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Of all the country’s gastronomic competitions, from “Top Chef” to pies at the county fair, perhaps none compare to the challenge facing the harried chefs assembled here in a parking lot for the 18th annual International Comstock Mountain Oyster Fry. Classically dipped in cornmeal and then fried, or artfully concealed in scrambled eggs, bordelaise sauce or sushi, these oysters were not of the Chesapeake or bluepoint variety but, rather, a cornerstone of Western ranching culture involving testicles from gelded lambs and calves.
“It takes a strong stomach,” said Nicki Wilson, 33, an office manager for a towing company who was bent on becoming the Tom Colicchio of mountain oysters with a taco recipe laced with tequila, cumin and cayenne.
The cooking of testicles — also known as calf fries or lamb fries — is a living tradition on ranches throughout rural Nevada and the Intermountain West down through Central Texas (the annual fry here is nicknamed the “testicle festival”). This feat of derring-do harks back to the days when every part of an animal was used, and settlers by necessity “had a rather investigative spirit when it came to food,” said Cathy Luchetti, the author of “Home on the Range: A Culinary History of the American West” (Villard, 1993).
The city retains an atmosphere of renegade bohemia in which it is possible to spot a woman decked out in lace sitting in a saloon with a pistol in her cleavage. Tourism is now Virginia City’s calling card: the fry, dreamed up by a local saloonkeeper to kick off the tourist season, joins the International Chili Society Cook-Off (May), the International Camel Race (September) and the Virginia City Outhouse Races (October). And Thunder on the Comstock attracts thousands of motorcyclists every September.