts (who cannot be judged for their expertise) say testicles provide essential nutrients like phosphorus, iron and zinc. Consumption can also increase metabolism and reproductive health.
Deep fried with a generous amount of mustard or Ranch dressing, they aren’t bad. A critic says the best way to eat Rocky Mountain oysters is to throw them away and to eat the paper plate on which they are served.
My mother, who wasted nothing from a hog, drew the line at oysters. She refused to soil her cast-iron frying pan with them. However, she didn’t mind pigs’ feet and tails served with sauerkraut, potatoes and vinegar. As a treat, from time to time she ordered a box of pig ears from the butcher. The contents weighed more than 10 pounds, which meant way too many servings. It’s easy to tire of even the best of treats.
Such was the case with steak, which was abundant. "Steak again’’ was a common complaint after the meat emerged from the broiler. It wasn’t wise to complain too loudly because Mother didn’t operate a restaurant for finicky eaters.
However, liver divided our household. In my estimation, liver is good served with fried onions and ketchup. Other siblings protested, saying it tasted like a shoe sole might.
Ketchup wasn’t allowed on the table at most times. It was a shock when a nephew – so pampered that he received an allowance from his father for farm work – asked for the condiment when steak was served. She complied, but after he had left said that ketchup on steak was a sign of a spoiled child.
Horseradish, in an amount that caused eyes to water and head to explode, was acceptable. Dad belly laughed when its side effect required a full glass of milk. Horseradish, he insisted, cured most colds and other common ailments.
It’s safe to say that I’ve eaten a lifetime quota of liver, pigs’ ears and Rocky Mountain oysters. My wife considers horseradish an absurd condiment. When it appeared during the New Years’ meal, she objected but not too loudly.
That was the case because I falsely claimed that daughter Sarah wanted it with the ham. Truth is, it was served at my insistence to carry on a small part of a great family tradition.